Monday, September 13, 2010

Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, a Review

"But if I decide to decide there’s a different, less selfish, less lonely point to my life, won’t the reason for this decision be my desire to be less lonely, meaning to suffer less overall pain? Can the decision to be less selfish ever be anything other than a selfish decision?"
 Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays is a non-fiction book by the late, acclaimed journalist and novelist David Foster Wallace. I first heard of DFW on a recent NPR interview, and, like many NPR stories, I found his life fascinating. Then a good friend of mine was talking about him and it reminded me of the interview, and soon after he loaned me a few DFW books. Wallace was a highly intelligent man with an enormous vocabulary and an unusual-but-enthralling writing style. He is widely renown for his command of language and syntax, and it's nearly impossible to read his writing without a dictionary. Wallace is arguably one of the strongest writers of the 20th century.  This is the first book of his I've read. The essays are reviewed in the order in which I read them.

"Consider the Lobster" was written for Gourmet magazine in 2004. Wallace took a trip up to the Maine Lobster Festival and was hired to write about his experiences there. He goes in to great detail about lobster cooking, how there's a huge boiler that can cook a hundred lobsters at a time. He talks about how smelly the MLF is, how hot the weather was, and how long the lines were. Then he discusses lobster biology in great detail and eventually delves into the heart of the article: do lobsters feel pain when they're being boiled alive? The piece was quite interesting, both objectively and subjectively. Wallace articulates the arguments for and against in his normal style, but he throws in his genuine confusion about the subject as well. He explains that he has certain animals he likes to eat and that he just prefers not to think about what they have to go through in order for us to eat them, to which he then muses on our minds ignoring these ugly truths. By the end of the article, Wallace has made no clear choice about lobsters and whether or not they feel, and neither had I. I just wonder how Gourmet felt about this piece?

In "Up, Simba," Wallace was hired as a pencil for the famously liberal Rolling Stone to write about one of the 2000 Presidential candidates. Wallace was put with Sen. John McCain. The piece is long (nearly 80 pages) and sometimes trying, but the overall quality of the essay was excellent. If you've ever wondered what it's like to be on the campaign trail, not the Hollywood-style glitzy trail, but the Real-World-lots-of-downtime-bored-out-of-your-mind-extremely-hectic trail, then you'll love "Up, Simba." The piece doesn't really get deep into politics, but instead muses on the authenticity of McCain and various other politicians. Wallace is constantly torn between whether or not McCain is genuine in his concern, or, letting his inner cynic take over, the man is just putting out an image. The article was revealing and interesting and slightly boring all at the same time, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. By the end, as with "Consider the Lobster," Wallace has made no choice on McCain's genuineness. For me, the cynic was silent and I dared to believe.

"How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart" is a short review of tennis star Tracy Austin's autobiography. It was written for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Wallace played competitive juniors tennis when he was younger and he decided to read and review the famous starlet's book. He basically said it was rubbish, horribly written, badly edited, and offered little-to-no real insight on Austin. He then goes on to muse on our [American people's, not mine] fascination with celebrities and why we want to read about their lives, especially athletes. This piece was quite thought-provoking, and its brevity makes it much easier to read in one sitting.

"Big Red Son," written for Premiere magazine, is Wallace's account of the AVN Awards, which is basically like the Academy Awards for adult videos. Reading this piece was kind of like staring at a train wreck. I was repulsed a few times, but equally intrigued. Largely, while Wallace does cover the adult video industry, he goes into inane details about certain performers or directors/producers lives outside the screen, and this is possibly even more terrifying than the sex. The lack of humanity in many of the people is frightening. The vain "look at me and laud me" attitudes was loathsome. And the apathetic views of some directors (e.g. Max Hardcore), not caring how humiliating a situation will be for a "starlet," was downright sickening. Wallace talks about the awkwardness of the situation, standing in the bathroom between two male performers, silently obeying male-urinal etiquette. He muses how odd it is to be behind a woman in the buffet line that he's seen up close and personal. He talks about how cheap and foreign everything is, from the awards show itself to the people there. By the end of "Big Red Son," it's easy to see Wallace's disgust with the business and I shared his sentiments. It's just mind blowing how crude some people can be. Still, this essay is worth the read, if only to somewhat try and understand a group of people you'll never be able to really understand.

"Authority and American Usage" is a massive, exhausting book review of Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. I read about a third of this piece before I abandoned it. I just really didn't care much about the finer points of American usage, and there were way too many words I didn't understand. Hardcore English fans may enjoy this, but I couldn't do it.

"The View from Mrs. Thompson's" recounts Wallace's experience with 9/11 and the following days. I really liked this piece a lot, the way he mused and questioned the Horror. Possibly my favorite short essay in the collection.

"Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky" was particularly interesting because I like Dostoevsky (though as of writing this I've not read any of his books) and I wanted to read Wallace's thoughts of the man. This piece is actually a review of Joseph Frank's books on Dostoevsky, arguing that Frank's works are unique and great. Throughout this piece Wallace inserts random philosophical musings (see intro. quote), asking deep questions that at times make you stop and think seriously about things. I enjoyed this essay quite a bit, and recommend it if only for the philosophy.

The three remaining essays I did not read. I had no interest in the odd way "Host" was arranged on the page, nor did I care about the subject. Similarly, I never liked Kafka and had no desire to read Wallace's views on him, and the same goes for the review of John Updike work.

All in all, Consider the Lobster was a great read. It falls into a genre I never read, essays, and the break from the norm was fun. I felt like I was slowly learning a bit about Wallace's life with each piece I read. Wallace's cynicism gets heavy throughout some works, and it's really no surprise to learn that the man eventually killed himself. Still, his writing is top-notch, his essays are enjoyable, and his musings mix humor with serious questions.  (I mean, go back and re-read the introduction quote at the top of this post.  How profound is that?  After I read that line I literally said, "Huh."  The guy knows how to make you think.)   Everyone should read a few DFW essays in their life, and Consider the Lobster is a great place to start.


David Wagner said...

Dang, that review must have taken some time to put together. Thanks for the effort.

Not sure I'll pick it up any time soon - I have WAY too many other titles trying to grab my attention, especially now that me and my iPad are inseparable. I can get free "samples" of any book they have on iBooks! OMG, it's like Christmas every day! So I have all the unread wonderfulness on my real shelves, and now on my virtual shelves as well! Oy!

I may check this title out on iBooks and see if I can grab a sample.

Thanks for the review!

Anonymous said...

will have to check this out. I love authors who require a dictionary at the elbow!

we own Wallace's Infinite Jest which I won't touch until the husband finally finishes it. However, Consider the Lobster appears manageable.


logankstewart said...

@Dave: Aye, a bit o' time, but I wrote a mini-review after each essay I read then added some unity & cohesion. An iPad?! Now I'm jealous.

@L: Unfortunately, DFW uses so many unknown words that it's rather a tedious task reading most essays. Infinite Jest is on my TBR list, but it has a low position of importance.