Over the course of a few weeks last year, from mid-November to late December, I read my way through David Foster Wallace’s second essay collection, Consider the Lobster — and I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts and write something coherent about it ever since. Trouble is, I was so overwhelmingly impressed by the book that I can’t seem to get beyond an initial layer of breathless fangirlism to whatever more, er, thoughtful thoughts may lie underneath.
Wallace and his writing had initially passed me by entirely. My first clear recollection of his name coincides with his 2008 suicide: co-editor Jim Benning wrote a brief obit post for the World Hum blog, and over the next few days I followed a trail of links and wondered how I’d missed hearing about the writer whose death had lit up the internet.
Over the next couple of years, I continued to see Wallace’s name pop up here and there, on World Hum and beyond; I even wrote a couple of Wallace-related blog posts myself. But apart from a few excerpts, I still had yet to sit down and give any of his work a proper read.
With “Consider the Lobster,” I’ve finally remedied that. And boy, am I glad I did.
Reading David Foster Wallace was a strange experience for me. As I read each essay, part of me became entirely absorbed in the story while another part of me stood back and noted the immense talent so obviously at work. Ordinarily when I read essays — and I read a lot of essays — I operate in one of two modes: Either I’m in reader-mode, allowing myself to just dive right into the story, or I’m in writer-mode, holding myself aloof, in a way, from the content and instead analyzing the creative decisions in play, taking mental notes on what works and what doesn’t. Throughout “Consider the Lobster,” though, I seemed to be working in both modes at once.
The sheer caliber of the writing is unavoidable fact. Wallace’s vocabulary is immense and he uses it with cutting precision — pre-DFW, I can’t remember the last time I had to pause while reading to look up a word in the dictionary, but over the course of “Consider the Lobster” I did so several times. Here, chosen pretty much at random, is an excerpt that I think demonstrates the clarity and humor present throughout; this is from “Big Red Son,” in which Wallace attends the Annual Adult Video News Awards, the Oscars of the porn industry:
The crowd lingers over hypersucrotic cake and coffee and $9.00 cordials and howls conversation at itself for 90 more minutes before the house lights dim and the 15th Annual AVN Awards gala starts. What follows thereon is a kaleidoscopic flux of stilted acceptances and blue one-liners and epileptic strobes and spotlights following winners’ serpentine and high five-studded paths to the stage, of everything from generic Awards Show schmaltz to moments of near-Periclean eloquence, as in e.g.:
“Fellow MENSA members and aficionados of Shakespeare!” intones Al Goldstein of Screw, 62 and obese and white-bearded and crazy-haired and dressed in a sportcoat whose lapels are two different primary colors, looking pretty much exactly like that one certain old guy in the neighborhood your mom warned you never to try to sell Cub Scout chocolate mints to, and glorying in a Special AVN Achievement Award he confesses to feeling he’s long deserved. “I want to thank my mother, who spread her legs and made all this possible.” Large sections of the crowd are on their feet — Goldstein is a porn icon. He was distributing NYC’s Screw on photostat when most of the people in this room were still playing with their toes. He’s been a First Amendment ninja. He drinks in the applause and loves it and is hard not to sort of almost actually like. He’s clearly an avatar of contemporary porn’s unabashedness, its modern Yeah-OK-I’m-Scum-but-Underneath-All-Your-Hypocrisy-So-Are-You-and-at-Least-I-Have-the-Guts-to-Admit-It-and-Have-a-Good-Time persona:
“I salute the women with eleven-IQs and the men with eleven-inch cocks. The real heroes are the cocks and pussies who fuck onscreen. They’re the real heroes.” Goldstein is less conducted than borne back to his seat.
But it’s not just the near-flawless precision and detail of Wallace’s writing that impressed me. It’s the content, too: the insights and empathy present in each essay, and the breadth and depth of knowledge across a bewildering array of topics.
The four monster essays in the book are “Big Red Son,” the alternately funny, sad and disturbing look at the hard-core porn industry quoted from above; “Authority and American Usage,” a dense and fascinating examination of the politics behind America’s various English language usage guides; “Up, Simba,” a particularly strange read in the post-McCain/Palin world, in which Wallace rode the “Straight Talk Express” with the John McCain campaign during the 2000 primaries; and “Host,” a complex essay that tackles everything from the personalities to the economics to the technical achievements of conservative talk radio. In shorter essays in between the big four, Wallace takes on John Updike, Kafka as humorist, 9/11, the autobiography of one-time teen tennis sensation Tracy Austin, the Maine Lobster Festival, and a decades-in-the-making, four-volume study of Fyodor Dostoevsky.
By the end of the book, there’s no escaping the impression that this was a remarkably literate, relentlessly curious, intensely intelligent and extraordinarily thoughtful writer at work. (Hey, I warned you this could get breathless, didn’t I?) Reading David Foster Wallace taught me a lot about writing, and about porn and politics and literature and more — hell, it even taught me a few new words. But my biggest take-away at the end of the book was about Wallace himself: He was a serious and unusual talent, which, of course, only makes his death at 46 that much more shattering.
After I finished “Consider the Lobster,” I went straight out and bought Wallace’s best-known novel, Infinite Jest. I also have his first essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, winging its way to Whitehorse on special order. I look forward to reading more.