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Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace


I've got to apologize from my long Blogulabsence and confide in you all that I have had the hardest time finishing any book at all in the last three weeks. It's absurd, really, that I would rather spend fifteen hours of my free time watching reruns of forensic procedurals on the Internet than reading. I know that's par for the course for some, and now I feel you, but for me it was kind of alarming. And believe me, I earned this one. I'd never read any DFW before, so I thought I'd ease in with some nonfiction, but I seriously considered giving up halfway through the sixty-one-page review of a usage dictionary. This is not to say DFW isn't a good writer; he's an incandescent writer. This is not to say that DFW is not enjoyable to read, because he's probably one of the warmest, most personable essayists I've ever encountered. This is to say that DFW is SO MUCH SMARTER THAN ME that about three quarters of the time I feel dwarfed by his intellect and throwing in the towel seems like the only possible option.

David Foster Wallace committed suicide in September of last year following a long, hard struggle against clinical depression that seems to have informed much of his fiction. (If you don't know a lot about him, this New Yorker article is thorough and fantastic.) His most famous work is Infinite Jest, a long (and I mean long...1104 pages, to be exact) postmodern tragicomedy that would be at the top of the Young Hipster Male Aspirational Reading List if indeed such a thing existed. Wallace's nonfiction, however, seemed to have had a restorative effect on him; it came easier than fiction, and he actually enjoyed it. That's obvious in Consider the Lobster, a collection of (expanded) essays first published in Premiere and The Atlantic Monthly, Gourmet and Rolling Stone, among others.

Wallace's tone is brisk and familiar; he has a good-natured appreciation for the absurd (c.f. almost anything and everything in the essay about the 1998 Adult Video News Awards) and an appropriately deep respect for more sober issues. Despite the fact that his essays can be challenging at times, Wallace is so damn likeable that the desire to hang out with him longer completely outweighs the natural aversion to, say, two-page-long footnotes debating the philosophical specifics of linguistic theory. Another great quality of Wallace's work is that he seems absolutely certain about very little; he doesn't deliver pat stump speeches on various topics; none of the essays are focused on What He Learned. Instead, Wallace lets you in on his thought process, asking questions, tugging at issues and arguments from all sides, trying to settle on something that works for him (and, hopefully, for the reader).

Nowhere is there better evidence of this than in the seventy-eight page (again, expanded) article originally written for Rolling Stone entitled "Up, Simba." It concerns the McCain 2000 GOP presidential nomination campaign, and it is a riveting piece of journalism from someone who jokes that he has "NOT A POLITICAL JOURNALIST" on his resume. Wallace, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who considered many of McCain's politics "scary" at best, came to deeply admire McCain during his first-time bid for the presidency. But as the campaign dragged on post-McCain's surprise New Hampshire victory, Wallace became afraid of both his credulity (his real belief in McCain's "not to Be Somebody but to Do Something" agenda) and his cynicism (his nagging suspicion that McCain's uncommon humility, strength, and vigor was simply yet another political spin tactic), and really struggled with whether or not to believe his first inclinations that McCain was a good man, a hero, the same person who was shot down over North Vietnam, tortured, and refused to leave his prison until his fellow POWs were also released. All of that is apparent right there on the page. As someone who enjoys essays, I can tell you that you don't often get that, and it's invigorating.

All of the pieces in this collection are great, with the exception of Authority and American Usage (the aforementioned dictionary essay), which is both great and tedious at times, but my favorite has to be "The View from Mrs. Thompson's", a (relatively; Wallace's work generally skews long) short recollection about September 11, which he did not experience forty blocks away from Ground Zero, as most writers and journalists who choose to take on the subject seem to have done. Wallace was in Bloomington, IL at the time, as he was then a professor at Illinois State University. He spent most of September 11 watching the television reports with a bunch of smart, innocent elderly women, then most of September 12 canvassing the town in search of a flag to decorate his lawn like the rest of his neighbors. Unremarkable, yes, but in the hands of David Foster Wallace, ripe with meaning and opportunities to deliberate upon such.

I wish I'd started reading David Foster Wallace before he died. I can't help but look at every word through the lens of his death, not because I think it's relevant to the subject at hand, but because the familiarity of his address makes reading him feel like a conversation, a conversation that can only go so far now. We'll never know what Wallace thought of McCain, someone he'd grown to like and admire, throughout the 2008 campaign. It makes me sad to think that, after eight years of hating the hell out of Bush, Wallace didn't get to see Obama inaugurated. And it's hard to accept, as a writer, that Wallace felt he had to leave the world with his work incomplete--there is evidence that he didn't think he was the right writer to accomplish what it was he wanted to do.

What David Foster Wallace wanted to do was use good writing to make people feel less alone in the world. Whether or not he was convinced that he couldn't achieve this, the truth is that he could--that he did--because I now feel that I could read him on any subject, from fly fishing to brake mechanics to the origins of the Post-It note, and no matter the level of difficulty I would stick it out to the end and wish for more. Reading DFW is like taking a road trip with a dear friend, and nothing makes a challenge easier than having someone with you every step along the way.

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  1. Blogger Sean | 10:52 PM |  

    i'd love to read infinite jest but i can't get over how long it is. i have a very hard time reading books that are over 350 pages. what is there to say that takes 1,000 pages? brevity is my favorite thing.

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