Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review: Consider the Lobster

My obsession with the writing of David Foster Wallace continues. Consider the Lobster is the second collection of Wallaces's non-fiction essays. Before getting into the specifics of this collection, I think is worthwhile to elaborate on why I am so enthralled with Wallace.

First, of course, is his distinctive style. The foot notes and asides and information dumps appeal to me. They are like hyperlinks on a page (see below). When reading online, I often take trips through Google and Wikipedia to go into more detail on specific topics. Wallace's foot notes often serve a similar purpose. But, rather than a motley collection of disparate sources, the foot notes all have the same distinct tone and quality. In addition to info-dumps, Wallace's asides often highlight his own opinions. The conceits of the author are explicitly displayed--a tactic that allows Wallace to advance his own stances without having to subjugate himself at the altar of impartiality. Of course, in some ways this could be viewed as a subtle but highly effective rhetorical trick. By setting off his own opinions in flashing lights, the underlying biases in the rest of the work may go by unnoticed.

Second, Wallace is an elitist in the best sense of the term. He deems it worthwhile to think about difficult and uncomfortable subjects. He sees value in information and understanding. His essays are bursting with facts (thus the need for the footnotes to squeeze it all in). Wallace' s best essays involve him going off to learn about a topic or gain some experience, and then reporting back on the meaning of the events. Such reporting deals with meaning on multiple different levels, seemingly without worry about losing the reader in a see of details. He trusts and respects the reader. Things are not dumbed down. Like the real world, they are complicated, contextualized, and often slippery.

Of course, Wallace is able to accomplish all of this largely because of the sheer power of his command of language. He successfully adopts a conversational tone while dealing with complex and esoteric topics. I see myself trying emulate this style, however poorly, in my own technical and expository writing.

I've read several criticisms of Wallace's essays (just google some of the titles below and many will pop up). It can be argued that in some cases Wallace uses his writing skills to mask the fact that he subtly takes sides in contentious topics. Although his breadth of research is astounding, Wallace is not a real expert in many of the topics he writes about. No doubt, he gets some things wrong in a range of important and unimportant ways. Such is the burden of this type of writing, and that is a fair and valid criticism to make. But, much of the time at least, it (the sacrifice of complete and expert nuance and fact for a well presented and informative summary) is a trade I'm willing to make.

This collection includes 10 essays of various length and topic:

Big Red Son In this essay Wallace recounts his experiences at the 1998 Adult Video News awards. The AVN awards are basically the Oscars for pornography. Few do grotesquery as well as Wallace. He's willing to plumb the depths to reveal the root causes of depravity, causes that often have to do with something that may be deep in our own psyches. This essay is now a decade old, and one of the striking things is how the industry was completely unaware of the future explosion in armature pornography. As Tom Johansmeyer reports in The Atlantic, the fact that websites now give it up for free is a huge threat to the commercial viability of the industry. As in other fields, the problem is now how to successfully make money through the internet. Apple did it for music. Newspapers have yet to figure it out. Big Red Son, of course, does not deal with any of these issues, but it is interesting how things have changed in totally unanticipated ways. (NB: it was extremely tempting to drive up hits by including links to all sort of NSFW and adult websites in this review. I think that I'm proud of myself for resisting that urge).

Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think (Re John Updike's Toward the End of Time) is Wallace's review of a John Updike novel. But, really, it serves as an excuse for Wallace to opine on the "Great Male Narcissists" who he feels have dominated American fiction writing. This piece is a worthy companion to the reviews that have come out since Updike's death. I have not really read any Updike. This is something that makes me feel like a shallow, unread impostor.

Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed This short essay is the text of a speech Wallace gave on reading and teaching Kafka. The main point is that the beauty of Kafka's writing lies in its humor, but that the best way of ruining a joke is to explain it. Thus, how it is unclear how to successfully teach Kafka, particularly to a collection of undergraduate students dealing with their own set of philosophical crises.

Authority and American Usage (or: "Politics and the English Language is Redundant") Wallace uses writing a review A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner, as a spring board for explaining the importance of of Standard Written English in society and summarizing the struggles between the descriptive and proscriptive schools of linguistics. This is my favorite essay in the book. It includes an even handed take down of Political Correctness as well as a nuanced discussion of the role of language in society. The essay, which is 60+ pages, is funny and enlightening and provocative in all kinds of ways that are difficult to summarize. You should read it.

The View From Mrs. Thompson's In this essay, Wallace recounts his experiences during 11-13 September 2001. At the time, Wallace was living in Bloomington, Illinois. It includes a self-awareness about his Midwestern roots that this slightly over-educated person from the Midwest finds provocative.

How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart. Tracy Austin was a star tennis player. Wallace found her autobiography deeply disappointing.

Up, Simba. Seven Days on the Trail of an Anticandidate. This essay, originally published in Rolling Stone, recounts Wallace's experiences as a reporter for a week during John McCain's 2000 presidential primary campaign. By chance, Wallace was on the trail during the critical week leading up to the South Carolina primary. I'm a fairly well informed follower of politics, but Wallace's reporting offered a fresh take on the dynamics of a campaign. Also, his unraveling of the role of negative campaigning and cynicism in politics is brilliant. The portrayal takes on a new meaning because of McCain's recent 2008 campaign. Any curious observer of the American political system would be well served by reading this account. It is striking how, in hind sight, Obama successfully pulled off many of the rhetorical and positional appeals that McCain tried to adopt back in 2000.

Consider the Lobster Wallace visits the 2003 Main Lobster Festival. This article was written for Gourmet magazine, and the striking thing is how Wallace presents concerns about the suffering of lobsters to that readership.

Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky presents Wallace's review of Joseph Frank's multi-volume study of Dostoevsky. Frank's writing, and Wallace's review, focus on the relationship between the ideas and themes of Dostoevsky's writing and the times and culture in which he lived. Many interesting aspects of Dostoevsky's personal life are revealed. Running throughout the review is the notion that Serious Writing of today cannot deal with Important Topics in a direct, non-ironic fashion. This is a position that animates much of Wallace's views on literature. Interspersed throughout the essay are short segments of a monologue trying to seriously deal with notions of meaning and existence. The fact that these segments seem so out of place proves Wallace's point that modern readers are simply not used to dealing with such topics head on.

Host This essay relates Wallace's observations of talk radio host John Ziegler. It attempts to explain the popularity of right-wing talk radio, while explaining the business aspects of the medium. And make no mistake, talk radio is a business. It also deals with all sorts of important topics like the meaning of "information" and "entertainment" and "objective." Talk radio is not changing or going away any time soon. This essay offers a nuanced peak behind the curtain into the personalities, calculations, and economic realities that drive this mode of communication.

Re: hypertext. I should note that this comparison is one Wallace would likely reject. This point comes from D. T. Max's recent portrayal of Wallace in the New Yorker. Having never read any of Wallace's fiction, I'm struck by how he could think that his nonficiton (which is so brilliant) is easy and without depth.

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