Book Review: “Consider the Lobster”

I think there are two basic reasons why people read a collection of unrelated non-fiction essays.1 The first is that they believe that the topics of the essays in general are interesting, if not interrelated. The second is that they enjoy the writing of the author, regardless of the topic. I suspect that not infrequently the latter reason supplants the former, and that is indeed the case with me2 and Consider the Lobster, a recently-published compilation of ten essays by David Foster Wallace.

None of these essays was penned just for this collection; each was previously published in national periodicals, including Gourmet, Rolling Stone, Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s, with publication dates ranging from 1997 to 2005. The diversity of the subject matter is not surprising as it coincides with the equally diverse venues for original release.

Here’s a quick synopsis of each essay, in the order in which they appear in the book:

The Big Red Son – This is an exposé3 of what goes on behind the scenes at the Adult Video News Awards, which is the porn industry’s equivalent to the Academy Awards. Also includes coverage of the Adult Software exhibition, which in 1998 was one of the venues of the International Consumer Electronics Show. I’m pretty sure that the CES no longer is associated with said exhibition. I’m not sure why this article, written for Premier, was chosen as the lead-off, but I thought I would have to toss the book if it exemplified the rest of the essays. Fortunately, it didn’t, but I can assure you that Wallace’s graphic descriptions of the industry and its participants are just as sordid and offensive as the acts the industry peddles.4

Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would sort of Have to Think – This 1998 review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time was as yawningly uninteresting5 as the previous essay was offensive. Strike two.

Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed – Apart from the title, this 1999 exploration of Franz Kafka’s6 use of humor left me searching for the TV remote control. Strike 2.5.

Authority and American Usage – Just when I was about to give it up as a lost cause, this absolute jewel of an essay pops into view. It’s another book review – although only in the way that King Kong is a story about a monkey – and for yet another relatively non-mainstream publication: Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Wallace waxes rhapsodic in his admiration for Garner’s work, but the article is really just a jumping off point for a broader discussion: who decides which words appear in the dictionary, and which combinations of words represent proper usage? If you love to write, or have a love of the written word, this essay will educate and entertain7 you, even though it’s something of a slog due to the author’s stylistic eccentricities (more about these later). This article alone is worth the price of admission.

The View from Mrs. Thompson’s – Written in 2001, this is an account of the author’s and his neighbors’ reactions to the events of 9/11 from his then-home in Bloomington, Indiana. If you’re from any coastal metropolitan area, his observations might be enlightening, but those of us living in “the Heartland” won’t be particularly edified, because we’ve already lived them.

How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart – Wallace was a gifted young tennis player, by his own account, and it’s natural that he should, well, have a thing for other gifted young tennis players. In this essay, he reviews Tracy Austin’s autobiography, against his better judgment, and finds it to be lacking in almost every important respect. But in analyzing his disappointment with the book – and with athletes’ autobiographies in general – he discusses the interesting possibility that some of the very attributes that make them successful in their careers also doom their attempts to describe in any entertaining and enlightening ways those successes after the fact.

Up, Simba8Rolling Stone hired Wallace to tag along with John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. It’s hard not to draw some comparisons with Hunter S. Thompson’s coverage of Nixon’s and McGovern’s 1972 campaigns (did RS also commission that work?), but Wallace manages not to totally don the gonzo journalist’s persona even though he obviously tailors the story to the perceived Rolling Stone demographic (young, cynical, politically apathetic). He never explicitly reveals his own political leanings, although his repeated references to George W. Bush as “Shrub” probably gives us a clue. However, he was obviously smitten by McCain’s perceived forthrightness and work ethic.

Consider the Lobster – Wallace was engaged by Gourmet to cover the 2004 Maine Lobster Festival. He spends much of his time dwelling on the question of whether lobsters feel pain when being boiled alive, and extends his musings to the deaths of higher-ordered creatures to fulfil American culinary demands. One wonders how the editors of Gourmet received this essay. Wallace also muses on the necessary evil that is tourism: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing. Chambers of commerce must love him.

Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky – Had this fallen nearer the top of the table of contents, it would likely have been strike three and I’d have abandoned the book. I’ve never read anything by Dostoevsky9, and for that simple reason I’m not intrigued by the breadth or depth of Frank’s five volume project about the “life, times and writing” of Mr. D. Wallace, for the record, is quite impressed. With Frank’s books, not with my literary lightweightedness, that is. Although, admittedly, that’s just a guess.

Host – This essay appear in Atlantic Monthly in 2005 and is an insider look at life as a conservative talk-radio host. It focuses on a well-traveled (a euphemism for a guy who seems to have trouble hanging onto a gig) man named John Ziegler10, who at the time of the article was hosting a weeknight show on KFI-AM in Southern California. There’s plenty of interesting stuff here about radio personalities, of both on-air and support varieties, as well as some engaging discussion about exactly why conservative talk radio is so successful while its liberal counterpart is floundering (to put it mildly): …the single biggest reason why left-wing talk radio experiments like Air America or the Ed Schultz program are not likely to succeed, at least not on a national level, is that their potential audience is just not dissatisfied enough with today’s mainstream new sources to feel that they have to patronize a special type of media to get the unbiased truth.

So, those are the essays. Three are excellent, three were passably interesting, three are deathly dull to this literary philistine and I found one to be incredibly offensive. But setting aside the individual works for a moment, there are a few things about the author’s style and the way the book is marketed that mystify me.

The publisher is marketing this book as a collection of hilarious essays. Now, it’s true that Wallace has a droll and often self-deprecating sense of humor, but he’s no Dave Barry. I’ll cop to the occasional snicker, and even a chuckle or two (primarily when he’s poking fun at SNOOTs in Authority and American Usage but if you buy this book expecting to get the text equivalent of, say, Calvin and Hobbes, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

And what’s with the footnotes, amigo?11 If you read the review from Publisher’s Weekly on the link at the top of this overwrought post, you’ll see what I’m referring to. Wallace has no qualms about footnoting his footnotes, and adding parenthetical interventions to the footnoted footnotes, with the unfortunate publishing effect of requiring 6 point type that will likely be illegible to half the reading population…not to mention the havoc that the technique wreaks upon continuity. But, it gets worse, as he Page Scan Thumbnailintroduces a footnoting technique in Host that causes the reader to wonder if whatever she was previously eyeballing has suddenly been replaced with a copy of, like, The American Journal of Flowcharting. If you’re having trouble visualizing what I mean, click on the little thumbnail image at right. Those things that look like proofreader’s marks are actually pseudo-footnotes and quasi-parenthetical comments. Sure, they beat 6 point type, but not by much. In addition to the challenges this eccentric affectation presents to the reader, there’s at least one obvious practical implication: how the heck do they translate this non-linear presentation into an audiobook?

Finally (hold your applause), the author’s command of English vocabulary (well, you can throw Latin in there, too) is intimidating. I suppose I should feel embarassed at having to look up words like psephology, prolegomenous, bruit and apsidal but frankly, after finding out what they mean, I contend there would have been no shame in the author’s using more simple substitutes. (Except for psephology…there’s no easy one-word synonym for this sociological term. What? Look it up yourself; I’m not running a grammar school here.) But I’ll admit that while those and the other couple score or so unfamiliar words that were scattered through the essays made them temporarily less readable (and me more neurasthenic and luxated, to the point of being in a swivet), the time I spent adding to my education was probably worthwhile.

In the end, this is a book for those who love reading the English language when it’s made to bend absolutely to the writer’s will. Whether any of the topics of any of the essays interest you is almost beside the point; Wallace crafts words in such exquisite fashion as to make you either want to quit writing completely, or renew your attempts to gain a similar mastery.

Footnotes (duh)

1 Well, I suppose this is probably true for any book. [return]

2 Although in this case, there’s a third reason: I was given the book for review purposes by my delightfully perspicacious Book Angel at Time Warner Book Group, Miriam Parker. [return]

3 Pun intended; boy, is it ever. [return]

4Yes, I’m making a moral judgment. If you’re new here, well, that’s what I do. If you’re not, then you’re not suprised. [return]

5It did have the somewhat redeeming characteristic of being enthusiastically negative about Updike’s book. It’s always fun to see one writer trash another’s work. [return]

6I’m pretty sure Kafka never spent much time with, say, Mel Brooks. It’s also worth noting, by the way, that Wallace is inordinately fond of the word “funniness.” In his defense it is, well, fun to mouth sotto vocelly while reading. [return]

7If only by requiring you to assess whether or not you are a SNOOT. [return]

8The essay title comes from an obscure reference to a piece of broadcasting equipment that plays no major role in the story. [return]

9If that revelation shreds the last iota of I had as a reviewer of books, so be it. [return]

10Ziegler’s still there. [return]

11Makes more sense to you now, doesn’t it? [return]