Review – Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays

Yes, another post about David Foster Wallace. I preface this post by emphatically promising that this will be my last DFW-related post for a while (maybe.)

David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, is a collection of essays written over a ten year period. Like Infinite Jest, the essays are not in chronological order, rather, they are deliberately ordered for maximum effect and efficiency. Similar to Chuck Klosterman’s IV, publications as varied as Harper’s, The Village Voice, and Gourmet hired the services of David Foster Wallace as a freelance journalist, seeking a DFW-esque touch on their magazine through his book reviews, events, and essays.

Consider the Lobster was my second exposure to David Foster Wallace, after a lengthy experience reading DFW’s Infinite Jest. Attributes of DFW’s writing have become increasingly clear as I continue to work my way through his oeuvre: transparency between his life and his work, literary segues in the form of lengthy footnotes, and an incredible attention to grammatical precision. However, one resounding difference I was surprised to find was that I learned much more about David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster, a collection of nonlinear essays, than Infinite Jest, seemingly a personalized piece of fiction.

First and foremost, David Foster Wallace was a firmly entrenched, anti-establishment provocateur. This is more than apparent from his finished products, shown pre-publication in their unedited and unadulterated form throughout Consider the Lobster. In 2004, the now-defunct Gourmet magazine hired DFW to cover the Maine Lobster Festival, one of the largest regional culinary festivals in the United States. Very little coverage ensued surrounding the actual festival. Instead, DFW filled 7 full, text-laden magazine pages (19 in its Consider the Lobster‘s pre-edited form) providing his personal views on mass tourism [1], before wrestling with the ethics of killing lobsters, going so far as to reference the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA.) Gourmet‘s readers, whom I imagine enjoy their lobster, as well as other ethically-questionable culinary vices from time-to-time, were met with a literary “punch-in-the-gut,” so effective in its argument that I, a carnivore, will be hard pressed to enjoy the crustacean in the near future. Rolling Stone tapped DFW to cover John McCain’s 2000 Presidential campaign, hoping for (I imagine) a finished product similar to Hunter S. Thompson’s coverage of George McGovern’s 1972 bid for Democratic nomination [2]. Instead, what Rolling Stone received was a staggering account, in which Wallace manages to extol his reverence towards the “techs” of the various network news outfits, while purposely distancing himself from the rest of the mainstream media covering the campaign. In fact, the draft which DFW submitted to Rolling Stone would, by his own admission, “take up most of Rolling Stone‘s text-space and might even cut into the percentage of the magazine reserved for advertisements,” In both instances, I chuckle at the thought of the editors of their respective magazines receiving drafts from DFW, hoping for an inspired piece of journalism on the topic-in-question, obviously aghast when receiving something that so obviously strayed from their initial intentions.

Secondly, David Foster Wallace casts himself as an everyman: a champion of the blue-collar American. At several points in the book, DFW goes out of his way to poke fun at aristocracy, old money, and “yachty” culture, while espousing the virtues of the working class. From “his anything-but-New York-intellectual author photo” on, DFW makes no attempt to shield his readers from his own political, philosophical, and societal beliefs [4.] The most profound example of this is found in the longest essay of the book, a 67-page “review” of a dictionary, Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern America. During this essay, DFW manages to cast a dichotomy between the different dialects found within the English language, including (but not limited to,) “Black English, Latino English, Rural Southern, Urban Southern, Standard Upper-Midwest, Maine Yankee, East-Texas Bayou, [and] Boston Blue-Collar [5].” DFW then segues to his personal experience as a professor, in which he recounts a speech he’s often given to black students who were ” (a) bright and inquisitive as hell and (b) deficient in what US higher education considers written English facility [5].” The speech itself is inherently incendiary: he begins by explaining the dichotomy of American dialects seen above, before informing the student-in-question the difference between Standard Black English (SBE,) their “native” dialect, and Standard Written English (SWE), the dialect used in college English classes. Professor Wallace proceeds to concede that while SWE could be interpreted as Standard White English (still, SWE), as it was developed and largely enforced by educated white people, “anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE.” By no means is this recounted dialogue remotely PC, and DFW cedes that he’s received an official university complaint as a result of his diatribe. However, DFW makes a point to include these personal experiences on his readers, in turn imparting his personal societal philosophies upon them concurrently. Remember this all stemmed from a book review, of a dictionary, no less.

I’ve made no secret of my personal feelings towards David Foster Wallace as a full-blown literary genius. In past posts, I’ve additionally explored the nature of genius, before concluding there is no resolute definition of genius. DFW and I seemingly shared this extended interest in the nature of genius, a nature that David Foster Wallace explicitly explores in the form of several character studies during Consider the Lobster. Out of the ten essays that collectively compile Consider the Lobster, at least three of these essays directly deal with individuals that DFW himself to be geniuses [6]: Tracy Austin’s prodigious techné in the sport of Tennis, Bryan A. Garner’s comprehensive grammatical prowess, and Dostoevsky’s unrivaled literary mastery. For those of you keeping score at home, the three individuals DFW coins as geniuses overlap with three major themes of DFW’s life: Tennis, grammar, and literature. Again, DFW makes no attempt to hide this transparency from his readers.

I believe that there is, and will never be, any need for a biographical account of David Foster Wallace, as his literary style is such that reading his body of work chronologically would prove more telling than any author’s attempt to chronicle DFW’s life. Witness DFW’s 1996 essay, Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky, a review of Stanford professor and Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank’s collection of Dostoevsky biographies, an account of 60 years (1821-1881) in the life of Dostoevsky, split amongst five seperate books, totalling 2,507 pages. Dostoevsky, of course, is the author of notoriously long-winded, unapproachable masterpieces such as The Idiot, The Brothers’ Karamazov, and Crime & Punishment [7]. Putting the implied effort of completeing this comprehensive body of work aside, DFW literally gushes his affection for Dostoevsky across the landscape of this essay. DFW marvels at Dostoevsky’s ability to create real-life characters and juicy stories, explaining to his readers that “Dostoevsky wrote fiction about the stuff that’s really important.” He proceeds to lament the current state of the literary world, ceding that emotionally powerful literature is no longer possible due to “certain cultural experctations that severely constrain our own novelists’ ability to be “serious.” [8]” DFW concludes

“So he – we, fiction writhers won’t (can’t) dare try to use serious art to advance idealologies. The project would be like Menard’s Quixote. People would either laugh or be embarassed for us. Given this (and this is a given), who is to blame for the unseriousness of our serious fiction? But they wouldn’t (could not) laugh if a piece of morally passionate, passionate moral fiction was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction. But how to make it that? How – for a writer today, even a talented writer today – to get up the guts to even try? There are no formulas or guarantees.”

Again, for those of you keeping score at home, this essay was written in 1996, the same year Infinite Jest, another notoriously long-winded, unapproachable masterpiece, was published.

[1] No surprise here. Wallace informs the reader that in his eyes, mass tourism “is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you,” and compares being a tourist to “becom[ing] economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”
[2] Initially serialized in Rolling Stone in 1972, and later released as a book in early 1973 as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
[3] “Up, Simba.” Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.
[4] The first essay of the book, Big Red Son, is an account of his experience at the Adult Video News, or AVN Awards. The 50-page essay chronicles the pornography industry’s biggest night and the surrounding fanfare which accompanies it in vividly vulgar detail, and is certainly not for anyone who places family values anywhere near the forefront of their consciousness.
[5] “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.
[6] Albeit, in different lights
[7] I’m merely sticking these links in here as reference points. As I’ve never read Dostoevsky, I cannot submit to the efficacy of the links’ translations. Russian, as I’ve been made to understand, is a exceedingly difficult language to translate to English.
[8] “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.

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