Speaking of exceptional essay collections, I found myself in desperate need of a good book recommendation here lately and, as I will often do, I turned to Dunce One. I have never been so satisfactorily recommended (probably having a great deal to do with the fact that he has impeccable taste in literature and knows me better than (just about) anyone else; probably also not hurting that he is remarkably well-read and deals extensively with books, both professionally and recreationally). His recommendation? Consider the Lobster (and Other Essays) by David Foster Wallace. And it was a perfect fit: for me, for my mood, for that moment in my life.
The collection is varied and quirky, intelligent and fun, and just so…well…uniquely David Foster Wallace (“DFW”). There is no possible way that I could provide an analysis that would do the book justice, and really, each individual essay deserves its own thorough and well-thought-out post. Which I am not equipped to undertake right now. But I will give you a quick synopsis, hitting the high points, and trying to provide even just a small glimpse into his brilliance.
Big Red Son
Okay. This is a weird way to start this review, but so be it. I am going to go ahead and tell most of you to just skip this one. And by “most of you” I mean any female readers. And sensitive male readers. Really anyone that is easily offended or shocked or appalled, I just can’t, in good conscience, endorse your consumption of this first essay. Sorry.
(for any of you wondering if this is one of those situations where I am saying “hey, don’t read this” but really meaning “hey, I actually want you to read this, but don’t feel comfortable recommending it directly, so what I really want is for you to read it anyway [wink, wink],” it is not one of those situations. I am being serious).
(still not convinced? Okay. Well, this essay was first published in Premiere magazine, and recounts DFW’s covering the AVN Awards (basically the Academy Awards of adult entertainment) and corresponding expo. It is graphic, it is crude. Very much so. Funny, yes, but mostly gross (the brilliance in the article, I will confess, is in Wallace’s ability to convey this feeling of repugnance. You can’t read even his clever and intelligent account without feeling a little bit ill. And you get the feeling that that is sort of the point. Yes, he is that good). But you will be grossed out. You will be offended. If you ignore my warning, and read it anyway (which I suspect some of you will do, because that is just the way some of you are (oh, who am I kidding? I’d be doing the same thing!), then let this serve as your official caveat (i.e. the point of reference I get to come back to when you are insulted and offended and say “see, I told you so”)). You have been warned!!!
Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think
I know, crazy title, right? This article is basically a review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time. I haven’t ready any Updike (I know, for shame; I will), but DFW’s review makes me want to, even as he pretty much slams this book. He talks about Updike’s “big preoccupation” with “death and sex,” and how he has always written “mainly about himself.” Wallace explains how Toward the End of Time “concerns an extremely erudite, successful, narcissistic, and sex-obsessed retired guy.” Sounds interesting, right? But Wallace labels it “far and away [Updike’s] worst.” And yet still I want to read it.
Wallace shines when he talks about literature, managing to convey the impression that he has read everything, knows everything, but also somehow not seeming like a big smug jerk about it. Whether he has or not, I don’t know, but reading this particular article, you get the feeling he has read every one of Updike’s books, every interview with Updike, everything written by Updike (including private journals, letters, grocery lists, etc…), articles about Updike, and articles about articles about Updike. Authoritative and thorough, but also somehow fun. I don’t know, you just have to read Wallace to know what I am talking about.
Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed
A much smaller piece in this collection, Wallace here discusses how Kafka is very funny, but how his humor is lost on college students. And how trying to explain why or how he is funny only makes it worse. Somehow making the whole thing funny.
Authority and American Usage
This was (by far) my favorite. Of course I am completely biased. I have seen Bryan Garner in person, and been impressed by him and his work for some time. So when I started reading this article and saw that DFW had thoroughly analyzed Mr. Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, I knew I was in for a treat, and got downright giddy about what was to come. I was not disappointed.
Did you know there are politics at play in grammar? In dictionaries? In approaches to language?
The most interesting part of this essay was the discussion of descriptive vs. prescriptive attitudes about grammar and language. If you spend any time looking at more than one dictionary, or follow grammatical developments on any level, even casually, you have probably noticed at least a little bit of this debate. There is a school of thought that thinks proper language (particularly written language) should subscribe to a certain set of rules, and there is an opposing but equally adamant school of thought that thinks that how language is actually spoken is much more important than how the other group feels it should be written. This is a gross oversimplification, and Wallace gets into it much better than I ever could. And asks all kinds of interesting questions, like for example: how many people have to speak in a particular way, deviating from the accepted standard, before it becomes the new accepted standard? How long do these deviations need to take place before they are accepted? And so on…
(if none of this makes any sense, it is not because it is not interesting, but because I am doing a crappy job of describing it. It really is interesting, if linguistics or word-choice or writing have any appeal to you. And what I love about Garner is that he so clearly and completely loves language: grammar, vocabulary, you name it. And it is really fun watching Wallace admire all of the above in Garner).
Basically, if I could recommend just one essay from this book to anyone and everyone, it would be this one. Seek it out, I am not kidding. Everyone should read this essay. Oh, and I want to read the underlying Garner book itself now too.
The View from Mrs. Thompson’s
This was all about 9/11 and where he was/what he was doing when it happened. He was living in a small town and did not have a TV, so he went to the home of this older lady from his church. A lot of other people gathered there. His observations humanize the ordeal, and capture a perspective in time that we can probably all relate to on some level. Not his cheeriest piece, but (as always) well-written, and good if you are up for it.
I say not cheery, but even here, there is humor. He talks about one of the other people that gathered at Mrs. Thompson’s:
Duane Bracero’s main contribution is to keep iterating how much like a movie it all seems. Duane, who’s at least twenty-five but still lives at home while supposedly studying to be a welder, is one of these people who always wears camouflage T-shirts and paratrooper boots but would never dream of actually enlisting (as, to be fair, neither would I). He has also kept his hat, the front of which promotes something called SLIPKNOT, on his head indoors in Mrs. Thompson’s house. It always seems to be important to have at least one person in the vicinity to hate.
(emphasis added). Maybe not everyone can relate to this, or see the humor. But if you can, it is (I think) really, really funny.
How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart
If you didn’t already know, DFW was sort of (okay, not really “sort of”; more like “completely”) a tennis fanatic. I have never seen anything quite like it. Which I find endearing and, on some level, kind of encouraging: that this genius writer and thinker could so shamelessly love something as (in my mind) trivial as tennis. He played quite a bit, pretty competitively, when he was younger, so I think that explains a lot (but not all) of it.
This essay talks about Tracy Austin and, more specifically, her book/autobiography about her rise to and fall from greatness as a professional tennis star (I know; I had never heard of her either. But she was apparently a big deal, in her day). It’s funny, because the essay is pretty much calling the book a disappointment, but his analysis doesn’t stop there. He goes into depth about why, not just it, but all sport’s books/autobiographies are junk, why they are always disappointing, but why we all keep buying and reading them anyway. It’s funny and interesting and thought-provoking, which I guess would describe just about all of his writing for me.
This one was perhaps the most eye-opening for me, but maybe not for the reasons you would expect. Here I learned that Wallace really is one of those writers that is so good that you could read (and enjoy reading) him write about just about anything. This essay was (1) really long, and (2) about politics (ZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzz……..). And yet, I found it riveting.
This piece tracked DFW on assignment covering the 2000 presidential campaign/election, specifically the McCain campaign. He gets really behind-the-scenes, providing a glimpse into a world most of us will never see first-hand.
Two things became apparent here: (1) Wallace really saw people. Like the humanity in people. And (2) Wallace really saw things. The small things. I really enjoyed his perspective. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel alone in your perspective on the world. Do other people really think what I think? How I think? Feel how I feel? What I feel? Reading all of his pieces in this book, I really felt like he did a great job of expressing what, for lack of a better term, I will here deem his internal “-ness.” Human-ness. Real-ness. Sentient-ness. Thoughtful-ness. Thinking-ness. I don’t know.
Me personally, I know what I think, but not how to express it. But Wallace manages to articulate, not just thoughts, but processes; not just what he is seeing/thinking/feeling, but how he got there, bringing you along for the ride. I know I am gushing now, but he really was that good, and I am both envious and awed.
Consider the Lobster
This one struck me funny. Maybe it was the mood I was in, sleep-deprivation, or who knows what. I don’t know that it was intended to be funny. Maybe it was just appreciation for the fact that this article, written about the Maine Lobster Festival, and originally published in Gourmet magazine, had an anything-but-appetizing view on the mass consumption of lobsters. But I do think DFW had a really good sense of humor, whether you feel it is captured in this article or not.
Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky
You have to be really smart to add anything new or intelligent to the discussion about Dostoevsky. And in case there was any doubt, I (obviously) think Wallace was smart. Kind of like what I said about the Updike article above, reading this, you get the distinct impression that Wallace has not only read but memorized everything ever written by Dostoevsky (and everyone translating or writing about Dostoevsky, including, but not limited to, Joseph Frank). To convey such a commanding grasp on such a wide and complicated body of literature is truly something.
This article, probably my second favorite, is sprinkled with quotes/questions of undesignated origin that go along with the discussion as it progresses. For example:
Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference?
And for another:
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?
Like I said, I don’t know if these are philosophical asides he is having with himself, rhetorical asides he is suggesting a reader might have with herself, or projections of what a modern-day Dostoevsky would be thinking to himself were he around to so postulate. But they are good, and thought-provoking, and really interesting. I would highly recommend this one as well, even if you haven’t read any Dostoevsky.
The most immediately glaring thing about this article was its aggressive and creative use of footnotes. Here Wallace did things with footnotes I have never before seen done. There were footnotes within footnotes within footnotes within footnotes. No exaggeration. A footnote, as a writing technique, can be distracting and annoying. Even Wallace’s got to be a little bit exhausting, I will admit. But in that a footnote is meant to indicate an aside, or an indirectly related insight or explanation, you can see how, for a complex thinker/writer, they would be necessary. And I could, through this article especially, get a sense of his thought process, and how footnoted explanations were sometimes necessary.
He talks here about the media and the difference between information and spin. Really interesting.
One of my favorite things about Wallace’s writing is that it is funny. Subtle and intelligent, he doesn’t beat you over the head with it, and if you are not smart or paying close attention, you will miss it. But he also conveys the distinct impression that he doesn’t care. Not that he doesn’t care about you as a reader, but more just sort of a feeling like “if you get it, fine, if not, oh well.” And I am sure there is plenty I don’t get either. DFW’s writing is smarter than I am, and I am sure there are smarter people than me reading and “getting” his stuff. I long ago gave up on needing, or even wanting, to be the smartest guy in the room. But I feel smarter reading him, really enjoy what I do “get,” and would love to discuss with anyone who has any thoughts on his writing.
Thanks for the great book recommendation, D1! Right on the money!