Consider the Writer: Gifted author tempers his provocative opinions with good humor
David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster is a big, irresistible shaggy dog of a book—muddy-pawed, it never stops barking, but it’s abounding with enthusiasm and love. And just when you think it’s more trouble than it’s worth, it surprises you with a noble act or tender gesture.
This loyal, goodhearted mutt is composed of four book reviews (running from Tracy Austin’s ghostwritten autobiography to A Dictionary of Modern American Usage), one learned literary lecture (the typically playful Wallace title: “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed”), and five examples of reporting, into which the author’s vigorous, irrepressible personality is inserted to various degrees.
I’m willing to bet that somewhere, right now, some smarty-pants reviewer is writing his piece on Consider the Lobster in what he thinks is David Foster Wallace style: lots of footnotes, parenthetical reversals, portentous subheadings, etc. I can imagine how cute this reviewer thinks he is. The trouble is, he will get it wrong. For all the filigrees, Wallace is writing from his gut, in a way that’s impossible to mimic or mock. He is generous. He has fun. He is interested in things. He cares. He is very, very upset, for example, that John Updike appears to be a horny old man. The fact that Updike managed to get old, in fact, seems to be the particular offense. Yet even in “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think” (a review of Updike’s Toward the End of Time), Wallace cannot subdue his natural bigness of spirit. He never allows the reader to forget Updike’s special genius, even at the most blistering points in a harsh review.
Whenever Wallace veers toward the ugly, as he does at some points in “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s” (his lucid, affecting slice-of-life about 9/11), he corrects himself like a driver on an icy road. He is, in short, a startling writer. And just when his opinion is getting on your nerves he’ll undercut it with meek good humor, or illustrate it with an image that makes you laugh out loud. During a spirited defense of Standard Written English (“Authority and American Usage”), he drops in the picture of a little schoolyard know-it-all receiving “monstrous quadruple Wedgies,” his classmates “holding him down and taking turns spitting on him.” The tableau is suffused with a personal reality that puts the author in the position of the victim and gives the reader the bully’s edge. Even more remarkably and bravely, Wallace takes the bully’s side.
In other words, Wallace makes you feel as if it’s OK to disagree with him, even though it might hurt his feelings. What I’m trying to describe is the uncanny immediacy—in the opinion pieces, yes, but even more so in the gems of reportage: “Big Red Son,” which recounts a trip to a pornography-awards show; “Up, Simba,” on a week with John McCain during the 2000 primaries; and the aforementioned 9/11 story.
Special note must be made of the title piece. Once, before I ate a lobster dinner, I witnessed two very beautiful, nurturing and rather well-known female poets “race” the live lobsters across their kitchen floor. I knew it was evil. Now, thanks to Wallace, I know exactly why and, also, why I blithely ate my lobster minutes later.
If David Foster Wallace did not exist, we’d have to invent him. Who else, right now, will write about Dostoevsky with such passion? Who, in fact, will dare to conflate himself, subliminally, with Dostoevsky? (Wallace habitually refers to Dostoevsky as “FMD;” according to the Internet, Wallace’s fans call him “DFW.”) I am reminded of that Woody Allen line about how every time Socrates mentioned the “philosopher-king” he cleared his throat and pointed to himself. In this way, Wallace resembles Norman Mailer, a writer I admire immensely, but whom Wallace counts (along with Updike and the great Philip Roth) among the “GMN” (Great Male Narcissists).
I give them, and Wallace, some well-deserved leeway. Here, to show why, is his explanation of why he couldn’t drop everything for Rolling Stone to jump on the campaign trail with McCain: “It always takes me several days to recruit, interview, select, instruct and field-test a dogsitter.” Similarly humane (or are they canine?) sparks illuminate every page, even the most exacting and—at first blush—unforgiving.
His bark is worse than his bite.