CONSIDER THE LOBSTER AND OTHER ESSAYS
by David Foster Wallace
Back Bay Books, 2006
Paperback, 343 pages
While reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again last summer, I was alternately blown away by David Foster Wallace’s intelligence, chuckling at his sense of humor, frantically looking up words in my phone’s dictionary app, and baffled as to why I was reading a 70-page essay about a director whose films I’ve never seen (David Lynch). Mostly, though, I loved it. I was crazy about the way Wallace can make any topic interesting and just how ridiculously smart he is. I don’t know how it took me a year to read another of his books, but I finally read Consider the Lobster!
This collection features essays on topics as broad as the porn industry, the humor in Kafka’s work, John Updike’s penis obsession, and conservative talk radio hosts. Once again, my mind was pretty much constantly exploding while reading these essays. DFW has this way of making me feel at once really stupid (How have I never thought about that? What does that even mean? This is kind of over my head.) and also kind of smart. (Hey! I get this part! I’m learning new crazy new concepts, and now I know what words mean!) Although he uses a lot of fancy vocab that I’m not familiar with, I like the way he makes me work for my understanding. I have to look up words in the dictionary to understand his points sometimes, and that is rewarding.
One of my favorite pieces was “Authority and American Usage,” a 60-page review of Bryan Garner’s new Dictionary of Modern American Usage. I’m interested in grammar, and this essay tickled all of my fancies. In addition to talking about the merits of this book, Wallace discusses the differences between the two schools of grammar, prescriptivist and descriptivist, and makes really interesting arguments for and against them. I had no idea there WERE multiple approaches to grammar usage and my inner word nerd was totally fascinated.
“Up, Simba” is about Wallace’s week as a Rolling Stone journalist on John McCain’s campaign trail before the 2000 primary. He describes (the totally unglamorous) life on the trail, contemplates the inscrutability of John McCain as a person, and offers really interesting insights into campaign strategy. I was intrigued to learn exactly why saying, “I’m not going to vote because I don’t like either candidate and I don’t want to participate in the system,” is invalid. Essentially, if all the moderate people don’t vote because of apathy, only the more extreme people entrenched in their parties will vote, and they will vote the way their parties tell them to. So if you don’t vote, you’re effectively voting for the party-backed candidate.
The title essay was one of the most fun to read. DFW covers the Main Lobster Festival, where thousands of people flock to eat lobster and take in the “local flavor,” which of course is destroyed by the thousands of tourists descending upon the region. This is really only a tiny part of the essay, though. Mostly, Wallace is concerned with the ethics of eating lobster. Do lobsters feel pain? If they do feel pain, do they have the emotional capacity to experience it as unpleasant? Why, at the MLF, is the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker such a highly advertised spectacle when a World’s Largest Killing Floor at the Nebraska Beef Festival would be totally unimaginable? It’s a really entertaining, thought-provoking essay about our relationship with the food we eat that raises questions about how we justify eating living things.
I loved Consider the Lobster and Other Essays; David Foster Wallace is entertaining, funny, informative, and incredibly smart. Sometimes the footnotes-within-footnotes are difficult to follow (especially in “Host,” which uses mapped boxes connected by arrows instead of actual footnotes), but the added insights were always fun to read. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of DFW’s work! Does anyone have recommendations for where to go from here? I don’t think I’m quite ready for Infinite Jest.
Some words I had to look up:
Solipsist, synesthetic, satyriasis, anomie, senescnece, dysphemism, solecistic, salvos, pleonastic, sesquipedelian, heliogabaline, abstruse, autotelic, involuted, androsartorial, lapidary, cancrine, amentia, hortatory, synechdoche, athwart, gonfalon, luxated, germane, prolegomenous, nictitating, torsions, styptic, jingoistic, atavistic