Formal Book Review: Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

From time to time I wrote formal book reviews on works I particularly like. Previous formal book reviews have been on affirmative action, national security, the CIA and Afghanistan, and atheism. This review is on Consider the Lobster (And Other Essays) by David Foster Wallace. Thanks to Jesse Berrett for reading a draft of this.

It’s always been about David Foster Wallace. From his three-part name to his anything-but-New York-intellectual author photo, he is a man whose stubble sometimes overshadows the words. Consider the Lobster is no departure from what’s worked in the past for Wallace: essays, on everything under the sun, that can only be described as brilliantly hilarious, in part because Wallace’s self-consciousness looms so large. An essay about Senator John McCain is as much about a failed presidential run as it is about Wallace’s first foray into political journalism. An essay about English grammar subsumes the ivory-tower debates on bias in dictionaries in favor of Wallace’s own travails teaching writing to college students. And then there’s the trademark Wallace deep immersion: he goes somewhere mildly interesting (in this collection, a lobster festival) and somehow captures a rainbow of details, described with such vigor and thoroughness that the only thing we’re convinced of by the end is that only David Foster Wallace could stuff so many random moments with such perfect adjectives.

Wallace sticks to other tried-and-true techniques, cramming his essays with footnotes and sub-footnotes. This is so partly to add accompanying information, mostly to reflect Wallace’s racing mind, and predominantly to twist the conventional   relationship between body and notes: many of the gems – when he reflects on the adult video conference and its effects on young women, for example – lie in at the bottom of the page. A reader usually can choose whether or not to pursue a point more deeply in the footnote, but with Wallace you have no choice. Skip footnotes at your own risk.

As a consequence, though, some of Wallace’s essays run awfully long. "Big Red Son," on the video porn conference, is extremely tiring by the last page. The quirkiness which makes Wallace so fun to read can also be crippling; at points you say "enough, already" and plea for linear assertions. Wallace proves elsewhere he can find the balance. "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart" packs just the right amount of personal interjection with hard interpretation to provide insight about why we buy dull sports memoirs even though once-famous athletes let us down time after time with banal prose.

So Wallace succeeds when he complicates the environment he finds himself in just enough. When Wallace succeeds we are reminded why he’s a pro. Where the fledgling writer presents an erudite façade through that all-important "nuance," Wallace flagellates over-complicated theories into their bare essence via an intellect that treads as comfortably on discrete mathematics as esoteric literary theory. When he tips this balance, though – for example, his random and unrelated interpolation explaining his view on abortion – Wallace becomes too self-interested, too amused at his own wondrous ability to be entertaining and mostly right.

By the end, exhaustedly satisfied with this whirlwind of passion, the reader craves one last essay: a deeply immersed profile of David Foster Wallace himself. We are convinced of his larger than average personality and brain, and naturally have some questions: What is he like? How does he do his reporting? How does it feel to be him? There are no easy answers mainly because Wallace plays hard-to-get in the press. He did no interviews for this book. He lives an elusive life in Claremont, CA where he teaches part-time at Pomona College. There is a sense that Wallace is totally aware of this, too. It’s what makes him attractive, it’s what frustrates his readers in a delicious way: the only person who could do a just profile of David Foster Wallace is David Foster Wallace himself. And since such a piece (besides being weird) would erode the very mystique that makes Wallace interesting, readers must, somehow, find solace in the footnotes, and watch his mind work from a distance.

5 comments on “Formal Book Review: Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
  • Ben,

    For the past few weeks I have regularly been reading your blog. As a student and serial entrepreneur, I am impressed with your intellectual curiosity which is why I have continued to read what you desire to say. The purpose for my post is to question why, with your obvious wide range of interests, are more classics not on your lists. I bring this to your attention because I have a dilemma when choosing books. It normally comes down to NY best-sellers or biographies/writings/speeches of historical figures such as Mark Twain, MLK, Franklin, Booker T. Washington, Hemingway and numerous others. Each time I weigh the pros and cons and in almost every scenario I go with the “classic.” (Unless it is necessary for my field of interest – Entrepreneurship, Venture Capitalist, and of course Golf – which I am very surprised you don’t play being the prolific networker you appear to be.) I would like to hear your thought process on choosing books or do you have the mentality of just reading whatever you can get your hands on. Signing off from my first post to the Ben Casnocha Blog.

    Jon Birdsong

  • Jon: Thanks for the note. I’m insulted you would dare question my reading list.

    Just kidding.

    You have identified a source of deep existential angst. I enjoy certain facets of history and certain quote unquote classics. But I don’t like them as much as modern stuff. And that’s basically what it comes down to: life’s too short to not do what you like, and so skipping some classics may not be the most “useful” but it’s not as fun. The reason I have angst is b/c I know I SHOULD be reading more classics/history/biography, but I have gotten along just fine without.

    I agree that NYT Best Sellers alone is not enough, but there is plenty of interesting, modern stuff in the academic world and in the popular press that’s worth reading. In fact the best sellers are so thoroughly talked about/reviewed that I didn’t even have to read Blink, for example, to get the main idea.

    My thought process for choosing books is a blend of both your examples. On the one hand I am scrupulous in only buying books people I respect recommend to me or those that are intelligently reviewed in publications. I never randomly search a bookstore or the web to buy a book. And since I read so many reviews and book-oriented periodicals, and since I have a lot of friends who read, I am overwhelmed w/ recommendations. I have 40 books on my bookshelf to read and another 130 on my Amazon wish list.

    On the other hand I think people are usually far TOO scrupulous. Think about it. If you spend $15 on a book and get three big, important ideas out of it, it’s probably the best investment you’ve ever made. Plus, if a book is bad, you can simply put it down.

    I don’t do the golf/networking thing because everyone does it, which makes it uninteresting and unoriginal.

  • Somewhat contrary to Jon, I’m glad to see that you’ve broken out of the “classics” mold that high school tends to get you into and are exploring the realm of contemporary literature. Wallace is a great place to start and I applaud you for being ambitious enough to read him; a lot of people are simply too intimidated by his word usage or copious footnotes to really find the good stuff in his work (many reviewers of Infinite Jest, for example, admitted to not finishing it before writing their review).

    What did you think of his essay on the inherent humor in Kafka’s work? Wallace typically has layers in his work, so I’m hesitant to just take it at face value. I think there was some sort of self-referential hinting at the inherent absurdity of taking Kafka seriously, but I was curious if anyone else had picked up on this. What do you think?

  • Jesse, thanks for the comment. I didn’t really sink my teeth into the Kafka one. I found it interesting at times, but haven’t given it much thought. Unfortunately I’ve already loaned the book out so can’t go back and reference!

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