I’ve read Consider the Lobster before, though my review at the time wallowed a bit too much in a sort of fawning—and brief—incredulity at the author, rather than a substantive look at the book.
Since these essays are themselves reviews of sorts—dissections, really—it would be too easy for a review of Consider the Lobster to enter into a the territory of parody, being a review of a review of a review (more on this later).
This is also the first book of David Foster Wallace’s that I’ve [re-]read since his death in September of 2008. That knowledge, though it really shouldn’t, will undeniably change the character of his pieces in the minds of readers. There are fewer dramatic revelations than, say, his essay on depression1 or—according to my brother—his book about infinity, Everything and More. We are unlikely, in other words, to glean any particularly exciting or dreadful knowledge about DFW’s mysterious inner being from his pithy comments about the American pornography industry. But Consider the Lobster nonetheless contains some pieces which are superfluous in quality, and it’s worth handling some of the major ones individually rather than in aggregate.
Big Red Son
DFW was never known for bawdiness, and it was with some surprise that I read he had been asked to cover the 1998 AVN Adult Video Awards, which is essentially an Oscars of Porn. On the one hand, the subject matter is a good deal different than his usual fare, but on the other hand, who better than David Foster Wallace to take a shallow—if politically explosive—subject and tease something more important from it?
I’m not sure I could say with any honest that DWF manages to spin any deeper meaning from this issue; what it mostly does is allow his inner comedian to shine through—the pithy, reserved sort of comedy that comes from people of a vast intellect. Given how infrequently DFW wrote comedic pieces, one would be tempted to label him maladroit at humor, but in fact he is hilarious when he wants to be; one need only read his article about the Illinois State Fair (in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) to know that he is uproariously funny in a Garrison Keillor sort of way.
Some of the humor is DWF playing the timid Midwesterner, agog at the flashing lights and flashing breasts of the glitzy, smutty pornography scene. The other aspect of the (subtle) humor is of course Wallace’s (over?)analysis of the topic. Because pornography markets itself is a simple pleasure, and makes its money by essentially peddling to a lowest common denominator, it is ironic that the subject itself is so complicated. Take, for example, the infamous Max Hardcore, an aging veteran of the hardcore porn scene whose trailer DFW visits, accompanied by his industry guides Harry Hecuba and Dick Filth. Though in most respects a jackass and a simpleton, Max becomes something of a synecdoche for the whole sordid affair, and DFW minces no words talking about Max’s penchant for the infantilization of his female performers, his sleazy bravado, and general asshattery.
Though he asks it, rhetorically, DFW doesn’t ever penetrate2 the ball of questions that come with the topic, such as why porn is so popular, why there are so many internal contradictions in the industry, or why thematic tendencies of pornography tend the way they do. Porn and the porn industry are here presented as a curio—a diorama that DFW has made out of macaroni and glitter and is examining on his kitchen table from all angles with a mixture of pride, interest, and disgust. This is actually a narrative/expository device that he uses quite a bit.
Authority and American Usage
Though DFW’s piece for Rolling Stone about John McCain (see below) may be the most well-known piece in this collection, and “Big Red Son” may arouse2 the most interest due to its prurient nature, I was actually most taken by “Authority and American Usage,” which original appeared in the April 2001 issue of Harper’s Magazine as “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage” 3. It was ostensibly a review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a then-new usage guide, somehow unique among a plethora of other usage guides, or at least it seemed so to DFW.
Though DFW took great care to praise Garner’s book, his reasons for doing so were roundabout and, once fully explained, more or less effaced Garner’s book as the necessary actor of the article. What Wallace was really talking about is the ongoing battle between grammatical/orthographical Descriptivist v. Presciptivists. By way of summary, I’ll simply say that the latter are of the Old Guard—the William Safires and every withered English teacher you had in high school—who have dog-eared copies of Strunk and White and expect you to never deviate from the Standards of American English™, even if it means paying heed to silly, outdated rules such as avoiding split infinitives or sentences ended in prepositions4, while the former are the dispassionate linguists who are the Jane Goodall to all the slang-spouting gorillas in the midst. In other words, the latter want to control English, and the former simply want to describe it.
As DFW notes immediately in an attempt to preempt readers boredom with an essay about grammatical prescriptivism, this has lead to considerable—if muted—strife among academics. DFW speaks as a self-described SNOOT—an anagram whose constituent words are unimportant but the meaning of which is a rough synonym for “grammar snob,” and therefore he, like me, is acutely aware of the tension between his own desire for everyone to speak with perfect standard English and follow all the rules, and a wearied acknowledgment that this is neither how the world in general nor linguistics in particular actually work. The core of his argument comes on the form of a role reversal: we are to imagine the poor young SNOOT in grammar schools, teased because he knows and cares about the Oxford Comma, as the truly maladroit or maladjusted one, because he is unable to assimilate the knowledge that real communication demands the knowledge of multiple languages or slangs and the ability to shift between them. As if demonstratively, DFW’s own habit of veering wildly between academic discourse (which he will often disdain) and plain language. Consider this section of his essay about Dostoevsky:
“Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.”
Compare it with this passage from the same:
Frank’s bio does cover all this personal stuff, in detail, and he doesn’t try to downplay or whitewash the icky parts.
It’s clear from the tone in the first passage that the high-falutin’ diction is self-deprecating, but we shouldn’t for moment believe that DFW didn’t still know what those phrases meant, or didn’t intend them exactly as written. “Authority and American Usage” is one more example of DFW’s own internal contradictions, and though it never reaches this level of introspection, it does ask readers who come to a posthumous DFW, “Does genius interfere with the ability to transmit said genius? If so, how do we reconcile what we know to be true with what we know to simply be?” In other words, does American English serve as a proper analogue for Truth-with-a-capital-T in that we argue for or against based on the same prescriptivist v. descriptivist principles?
Reading “Up, Simba” in 2009 evokes a strange sort of cognitive dissonance. One has to labor to remember that DFW’s article is about a week on the campaign trail with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) for the 2000 presidential primary, and therefore precludes knowledge of anything that has happened since then. The McCain campaign epithet of “Shrub” takes on a sort of sinister tone when you consider Shrub’s eight years in office; similarly, the McCain we watched in 2008 often failed to match the McCain we were promised in 2000.
DFW wrote under the auspices of Rolling Stone, the cultural preeminence of which meant fuck-all in a political primary, where the juiciest tidbits and spots went to reporters for major news networks. DFW’s outsider status reminded me very much of Matt Tiabbi’s Spanking the Donkey, though of course with a much less obvious left-leaning bias and less crudity and drug use, as well. The theme throughout, however, tended to focus on the inanity of most political reporting—how the distilled coverage of mainstream media seemed simple and crude even in comparison to the political savvy of the sound technicians who rode on McCain’s campaign convoy. And moreover, that most of the coverage was devastatingly unfair to McCain (and, we may only suppose, to the other candidates), who was/is a man of considerably more complexity and sophistication than is generally appreciated in the news.
It’s worth noting that DFW attempts to subvert the almost-guaranteed cynicism of Rolling Stone readers first by acknowledging the condition, admitting the cause (i.e. a ridiculous political process that favors hucksterism, horse-race, and disingenuousness), and then pounding home the story of McCain’s time in a North Vietnamese prison camp, savagely beaten and still refusing to be released because there were other American prisoners who had been there longer. Maybe, DFW argues, just maybe, when McCain talks about working for something greater than yourself, and sacrifice, he actually means it. This kernel of hope in McCain’s character informs the rest of DFW’s piece, which alternates between more mundane writing about the mechanical process of political primaries—the poor sleep, the poor diet, like those hellish episodes of The West Wing—and Wallace’s conflicted feelings about McCain himself, who the author decides is either a genuine article or a schemer par excellence5.
Consider the Lobster
Most of the essays in Consider the Lobster are uncut, DFW-approved editions—that is, the pieces as he originally wrote them for the publications that underwrote them, before they were heavily edited and chopped to pieces (usually for length). As such, most of them are significantly longer and more detailed than their previously-published counterparts, but the eponymous “Consider the Lobster” remains surprisingly brief, for reasons which still elude me.
One gets that sense that DFW enjoyed subverting his reporting assignments by turning stock journalism into metaphysical treatises or complicated rhetorical exercises, but in practice we know that Gourmet magazine must have known what it was going to get when it asked DFW to cover the 2003 Maine Lobster Festival. Surely they didn’t expect a bulleted list of festival highlights, the literary equivalent of being given a tour of Disneyland by a teenager wearing an oversized foam head.
Naturally, what they printed was likely unprecedented in the magazine’s history: DFW’s coverage of the Maine Lobster Festival—a four-day gustatory orgy involving arthropods measured in tonnage—after brief introductions and a perturbed extrovert’s view of the physical proceedings not unlike his “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” from the book of the same title6—metamorphoses into a prolonged discussion on the ethical ramifications of boiling lobsters alive. DFW is no paint-throwing PETA activist, and so his essay takes a form closer to a Socratic questioning than a moral condemnation. In fact, the character of “Consider the Lobster” seems significantly more interrogative than any of DFW’s other essays that immediately come to mind, offering little in the way of imperative statements to any effect, but rather planting some seed of self-analytical doubt in the minds of readers. Either he was hoping to be a modern day Iago (read: start some shit, surreptitiously) or genuinely wasn’t sure how to answer his own questions.
“Host” perhaps surprised me the most out of all the essays in the book. Topically an article about conservative (reactionary?) radio host John Ziegler, article has the added bonus of being experimental in format. In contains no footnotes, which are a hallmark of DFW’s writing, instead using arrows and textboxes to indicates diversions in the author’s train of thought as he writes. In DFW’s grand “footnotes with footnotes” tradition, the linkages can sometimes span pages, taking the reader away from the primary narrative for minutes at a time.
It would seem perfectly obvious to me that DFW didn’t choose this format because it somehow increased comprehensibility; it managed to fool the utterly clueless Brendan Wolfe, who seems to imagine the unique (and sure, perturbing) formatting of “Host” as a personal slight against him as a reader.
That he follows this essay with “Host,” about a conservative radio pundit, doesn’t help, either. On the page, it’s virtually unreadable, littered with arrows pointing to boxed asides that are interrupted by more arrows pointing to still more boxed asides. Does such a typographical train wreck suggest contempt for the reader? Or, more likely, does it represent the sort of self-contempt exhibited by a boozy older brother who pats his younger sibling on the head and says, “Do as I say, not as I do”? Either way, one suspects that Wallace suspects that a special kind of torture would be to have an idea and then be forced to communicate it to the reader honestly and in a straight line.
Either Wolfe was not familiar with DFW, or he is a twit—perhaps both. Wallace’s use of footnotes is well-documented and well-explained; they more fully represent the way in which both DFW’s thought and ours regularly fail to be neat and linear, but instead branch off into tangents, errata, and other semi-relevant miscellany.
While DFW is no flaming liberal, my guess about his personal politics would be “Center-Left” or thereabouts. Given a topic about a very conservative talkshow host, then, I find it only natural that his rhetorical answer to the relatively one-dimensional and linear nature of both radio and Ziegler’s political/social stances would be to emphasize the complicated and interdependent nature of his writing and intelligent thought in general. “Look at what it takes to talk about John Ziegler and his business,” Wallace seems to tell us. “Just goddamn look at it. Now compare it to what you’ve learned about Ziegler himself.” The essay itself is, in fact, unremarkable: some of it is taken up with the vagaries of the talk radio industry in general. Yet more is given to Ziegler’s biography (read: his many historical firings due to overly inflammatory things said on air). “Host” is, I think, significantly more important as a rhetorical exercise or lesson than it is as a piece of political journalism—or at least a piece of political journalism through the lens of a rhetorical exercise.
This is partly what makes DFW so fascinating to us: I’m not convinced even he know how to mediate all the thoughts in his head through words. His legacy of footnotes and/or crazy diagrammed annotations made him somewhat unique, in part because his readers came to realize that even in the absurdly expansive piece we read, we likely received only a small portion of the thoughts that informed its writing. In his writing we see the struggle between knowledge and communication, of which the former he had a nearly infinite amount, and of the latter he had a good track record cut short by his untimely death. When DFW tells us, “Have a prolegomenous look at two quotations,”7, it’s difficult to know if that was DFW in spite of himself, or DFW in full glory (or, as is so often the case when talking about Wallace, both).
Consider the Lobster was the last book of Wallace’s essays published before his suicide in 2008, and it contains some of his more recent contracted work. Without knowing what other compilations, unfinished manuscripts (including his following to Infinite Jest), or other errata will eventually come out posthumous, I think it safe to say that this compilation contains some of the most impressive and intriguing work he ever published. Even if you are familiar with his work through Harper’s, it’s worth getting for the expanded versions. It makes me lugubrious all over again the the world is bereft of DFW’s talent.
- “The Depressed Person,” from Brief Interview with Hideous Men.[↩]
- You can download the PDF here.[↩]
- For perfectly good examples of these, respectively, imagine Jean-Luc Picard’s “To boldly go where no man has gone before” and Churchill’s flippant “That is nonsense up with which I shall not put.”[↩]
- My conclusion of DFW’s conclusion is that McCain is probably a genuine article, but like most politicians, his campaign staff is comprised of schemers[↩]
- Original article from Harper’s, entitled “Shipping Out,” is available here.[↩]
- From “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” again[↩]