Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

Little Brown 2005 384 pp. $25.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


David Foster Wallace has once again cleaned out his desk drawer, and boy are we the lucky ones.  Consider the Lobster is a successor volume to the funniest set of essays I’ve ever read, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.  This latest collection of DFW’s previously published essays begins in 1998, where the earlier volume left off.

Such is Wallace’s erudition and journalistic competence that it’s only later that you realize that you’ve read essays about a porn industry awards show, why Tracy Austin is a heartbreaker, the best 700-page guide on grammar and usage yet published, John McCain’s appeal, why Kafka is a laff riot, and the morality of cooking live lobsters, among other wildly disparate topics.  But these aren’t inconsequential dips into a topic, written for a page limit and a deadline: if you sent Wallace out for cigarettes, he’d return with secret internal memos from R. J. Reynolds, a recipe for tobacco trout, a history of Sir Walter Raleigh’s search for South American cities of gold, a survey on the research of the psychoactive and pharmacological effects of nicotine, and a small tobacco plant, with instructions on care and harvesting.  Whether the bag would actually contain any cigarette packs is anyone’s guess, but you wouldn’t care much either.

“Big Red Son” (don’t ask) reveals how deeply stupid and profoundly repellent most members of the porn industry are, while exhibiting an impressive and detailed knowledge of individual products of this four billion dollar industry.  None of the material in the essay is suitable for quotation in a family newspaper.

The essay on John Updike situates the revered author in the context of his contemporaries, and mercilessly demonstrates the ongoing limitations of Updike’s beloved characters, using Toward the End of Time’s Ben Turnbull as an example: “It’s that he persists in the bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants to is a cure for human despair.”

DFW is no less succinct and acute with Kafka, whose humor, Wallace notes, is too often missed.  He identifies “the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self result in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle.”

Readers may shy away from a book that spends sixty-one pages reviewing Bryan A. Gardner’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.  However, this is one of the best short accounts around of why “questions about our national consensus on grammar and usage are actually bound up with every last social issue that millennial America’s about—class, race, sex, morality, tolerance, pluralism, cohesion, equality, fairness, money: you name it.”

Given John McCain’s public presence in the current torture “debate,” an account of his presidential campaign may strike one as dated.  But DFW’s musings on why a man with so many reactionary positions can awaken passion in so many young people is worth the price of the book—he seems to get at the heart of the conundrum of democratic political elections staged in a society in which consumer has replaced citizen.

Fair warning should be given to those new to DFW: he tends to digress, his digressions have digressions, his footnotes—which are long and detailed—have (no kidding) themselves footnotes.  Unlike his novels and “short” stories, where the digressiveness gets book-tossingly annoying (I stopped on page 352 of Infinite Jest’s 1079 pages), the digressions in these essays feature a thinker on the trail of an answer, one who is willing to go wherever it takes him. 

One wonders what the New York Times’ Alison Mitchell, a busmate of DFW’s on the McCain trail, thought of her description, “a slim calm kindly lady of maybe 45 who wears dark tights, pointy boots, a black sweater that looks home-crocheted, and a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one long request for clarification.”  I laughed out loud, here and elsewhere.  On your next trip to amazon, consider, as it were, the lobster.