I've never read Wallace, mostly because his best known work ("Infinite Jest") is so long. But I tend to like writers that digress and use footnotes for asides, so I thought maybe this collection of ten essays would give me enough of a taste to know if I should check out his other stuff. Ranging in length from 7 to 80 pages, the essays all appeared previously (albeit often truncated) in various magazines such as Harper's, The Atlantic, Gourmet, Rolling Stone, Premier, etc. They can be roughly categorized into three categories: brief review, personal piece, and long in-depth topical examination.
The brief reviews generally tend to take an item and use it as a staging area for discussing something more interesting than the given subject. For example, in "Certainly the End of Something or Other", Wallace uses his review of John Updike's novel Toward the End of Time to highlight the general narcissism and shallowness of writers such as Updike, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer. His 20-page review of Joseph Frank's biography of Dostoevsky is largely dedicated to making a larger point about literary criticism, and his 25-page review of tennis player Tracy Austin's autobiography is similarly dedicated to identifying the fundamental problem of sports memoirs. I have to admit that the essential point of the shortest piece, "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness", eluded me.
The two more personal pieces are strikingly different, but in each one gets a vivid impression of Wallace working through his own feelings. In, "The View From Mrs. Thompson's", he uses 13 pages to recount his own September 11 experience in Bloomington, Indiana. As one reads of the mysterious sprouting of flags, Wallace's hunt for a flag of his own, and his spending the day watching the footage with old ladies who've never been to New York, his mounting alienation from his neighbors is fascinating. The titular story is ostensibly a standard travel piece on a Maine lobster festival, but rapidly evolves into a thoughtful meditation (with scientific research) on the ethics of preparing and eating lobster.
The four in-depth essays are the real stars of the book, in each Wallace gets deep into his material and wallows in it with intellectual vigor and above all, wit. In the 50-page "Big Red Son", he covers the porn Oscars and emerges with scenes and quotes so surreal they must be true. Over the course of the 50-page "Authority and American Usage", he takes a topic close to his heart as a writing instructor and provides a layman's overview of the Prescriptivist vs. Descriptivist "usage wars". The underbelly of political campaigning is exposed in the 80-page "Up Simba", detailing his week on the John McCain's 2000 campaign trail -- the ultimate lesson is that if you want the most astute and nuanced political analysis, turn to the camera and sound techs, not the journos. Finally, the 70-page "Host" takes us into the world of talk radio, via a profile of an LA radio personality. All of these long pieces are wonderful (albeit in very different ways), as they allow Wallace's intellect the space to range free and elaborate.
Ultimately, it's not hard to see why Wallace is a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" award-winner. His combination of smarts, thoughtfulness, self-awareness, wit, and ability to write killer prose simply can't be ignored. One does have to raise an eyebrow at his overuse of footnotes, however. While I'm a big fan of footnotes (yes, even in fiction), I find Wallace's use of footnotes within footnotes rather tiresome (not to mention tough on the eyes). In many instances, it seems like the material could have been handled much more elegantly within the text, or within a parenthetical. This is especially true of "Host", which is very nearly ruined by the attempt to use boxed text and arrows to replace footnotes. There's no textual reason for the method, and the experiment doesn't work at all, only serving to highlight the unnecessary divisions of information and reducing their navigability.
Although a few of the pieces failed to totally captivate me, and the overfootnoting grated (especially in it's final iteration), this is still a highly entertaining and enlightening book. Chuck Klosterman's essays are like potato chips -- yummy, hard to stop at just one, and not super filling. Wallace's are generally a full nutritious meal at your favorite restaurant.
on October 17, 2006
Probably no contemporary writer has to meet higher expectations than David Foster Wallace. He's a genius. Ask anyone. In some cases, this works against him; as someone who survived reading Wallace's essay collection A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING..., I can testify that Mr. Wallace sometimes has aspirations that even his prodigious skills can't meet, and the results ain't pretty.
But in CONSIDER THE LOBSTER, he is hitting on almost all of his many cylinders. In fact, it is high praise indeed for me to report that on a flight to Phoenix, I was laughing so hard at this book's first essay (it's about a pornography awards show), I almost felt compelled to explain to my fellow passenger the source of my mirth.
I didn't. (I'm not insane.) But it was that good.
The rest of the topics examined by Wallace's gimlet eyes are, shall we say, wide-ranging, but aside from an enervating and lengthy examination of A DICTIONARY OF MODERN USAGE, Wallace lives up to his "genius" billing. I did grimace when I saw that the book contained a piece devoted to one of his pet topics, (namely tennis), but even this essay transcended its subject and was eminently worthwhile.
In short, I'm quite glad to have read this book. More, please.
on July 21, 2006
I was introduced to DFW by the classic essay "A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again," but stupidly lost track of him until picking up "Lobster" on a whim a few weeks ago.
Let me say this first: even though DFW is a freak for the correct use of language, I love him because he can break all the pesky little rules we've all learned about clear writing (eg, no fifty-cent words, limit footnotes, limit adverbs, two simple sentences are better than one complex sentence, etc), and write vividly, clearly, engagingly, etc (see, he's already liberated my long-caged drive to adverbize.) Perhaps even better, he writes so that it feels we are in his head, and doesn't patronize his reader by tidying up messy internal disputes, which is damn refreshing.
Many of the essays are are similarly conceived (it somehow all seems to do with marketing to the least common denominator, and the way this marketing glosses over so much that is complex and difficult and important to think about, and the author's simulataneous fascination with and and revulsion regarding said marketing, in an "I'm revolted but I can't look away... and in fact am I actually that revolted?.... Gosh, should I be more revolted? Am I actually falling for this?" kind of way).
At this point, I'm thinking that my favorite is the title essay, which is among the shortest in the collection but definitely the most visceral and, at many points, just plain sad. I have a neuroscience background, and can vouch for the moral and biological complexity of the question over whether animals without cerebral cortices "experience" pain. Warning: yes, the essay's description of a lobster's behavior during the boiling process dissuaded me from eating lobster ever again.
Other standouts: "Up, Simba," about the author's travels with a press contingent during John McCain's 2000 "Straight Talk Express" ride for the Republican presidential nomination. This is one that, again, just ends up damn sad, showing just how meaningless political campaigns are. [Side note to those who have read this essay -- DFW's account of McCain's well-documented POW years is fantastic, but raised a questions I'd never thought of before, and apparently DFW didn't either -- Could young McCain have "refused" to be released from the POW camp based on his adherence to a code? I mean, if the VietCong had wanted to release him for publicity reasons, they could have just knocked him upside the head, dumped him in a jeep, and driven him to wherever they wanted to leave him. The very fact that I'm thinking this probably means that I am one of the young American cynics DFW both chastizes and sympathizes with in the course of the essay.] Also outstanding are "Big Red Son" and "Host," the latter of which is made fascinating by the use of sidenotes, with sidenotes on sidenotes, and I think in one case a sidenote on a sidenote on a sidenote. (I like the sidenotes; there will be dissenters I'm sure)
Do it -- this is filet mignon -- I mean lobster -- I mean uh a high-quality vegetarian feast for the mind.
on January 31, 2008
Full disclosure: I have a major intellectual crush on David Foster Wallace. Yes, yes, I know about his weaknesses - the digressions, the rampant footnote abuse, the flaunting of his amazing erudition, the mess that is 'Infinite Jest'. I know all this, and I don't care. Because when he is in top form, there's nobody else I would rather read. The man is hilarious; I think he's a mensch, and I don't believe he parades his erudition just to prove how smart he is. I think he can't help himself - it's a consequence of his wide-ranging curiosity. At heart he's a geek, but a charming, hyper-articulate geek. Who is almost frighteningly intelligent.
The pieces in "Consider the Lobster" have appeared previously in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Observer, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Harper's, Gourmet, and Premiere magazines. Among them are short meditations on Updike's `Toward the end of Time', on Dostoyevsky, on Kafka's humor, and on the `breathtakingly insipid autobiography' of tennis player Tracy Austin. An intermediate length piece describes Foster Wallace's (eminently sane) reaction to the attacks of September 11th. Each of these shorter essays is interesting, but the meat and potatoes of the book is in the remaining five, considerably longer, pieces. They are:
Big Red Son: a report on the 1998 Adult Video News awards (the Oscars of porn) in Las Vegas.
Consider the Lobster: a report on a visit to the annual Maine Lobster Festival (for Gourmet magazine).
Host: a report on conservative talk radio, based on extensive interviews conducted with John Ziegler, host of "Live and Local" on Southern California's KFI.
Up Simba: an account of seven days on the campaign trail with John McCain in his 2000 presidential bid (for Rolling Stone).
Authority and American Usage: a review of Bryan Garner's "A Dictionary of Modern American Usage" , which serves as a springboard for a terrific exegesis of usage questions and controversies.
Here's what I like about David Foster Wallace's writing: I know of nobody else who writes as thoughtfully and intelligently. That he manages to write so informatively, with humor and genuine wit, on almost any subject under the sun is mind-blowing - it's also why I am willing to forgive his occasional stylistic excesses. (Can you spell `footnote'?) You may not have a strong interest in lobsters or pornography, but the essays in question are terrific. The reporting on Ziegler and McCain is amazingly good, heartbreakingly so, because it makes the relative shallowness of most reporting painfully evident. Finally, the article on usage is a tour de force - when it first appeared in Harper's, upon finishing it, I was immediately moved to go online and order a copy of Garner's book (which is just as good as DFW promised).
How can you not enjoy an essay that begins as follows?
"Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near Lewinskian scale?
....... (several other rhetorical questions) ......
Did you know that US lexicography even *had* a seamy underbelly?"
And which later contains sentences such as:
"Teachers who do this are dumb."
"This argument is not quite the barrel of drugged trout that Methodological Descriptivism was, but it's still vulnerable to objections."
and - my personal favorite -
"This is so stupid it practically drools."
Not everyone will give this collection 5 stars, but I do.
on February 24, 2011
The book description ought to note that the final essay in the book, "Host", is omitted entirely with no mention in the electronic version of this book.
Otherwise, enjoyable read.
on November 27, 2011
We lost him far too soon. If, like me, you were discouraged by the elaborate "Infinite Jest" and gave up after a hundred pages or so, you should give Wallace the non-fiction writer a shot. He is wonderful: these essays are personal, often providing close-to-the-ground daily accounts of raw experience, vivid, diligent in research, and often profound in examining the ramifications of the subjects reported. And appealingly idiosyncratic in a way that only a writer of with a strong, confident persona can be. As with Gore Vidal, I wasn't transported by his fiction, but his journalism is pure gold.
This, before I actually confronted the disappointment of Hunter S. Thompson's essays, was what I pictured Gonzo Journalism to be. I could assess the quality of Wallace's essay on the 2000 McCain campaign because I wasn't really interested in the subject; but he made it compelling, fascinating. And his insight into the differences between a true leader and a mere salesman as commander-in-chief was worth the price of the book itself. The essay on dictionaries, and by extension on prescriptive and descriptive approaches to the English language as it develops here, I had read before, but it is a treat for anyone who cares about accuracy of communication. The title essay expanded into divagations on American eating habits, vegetarianism, animal cruelty and other musings, but always engagingly and informatively. Wallace describes the trauma of 9/11 as it affected the heartland in snapshots that are as understated as they are affecting. I KNEW I wasn't interested in the annual porn awards presentation, but Wallace made it fun.
I am flummoxed at the reviews here that are less than glowing, that nitpick and hedge their appraisals. Maybe Wallace shares the fate of many a stand-up comedian with mixed audience reaction who is "too smart for the room." In the genre of journalism, this has to be as good as it gets.
on December 10, 2005
I more or less accidenally bought this book the night before it came out, just checking to see if it was available. Happenstance. I am totally pleased with this collection of essays. DFW seems to have found or worked with his 'god-shaped hole' and it shows in a freshly (some of these were done around 1996, allbeit updated or revised er edited probably a bit since) compassionate flavor to his prose. I was finishing the article on Authority and American Usage this afternoon and I realized for a second as I caught my breath in between his platinum clauses, how thoroughly engaging his writing style is. But its the compassion that's most noticable for me. I considered his past book's work pretentious yet incredibly smart - just kind of off-puttingly so. He comes off both smart and sensitive in this collection. The footnotes while naturally digressive, are almost 90% of the time entertaining and I laughed me arse off quite a bit in the last week while reading most this stuff (two essays to go).
RELEVANT AND HIGHLY RECCOMMENED FOR ALL PATIENT READING PEOPLE SEMI-INTERESTED IN CULTURE TODAY.
It's tough to try honestly to break this down without doing some sort of injustice to Consider The Lobster. The essays are worth a purchase (perhaps discounted though, its kind of pricey right now I confess).
on January 16, 2006
Warning: If you abhor explanatory footnotes and asides, this book may not be for you.
Members of the American literati, the admitted audience for at least one essay in this collection, will already be familiar with DFW. For the rest of you: young (as in under 40), hip (as in long hair, swear words and breaching convention), and extremely smart and well read (as in English prof, and essay topics that include Kafka and Dostoevsky and prescriptive vs. descriptive American usage).
Somewhere in here there may be a reference to the fact that the aim of writing is to connect with the reader. DFW certainly did with me. I ripped through the collection over the weekend and enjoyed every one of the nine essays (having only come across one previously). Some of the reasons I liked them, in no particular order:
1) DFW points out, in reviewing Joseph Frank on Dostoevsky, that "Russian is notoriously hard to translate into English, and when you add to this the difficulty the archaisms of nineteenth-century literary language, Dostoevsky's prose/dialogue can often come offmannered and pleonastic and silly". I still don't know what pleonastic means, but have often felt that someone should make this point (as in "silly") about the prose/dialogue in some of the great Russian literature. The examples he goes on to give are hilarious, but I won't spoil it for you.
2) All the essays were to varying degrees funny. Big Red Son (on the 1998 Adult Video Awards) and Consider the Lobster (on the Maine Lobster Festival) standout in this regard.
3) The title essay was a review of the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine. DFW paints a disturbing picture of the MLF and raises for consideration whether boiling lobsters alive is a good thing. One suspects that this may not have been what the Gourmet editors had in mind. Kudos to them for publishing it anyway and to DFW, because knowing the intended audience makes the piece even funnier for the rest of us.
4) Somewhere in here DFW uses the verb "is" back to back and it seems right (wish I could find the sentence, but trust me). I personally never would have done this, but as the piece on American usage demonstrates, DFW is the expert, and if he's defying convention (I actually don't know for a fact that he is, but I rarely see "is" used back to back)you can't help but think his defiance is considered and ultimately right. It is this confidence DFW builds with me as a reader, rather than the actual consecutive use of "is" that I liked.
5) Sometimes directly, but mostly not, DFW points out the absurdity of the extreme "cross-firish" nature of American discourse. I find his sophisticated middle of the road tone compelling.
I could go on, but the bottom line is that I feel better for having read this collection of essays.
The asides get completely out of control in "Host". The essay is a dizzying presentation of arrows pointing to boxes, themselves containing arrows pointing to other boxes (and so on), which the reader has to follow all over the place to follow DFW's deliberately (one hopes) meandering train of thought. Some might not like this. Even I found it distracting, though not to the point of annoyance (as may have been intended).
Also, "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness" is the least funny of the nine works. Since it is "the text of a very quick speech" one presumes that it was intended to provoke at least an awkward giggle from the audience (and my guess is that it did, though in my opinion not deservedly). More to the point, Kafka's central joke, according to DFW is: "that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inserparable from that horrific struggle." Maybe it's just me, but... not laughing. Besides, if someone has to explain why it's funny (as DFW is here), my first intinct tells me it might not be.
These last two points were for balance. I strongly recommend this book.
on May 17, 2016
Rambling, unedited, exhausting pieces. There is insight and humor throughout the book, but that is offset by tedious footnotes and sentences that just go an on and on (sesquipedalian pleonasm, anyone?). Sloppy work.
on June 17, 2016
First off, "Consider the Lobster" is one of the all-time great titles. Even better: the writing. D.F. Wallace can be more difficult than James Joyce (and make Shakespeare look like Classic Comics) (viz. the unfathomable "Infinite Jest") but his essays...particularly his magazine pieces...are infinitely more accessible. The title piece here is a tragi-comedy about the ethics of boiling lobsters alive (wrapped in a funny, frothy story about attending the Maine Lobster Festival...although I bet he wasn't invited back). Another journalistic tour de force is "Up, Simba," the best story ever written about John McCain's presidential, uh, lunge in 2008 (DFW reveals himself here as the true heir to Hunter Thompson). Some of the other pieces are heavier sledding (for example, "Authority and American Usage"), but Wallace is never dull, sometimes long-winded, and always worth the effort.