maarmie's musings

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Book: Consider the Lobster And Other Essays by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is one hell of a writer.1


1 I've tried to read Infinite Jest and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, really I have. But, for some reason, David Foster Wallace just didn't stick to me in the past. You know, stick? We didn't groove. Click. Jive. See eye to eye. Or maybe his arrogance was too much for me. He's way too practiced at it, using words like suppurate, polemical, interpolation and Hericlitean and phrases like "ab ovo usque ad mala" - and seeming to know what they actually mean. Trouble was (is), I was (am) arrogant but didn't (don't) have nearly as wide a vocabulary as he. That bothered (bothers) me. In book stores, I made (make) it a practice of scoffing at books in the "writing" section meant to boost word knowledge and made (make) a big show of flipping through them and laughing at the many words that should be in some junior high textbook somewhere, and likely are. Trouble was, I had no forum for my arrogance which made his arrogance somehow more believable, more credible. So, DFW has been, in a roundabout, I'm-a-paranoid-psycho kind of way, discrediting me all these years.

Now that I can publish my own damn self (not in as prestigious a forum as that of DFW - I am well aware of that, but still, just humor me), I have taken it upon myself to shrug that big, fat chip off my shoulder and pick up a copy of Consider the Lobster And Other Essays by the king of pomposity who, maybe for once or maybe for always and I'm just now noticing, finally got it right. Once I got over my initial shock and anger at his having actually had the balls to capitalize the word "and" in the title (smacks of the capital "t" in The New York Times, don't you think? And he's certainly not better than or even on par with those sharp pencils over at The Times. I don't know who he's trying to fool) I sat down, silenced the seething and read.

Winning stories in this collection include Big Red Son, Authority and American Usage, The View from Mrs. Thompson's, How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart and Up, Simba. I read the title essay, Consider the Lobster, and subsequently learned a little about the annual Maine Lobster Festival and a whole lot about the debate over whether lobsters cry or scream when tossed head-first into a pot of boiling water. But the story fell flat. I know he knows it. He must.

However boring, the story had some effect, though, it seems, because it prompted me to feel a shitload of remorse over the smoked chicken breast I ate for lunch that day and caused me to look up photos of slaughterhouse interiors on the internet. Those hooks and chains and knives and big, steel drums filled with blood and mucus were not a pretty sight. I won't be eating beef or pork or chicken anytime soon, I assure you.

Feel free to skim or skip Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think, Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed, Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky and Host. These stories suck, and DFW knows it. He must.

Big Red Son starts out with numerical data involving self castration, a subject that always brings a smile to my face, and continues on about the porn industry and its version of the Academy Awards. The essay contains lots and lots and lots of funny-as-hell details about porn stars and porn movies and insider info and even touches on more serious tangential issues like STDs, body image and harm done or not done to women as a whole based on the porn industry's objectification of them. To wit:

"'s occurred to Max that he wants to show your corresps. something from this week's filming that he thinks will sum up his particular porn genius better than any amount of exposition could...and then, reseated, he starts flipping through a notebook to find something.

" 'What it is is we got this one little girl back in the trailer, and after some face-fucking and reaming her asshole and, like, your standard depravities, we get her to stick a pen - no, a what-do-you-call...' "

"Crewman: 'Magic Marker.' "

"Max: '...Magic Marker, stick it up her asshole and write all this...this stuff,' holding up the notebook, opened to a page; again he has us pass it around:

I'm a little fuckhole

is thereon written in a hand that seems impressively legible, considering. Dick Filth makes a waggish inquiry about future film plans involving this girl and a typewriter, but Max doesn't laugh (we notice that Max never laughs at a joke he hasn't told), and so neither does anyone else."

Yeah. Cute.

Big Red Son is the story that instilled in me the knowledge that it is perfectly acceptable to relegate paragraphs and paragraphs of information as well as near-complete stories to the footnotes portion of a page. Authority and American Usage solidifies this new knowledge with more footnotes than non-footnotes and makes me laugh at DFW's genius use of arrogance in a making-fun-of-arrogant-people-by-appearing-foolishly-arrogant kind of way. Then I realize the character in that story (who is actually DFW as DFW only more DFWishly than DFW may or may not be) might be similar to myself standing in the "writing" section of a book store.

The View From Mrs. Thompson's is about Bloomington, Illinois, where DFW appears to have lived at some point - if this essay can be believed to be a true and accurate account of a day in DFW's life. It's not a remarkable story in any way other than that it has a few interesting sentences and descriptions and it gives me a pre-visit peek at the small, corn-growing city of Bloomington and its pasty, grumpy-in-the-wintertime, TV-loving, overweight, naiive and simple people. I am coincidentally going there next month to visit a friend who moved there a year ago from Providence. She has been bitching about the place since she moved there.

Tracy Austin broke DFW's heart when some crappy, ghostwritten memoir about her life was published. The story about this catastrophe is well written and seems to have both a soul and heart. Or not. Two thumbs up. But the most shining example of writing at its finest can be found in Up, Simba, the complete version of a shortened Rolling Stone piece he wrote about John McCain on the McCain campaign trail. DFW didn't lower himself to doing the same old boring piece about this press availability or that or the candidate's stand on "the issues." He captured, instead, with equal parts humor and gravity, a complete and complex overview of the campaign process from what life was like on the campaign trail to the myriad of people who covered it to McCain himself and what kind of candidate (and man) he really was and is - or wasn't and isn't - and why people should and do care about it all - or don't.


The Misanthrope said...

I was just in awe of DFW's writing expertise. I thoroughly enjoyed the "Big Red Son."

I enjoyed your review of the book.

maarmie said...

Yep. I admit it. I'm jealous as hell, and I might force myself to go back and read his other stuff now. Damn him!