Consider the Lobster And Other Essays by David Foster Wallace (2005)
David Foster Wallace, most famous for his gargantuan novel Infinite Jest (as the cover of this book of essays will tell you), is an author that has been recommended to me countless times. Infinite Jest, widely regarded as one of the best pieces of fiction in the past two decades, is over 1,000 pages in length (reportedly 200 of which are footnotes). Because of its sheer size, Jest also joins my list, like Joyce’s Ulysses and Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, of “things that I really should get around to reading the next time that I have a three-week vacation.” For this reason and my obvious curiosity with regard to (or w/r/t as Wallace would write) Wallace’s prose, I decided to select a collection of his essays which I could pick up and put down at my pathetic leisure.
Consider the Lobster… is a collection of ten essays ranging in topic from the Adult Video News Awards (yes, porn) to Republican Senator John McCain’s 2000 campaign trail. What’s most important with any non-fiction, and what Wallace is able to do incredibly well, is developing a narrative voice despite the fact that the writer is relaying facts. Otherwise, one might as well read an almanac. Wallace’s voice is crafty in that it’s stilted to a degree (his vocabulary is so expansive that I find myself using my phone’s dictionary app at least once per page – truth be told my vocabulary (not to mention grammar) is embarrassing considering that I majored in English), but never pompous or condescending. Wallace, as he tells us in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” is a self-proclaimed SNOOT (Syntax Nudnik Of Our Time); simply put, he is an extremely intelligent writer who is self-conscious of his tight-assed approach to writing.
How does Wallace engage his readers and not send them away moping with their intellectual tails between their legs? First, he offers the reader just the right amount of autobiography in order to humanize him: his hopes are dashed when he finds out that female tennis star Tracy Austin is boring, he dons a leather jacket and refers to himself only as “Rolling Stone” when asked to write an article for them out of excitement and the fear that he may just not be “cool” enough, etc…
Wallace also treats his readers as if he were having a conversation with them through the use of footnotes (and sub-footnotes, and sub-sub-footnotes).
Aside: Not unlike how yours truly, albeit much less effectively, uses “Asides” and spews parenthetical diarrhea mid-post. This marks my first meta-Aside.
Most conversation is abridged (i.e. “So I was at my friend Joe’s house the other day and, oh, I should tell you a little about Joe…exposition…and so, I was at Joe’s house and”). Wallace footnotes his articles in a similar fashion. One could of course read the articles without glossing the footnotes, however, one would also be missing some of the most interesting and humorous parts.
Above: Wallace’s arrow-ed “boxnotes” in “Host.”
At times the footnotes can be confusing and test the reader’s patience, but by and large they are a successful device.
Another thing that Wallace is able to do (like other good/great non-fiction writers) is engage an audience in something said audience would never have assumed that they could find themselves engaged in. Before reading Consider the Lobster, I would have never considered reading a review of a new dictionary (Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage in the aforementioned “Authority and American Usage”) or the story of a right-wing talk radio host (John Ziegler in “Host”).
Some of the articles do run past my attention span which is something that I know to be at least average (given the fact that I sit down to read). His best essays fall in the 5-25 page range. Wallace’s “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed” (self-conscious much?) and his treatment of the Maine Lobster Festival in the tile story are probably my favorites.
I think I’ll try some of his short stories next. I’ll get to Infinite Jest at some point this decade.