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Book review: <i>Consider the Lobster</i> by David Foster Wallace

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the cover of the book

Cover - A lot of white background, some slender sans, and a hint of stock-photo lobster. Inoffensive.


A collection of essays by Wallace. Most were written for magazines, then shortened dramatically by the editors of said magazines, then published. Lobster allows for publication of the expansive original submissions, and expansive they are - in two-hundred plus pages, the number of articles barely reaches double figures. There's a huge piece (originally commissioned by Rolling Stone) in which Wallce follows the McCain campaign for Republican candidacy in 2000. There's a great big piece, ostensibly reviewing a book on American English usage, which is also both a potted history of the author's personal relationship with the subject, and the subject itself. There's a weighty essay about his neighbourhood's reaction to the twin towers falling. There's a big long piece about the American porn industry, climaxing (har!) with Wallace's attendance at the Adult Video Awards in Las Vegas, AKA the Porno Oscars. Lastly, there's a surprisingly extensive and thoughtful article, originally for a gourmet magazine, about the Maine lobster festival, which wanders off into areas concerning the morality of modern human eating habits which must have raised editorial eyebrows and cleavers simultaneously. Despite the digressions and discursiveness, however, you can rest assured that all articles are annotated, asterisked, footnoted, and end-noted to an extent that would please a serial killer with Asperger's syndrome.

The good

This is, by some distance, the best non-fiction prose I've read from a Gen-X source. It's the best essay writing I've read, full stop, since Clive James' Cultural Amnesia. Lobster is at once meticulous and almost psychedelically detailed, yet somehow conversationally readable. To paraphrase Clive himself, it reads the way speech would sound in a perfect world.

In Wallace's case, the fantastic prose derives from two places. The first is a truly prodigious textual intelligence along with the prodigy's intense love for subject. Any doubt towards Wallace's innate ability is comprehensively erased in the aforementioned critique of a work on American language usage. Within, Wallace unrolls the full tapestry of his talents; critical writing, effective quotation, philosophical conjecture, essaying, multilingualism, frighteningly extensive knowledge of the subject, ditto ability within it, biographical and autobiographical writing, sense of humour, and the ability to bring all this together in light, sharp, hugely readable prose. He introduces us to Grammar SNOOTS - I forget the acronym, but it's a construction of Wallace's mother's - a University professor and proud and happy SNOOT - who wanted to give a name both proud and self-mocking to the predisposition for language usage exactitude. To some, as the name suggests, SNOOTitude will forever be pointless pedantry of the most classically nerdy kind, and to others denotes an involuntary lifetime membership in The Aristocracy of the Right Way. Wallace, here, is happy to admit to be talking about himself, and remains charmingly self-deprecating while breathtakingly well-informed on this topic, as so many others. It's easy to summarise that Wallace's mother psyched him into being a word-nerd, but that would be to make insultingly light with the author's amply demonstrated depth of knowledge, skill, and love of the language he writes so well in.

The second building block of Wallace's style is his talent for observation, both internal and external. On the campaign trail with John McCain's "Straight Talk Express," (riding in press bus "Bullshit 2,") for Rolling Stone magazine, Wallace delivers the gonzo reportage parcel their readers expect, but also finds time to talk about McCain's personal charisma, the most shocking description of his wartime imprisonment I've certainly ever read, and the way the right-leaning press have a certain special relationship with the man, whilst simultaneously being virtually useless in any even slightly unorthodox reporting sense.

Further, Wallace hangs around with the tech crews (cameramen, sound recordists, etc), who, unlike most journalists, endure crushing campaign schedules from start to finish and turn out to be, in an off-the-record sort of way, the most astute and experienced analysts of the spin-tastic PR bonanza which is modern political campaigning. Wallace looks honestly at what McCain symbolises to the man's own generation, the author's generation, the author himself, and the US voting public of 2000, a time when McCain captured something in the zeitgeist and could well have won the nomination without porcine coprophage Karl Rove fucking him over for the second time. Wallace also has the guts to ponder (if not actually investigate) the question of whether one of the campaign's most iconic incidents was a set-up. He then feeds his consideration of this possibility back into the overarching theme of the article, that being the possibility that McCain represents an alternative to the cynicism of modern US politics, particularly as viewed by the demographic of Rolling Stone, who grew up with the spin and the lies and the "message" and the "narrative" and who were a LOT less shocked then their parents when it was revealed that Bill Clinton had lied about fucking an intern. (A politician, lying?? When he thought he could get away with it?!?!)

What I'm saying is that Wallace will approach a topic from any angle he considers useful - it's an almost novelistic approach to essay writing, and narrative convention is certainly one of the angles he'll use. It's genuinely hard for me to describe how good this is, because, although the topics covered are varied and interesting, it's really the author's voice and his amazing prose style which sell the work, and I simply lack Wallace's skill to convey it for you here. Like Clive James' prose, it's always readable, conversational, and almost friendly, yet grammatically flawless and immaculately constructed to deliver maximum meaning. Unlike James' prose, however, there's something very contemporary about Wallace's writing. I was occasionally reminded, for reasons I could barely explain, of Bret Easton Ellis' work. As far as I know, at least, of essayists from this era, Wallace is in a class of his own, and I can only hope and pray that Generation Y still has the capacity to produce writers with the same love for, respect for and mastery of the English language.

The bad

He committed suicide in 2008. There goes another one. It's easy, in these cases, to find oneself scouring the text for clues, and I must admit to sensing a psychological fragility underpinning the impressive bulk of Wallace's authorial mind - he makes no secret to his dependence on prescribed psychoactive drugs, for a start. But that's all bullshit, really. We could start going on about the author who sees the world too clearly to bear with his picture windows of the soul ever lacking drapery etc etc etc etc, ignoring the many creative people who see the world all too clearly and don't take the shortcut out. In the end, all one can do is be a bit sad about the end of a great talent, and happy that at least he left seven or eight books behind (which is six more than John Kennedy O'Toole did, for example.)

The footnotes. I better mention the footnotes, not least because these constitute something that the frequently aforementioned Clive James would NOT, I suspect, have any truck with. Basically, Wallace seems to suffer from the word-lover's fear of failing to express himself fully. The irony is that, if any writer possesses the natural gifts to accomplish this within the traditional bounds of his prose, it's Wallace. But no. Wallace uses footnotes, and he uses them like Chuck Norris uses machine gun fire, eg as a sort of cologne. It's a rare page of Wallace's writing which contains only one footnote. Usually there are more. Often the footnotes stretch across multiple pages, sometimes they contain sub-headings, sometimes the footnotes themselves contain footnotes. Within the critical/journalistic/essay writing of Consider the Lobster, I found this structural quirk distracting at worst, and entertaining at best - as a word-lover myself, they function almost like DVD extras. (Within the novelistic framework of Wallace's opus Infinite Jest, though, I found them borderline intolerable, but that's another book review for another time, and anyway most of those were endnotes, not footnotes, which are much harder to read in parallel.)

See what you think, anyway - it might piss you off, it might not. I mean the thing with footnotes is that, like DVD extras, you don't HAVE to partake - I suspect most of them were editorially excised from the originally published articles - but there's something about tiny writing that draws the eye. The real question, I suppose, is that, if Wallace is such a freakin' genius, why can't he incorporate the relevant parts of his footnotes into the main body of his writing, and throw the rest away? Well the answer is that he can, because he does it in, for instance, his first book of essays, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again", where the minutiae and factoids either make it into the body copy or are tossed out. The fact that, in Lobster, there are hundreds more of the things, and that Lobster is a later work where Wallace would have been more confident and less subject to an editor's influence, suggests that Wallace simply likes footnotes, does not find them hard to read himself, and considers them a valid tool in structuring an argument. Quite frankly, I'm not a good enough writer myself to say if he's right, but I'd love to know what Clive James thought...

What I learnt

That David Foster Wallace was an utterly talented essayist, critical writer, and all-round non-fiction mastermind, and that, if I see any of his stuff around, I'm buying it.

In short

Title: Consider the Lobster
Author: David Foster Wallace
Publisher: Back Bay Books
ISBN: 978-0316013321
Year published: 2007
Pages: 343
Genre(s): Non fiction, Essays
Review Type: