I like David Foster Wallace's fiction a lot but, aside from the odd essay here and there, I hadn't really read any of his non-fiction until now. Consider the Lobster is a collection of ten essays (eleven in the print edition - I read the ebook, from which Host has been omitted because "it cannot be formatted for an ebook"), articles and speeches that Wallace wrote in the 1990s and early 2000s. [amtap book:isbn=034911952X]
It's the second of Wallace's two essay collections and it's filled with thoughtful, intelligent, vertiginous and frequently hilarious writing. Wallace turns his perceptive eye and warm wit on language, sport, literature, food and the porn industry.The book is held together by two pillars; the first, a review of Bryan A Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, examines the divide between prescriptive grammarians and descriptive linguists - that is, those who think that language is defined by its rules and those who think it is defined by how it is used. Though Wallace clearly belongs in the former group, he manages to set out his position without being condescending or hostile towards the opposing view - no small feat in the circumstances.
In the course of the essay, Wallace offers an interesting analysis of the way language shapes political debate. He argues that by refusing to acknowledge self-interest liberals cede ground to conservatives when discussing issues such as wealth redistribution:
"For in refusing to abandon the idea of themselves as Uniquely Generous and Compassionate (i.e., as morally superior), progressives lose the chance to frame their redistributive arguments in terms that are both realistic and realpolitikal [...] As it is, though, liberals' vanity tends to grant conservatives a monopoly on appeals to self-interest, enabling the conservatives to depict progressives as pie-in-the-sky idealists and themselves as real-world back-pocket pragmatists."
That these thoughts appear amidst an essay about grammar demonstrates the scattered thought processes that drive Wallace's writing. At its most extreme, this manifests itself in the gargantuan footnotes that lead critics to dismiss him as long-winded and show-offy. It's a matter of personal taste but I don't think he's either. There's something fundamentally good-natured about Wallace's tics, a charisma within his writing and a characteristic that one can only describe as soul. For me at least, his style doesn't become wearing and mannered, unlike some of his contemporaries.
The other pillar of the collection is Up, Simba, Wallace's essay about John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, which has since been published in a single volume, as McCain's Promise. Wallace deals even-handedly with a politician whose views are not really his own and responds in a measured, reasonable way to a political machine that is cynical and corrosive. Non-engagement is not an option, Wallace says, despite one's distaste for the process:
"If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don't bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay at home if you want but don't bullshit yourself that you're not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting, you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard's vote."
The essay - the longest in the book - also contains some enthralling observations about life on the road for the media hordes and campaign teams and a wonderfully insightful meditation on leadership.
I could go into every essay in the book in this way, the title essay about the ethics of boiling lobsters alive, for example, or the piece about Kafka's use of humour, but it would be simpler for you to just read the thing - and you should. I'll squeeze in two more extracts, however. Wallace's observations on Tracy Austin's autobiography are - given, that Wallace himself was a writer and a tennis player - fascinating. Austin's book is terrible, he notes, but then so are most sports autobiographies:
"[...] maybe we automatically expect people who are geniuses as athletes to be genuises also as speakers and writers, to be articulate, perceptive, truthful, profound. If it's just that we naively expect genuises-in-motion to be also geniuses-in-reflection, then their failure to be that shouldn't really seem any crueler or more disillusioning than Kant's glass jaw or Eliot's inability to hit the curve."
One of the most intriguing segments comes in the final essay (in the ebook edition, at least) - a review of Joseph Frank's biography of Dostoevsky. As well as containing some interesting thoughts about Dostoevsky and about translating, there's also an interesting section about contemporary fiction:
"Frank's bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarisation-flourish or some shit."
The incongrous juxtaposition in the phrase "defamiliarisation-flourish or some shit" is a pretty good example of Wallace's ironic humour but, that aside, the accusation could be - and has been, I'm sure - levelled against Wallace's own fiction. Wallace's struggle to finish The Pale King, is said to have been driven by precisely the question he asks above. He wanted to find a way to get at deep themes without the "formal tricks" of a work like Infinite Jest.
The Pale King will be published, unfinished, next year. We'll see to what extent he managed to get at the deep convictions and desperate questions of Dostoevsky.
In the meantime, I have more of Wallace's essays to read. Brilliant though they are, I do wish he'd written another novel in his lifetime instead.