David Foster Wallace.
The David Foster Wallace.
Everyone (who reads a lot) has an opinion on David Foster Wallace.
Lots of people have never read him and don’t intend to. Lots of people have never read him and keep putting it off and probably never will. Lots of people have read him and given up the volume that counts, bored, tired, annoyed, exasperated (and these seem to be the people most proud of their opinion of David Foster Wallace). And then the final group, which I’m just about a part of, is people who’ve read DFW and think he’s the fucking shit. I think he’s great, but I don’t think he’s flawless, but I think he’s so good when he’s good that my issues with him pale into kingly dust and I become convinced that everything I’d list as a fault is the result of my own failing as a reader and watery, cod, intellectual.
Foster Wallace’s masterpiece is Infinite Jest. Let’s acknowledge that and move on from it straight away. He has short stories and he has essays that come close to his magnum opus’ wonder, but I haven’t (yet) encountered a whole book of his that has the same consistency and power. And, boy, does Infinite Jest have power. It changed the way I put on shoes. What other books have the capacity to do that? In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men he writes with a weighty strength of similar topics that loiter near the dark centre of IJ, in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again he offers a reader intellectualised explorations of often distinctly non-intellectual pursuits (i.e. the eponymous piece on cruise ships), and in the other fiction and non-fiction of his that I’ve encountered he walks the tight line (and he walks it far, far, better than James Joyce) that separates involving, dense, intelligent prose from wanky, self-important smugness. DFW’s prose is often close to ticking over into something more repulsive, but rarely slips. And in Consider the Lobster, a collection of essays he published in 2005, there are two or three pieces that skirt closer to this line without crossing it than he ever skirted before. Consider the Lobster is, by this definition, peak Foster Wallace, this is DFW firing on all cylinders and not overshooting, this is him, at his most intellectually presumptive and self-important, not missing a beat, not forgetting his readers and not spoiling his own prose by being smug.
The collection contains ten essays of varying sizes, tones and styles, the last two (but not the first) dependent on what magazine commissioned the piece as originally projected/published (i.e: everything was once much shorter). The subject matter varies wildly, though can broadly be split into three types: the populist, the [pop] academic, the political. All of these broad types intersect and influence each other, with his trademark heavy use of footnotes and thematic caesuras allowing the introduction of humour in the midst of a high brow essay, or the opposite of this (e.g. borderline academese in an essay about pornography).
There are three short, academic, pieces of literary criticism, one about Kafka, one about Updike, one about Dostoevsky. These all begin as book reviews but become something a little weightier. The Kafka essay is about K’s sense of humour, the Updike essay is about the ageing writer losing the skills Foster Wallace used as justification for reading and enjoying the writer’s text in spite of their rank misogyny*, whilst the Dostoevsky piece is about a multi-volume biography written by Joseph Frank, which ties together the life and the works of the Russian in a way DFW acknowledges (as he does it) is deeply unfashionable. There is something stylistically unique to this piece, for every few pages DFW inserts an aside, surrounded by asterisks, to pose a weighty philosophical question. His essay states that if a contemporary fiction writer were to engage with philosophical thought with as much transparency as Dostoevsky and Dostoevsky’s characters do, they would be laughed out of town for being too serious and ideologically passionate. It isn’t cool to care, is kinda DFW’s point, though I think in the almost two decades since he was writing (essay dated 1998) there has been a real push towards honest emotional responses in prose, especially as regards “outrage”.
The fourth academic essay is over 60 pages long and is about a new dictionary of contemporary language usage. This piece discusses linguistics and the philosophy of creating descriptive or prescriptive dictionaries – are language and grammar forms that are used frequently automatically correct, or is there a central set of rules that have an intrinsic importance as regards ease of clarity? There is a lot about prejudice, race and class here, including a very open-feeling discussion about DFW getting into trouble (he was a university lecturer) for having a frank conversation with a student about use of “Standard Black English” in essays. This piece is interesting, but it’s also the densest and most difficult piece in the collection.
Of the essays I would slide into the “populist” category, we have one that straddles this and the previous section, which is all about the false promise of sports biographies/auto-biographies. It’s an exploration of the different types of intelligence involved in being a writer of sparkling prose or a person able to complete phenomenal physical feats. It is not better to be able to do what DFW does than what – his main example – the tennis player Tracy Austin did, but he needs to stop buying and reading books [ghost-]written by people who don’t have the intellectualised emotional capacity to express their achievements and/or disappointments in a way he finds satisfying.
The eponymous essay of the collection is all about the Maine Lobster Festival, which descends very quickly into an ethical discussion about the morality of consuming an animal for which the standard cooking method is boiling alive. This covers similar ground to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (in fact the latter makes a reference to DFW’s essay) in much less detail, but also without the writer turning into a vegetarian or seeming truly uncomfortable with the ethical paradox he is willing to forever live in if it allows the continuation of meat consumption.
The opening essay is one of the book’s most enjoyable, ‘Big Red Son’, which details DFW reporting on the Annual Adult Video News Awards, which is the American porn industry’s main yearly party night. This is a gently picaresque tale (for every person introduced except DFW) and involves him wandering around soulless parts of Las Vegas encountering people who are exactly how he – and the world at large – would imagine people who work in the porn industry to be. It’s very funny, the uncomfortable intellectual ricocheting off the awful self-importance of the porn industry hacks, its dead-eyed performers (of both genders) and, worst of all, the money men, the bastards at the top.
Yet, it is the final set of essays, the political, where Consider the Lobster sparkles. ‘The View from Mrs. Thompson’s’ is the obligatory piece on 9/11, where DFW discusses where he was when it happened, who he was around and how they reacted and how it differed from his response. He’s deep in the Mid West, miles from the metropolitan elite, and he finds himself describing the geography of Manhattan over and over again as he’s the only person there who knows New York. It’s gentle and it’s human, an appropriately touching and distracted essay on such a major recent event in the history of the USA. The collection finishes with a long essay called ‘Host’, which is all about talk radio, the people who work in it, the reasons for its popularity, and the normalisation of a right wing agenda, something that holds true both here and in America, a decade on. This is a very entertaining piece, John Ziegler, the host he is shadowing, a complexly self-aggrandising and deeply flawed individual, someone who has repeated the same mistake over and over again in his life, a mistake so tied to his professional persona that his continued employment seems worryingly dependent on his walking so close to the edge of broadcastibility that his occasional slips outside of the acceptable are inevitable. By “saying the unsayable” and losing his job, he confirms to other potential employers that his views get a reaction. Thus he kinda gets rewarded for bad behaviour, thus he never learns his lesson, thus he gets more reactionary as time goes on.
But the real star of Consider the Lobster is the essay titled ‘Up, Simba!’ (or McCain’s Promise, it’s been published separately under both these names), which is about DFW spending a week on the republican primary campaign trail in the year 2000 with John McCain. DFW watches from the sidelines and applies his analytical and unashamed intelligence to a spectacle that kinda resembles the lamest rock tour that’s ever happened. McCain’s whole credos is his integrity and his honesty, and the narrative of the essay follows McCain as he is led, craftily, into a classic, negative, vitriolic campaign. George W. Bush, who went on to win the nomination and (later) the presidential election, was the candidate with the weight and the money of the party behind him, and McCain’s popularity relied entirely on being seen as a populist anti-candidate.** By luring him into the traditional behaviour of a mainstream politician, McCain’s brand was damaged and his rising popularity faltered and came to a standstill.
DFW discusses the establishment’s vested interest in not getting the politically disengaged engaged in politics, as they are the people least likely to vote for the status quo, which is exactly what every career politician, regardless of party, wants to maintain. It’s a pertinent point and incredibly apt for the UK (and Yankeeland) at the moment, with UKIP and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour having enervated the kind of people into political action who haven’t committed any acts of political action for ages. And that’s why we’re so fucked, politically, because all of a sudden we have huge swathes of those eligible to vote who’d never bothered to vote before, voting. Hence Brexit, hence the Labour party’s confusing and drawn-out likely self-destruction, hence my joining the Liberal Democrats, wanting to feel like I was doing something.
Consider the Lobster is a great collection of essays, full of enough interesting ideas expressed with authority and intelligence to provoke a lot of thought. DFW’s observations are sharp and still relevant, and his wit is strong and his personality – when he brings it to the fore – is always charming. I’ve sadly reached the point now where I’ve read all but one of the books he considered complete before his death, though within his publishers’ posthumous offerings are his highly acclaimed incomplete third novel and another highly regarded essay collection. I’ve been putting off reading more Foster Wallace because I don’t want to run out of his books, but I also don’t want to die before I’ve read his oeuvre. So maybe it’s worth finding myself a copy of The Pale King. Because this book was excellent, and I am no longer young.
* I have no time for Updike, but he probably would’ve had no time for me.
** Trump, who had the same kinda bag but has, instead, made it to the nomination, has personal cash and personal celebrity on his side. McCain wasn’t non-famous, but he was famous as a brave and tragic war hero, not as someone who makes entertaining television.