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.

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