Saturday, January 3, 2009

#31 - "Consider the Lobster and Other Essays" by David Foster Wallace

Well it was bound to happen. Of course it's not possible for me to read only books that I love. And David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2006) broke my mini-streak of fantastic books that I've been reading lately. Consider the Lobster consists of ten essays of varying length on a myriad of subjects from porn to politics to literature. And although I really enjoyed some of his essays and insights, a rocky start led me to nearly abandon this book entirely.

I'm not even sure how I came to pick up this book, and when I started it I didn't know what to expect--knowing nothing about David Foster Wallace or having read anything by him before. So, it wasn't until I started writing this review that my curiosity led to a quick google search. And that's when I found out that not only did he teach at my alma mater, Pomona College, beginning the year after I graduated, but he also recently committed suicide. After pushing through to the essays I could relate to and actually enjoy, the news of his death I find especially sad because by the end of the book I had changed my initial negative impression of Wallace to someone who was sensitive and intellectually honest and with a unique perspective on some aspects of our world. It's too bad that there won't be anything more from him.

The first essay, Big Red Son, is a pretty long essay on the 1998's Annual Adult Video News Awards show held in Las Vegas and the cause of my initial negative impressions of Wallace. I started this essay pretty optimistically, assuming it would at the very least be interesting/entertaining/eye-opening. But after about fifteen pages, I started wondering how an essay on hardcore pornography could be such a drag to read. Wallace's apparent attitude towards his subjects also began to grate on my nerves. I felt that Wallace shifted between condescending and picky corrections of the porn industry's spelling and grammar errors and a fascination with the event--much like how an adolescent boy might react to seeing his first Playboy magazine. When Wallace discussed a "Mr. Vince Vouyer," of the porn industry, he "(sic)"ed him, and then "(sic[ed him], again)" the next time he wrote about him. This drove me crazy. Not only did I feel like Wallace, obviously a smart man, was simply making fun of those not as intelligent as him, but how can he sic someone's made up porn name? Can't they spell their made up name any way they choose? My other problem with this essay was the extensive footnotes that were obviously done on purpose, but I found them incredibly distracting and annoying. Wallace had footnotes to footnotes in tiny type and would go on forever, and which I consistently resented.

My impressions of Wallace did not improve considerably through the next couple of essays, and it wasn't until I reached Up, Simba that I really started to relate and like Wallace and his writing style. Up, Simba is a detailed account of Wallace and his thoughts as he follows the McCain campaign trail in South Carolina in 2000. Given that this essay was written eight years ago, it's surprisingly timely with the recently defeated McCain at its center and pertinent questions regarding the cynicism and show of politics today juxtaposed with our wish to really believe in someone. Wallace obviously admired McCain's forthright and honest persona, but he couldn't allow himself to trust that McCain was for real. I enjoyed reading about life on the campaign trail as well as Wallace's impressions of McCain, and I appreciated the relative lack of footnotes.

A couple other essays that I really enjoyed included Consider the Lobster and Host. Wallace follows a right-wing radio talk show host, giving the reader an inside look into the business as well as questioning where the media and news businesses are heading. Once again, Wallace goes a little crazy with the footnotes, this time putting them inside boxes located all over the page, but even though they were often interesting, I found them equally distracting. Consider the Lobster is a short essay about the Maine Lobster Festival, which digresses into a discussion about what a lobster feels when it is boiled alive to a short comparison with how other animals are slaughtered. As a vegetarian, I always appreciate it when non-vegetarians stop and think about where their food comes from. The hypocrisy of people who eat veal without a second thought but denigrate hunters for their "inhumanity" drive me crazy. I respect that hunters know exactly where their food comes from, and would be grateful if more people took the time to honestly reflect on the factory farms and suffering that their eating choices often entail and then make informed decisions rather than letting willful ignorance guide their way. Wallace never tells people what they should think about lobsters, but he brings up some honest questions about the consequences of our culinary choices that started to bother him at the Maine Lobster Festival. I appreciated his thoughtful honesty on the subject as well as his insight that he brought to some of his other essays. The more I read, the more I liked him, so by the end of the book my initital negative impression was almost completely erased.

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