Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Review: Consider The Lobster

Consider The Lobster, by David Foster Wallace
8/10, intelligent, funny observations on a wide range of topics of today's life

I really liked Wallace's "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," and "Consider The Lobster" is a similar series of essays, with, it turns out, similar strengths and pitfalls.

In this book, Wallace looks at the Adult Video News awards, sports autobiographies, English usage, 9/11, talk radio, John Updike, John McCain, and, of course, lobsters. None of the essays are as laboriously academic and thick as his TV essay from ASFTINDA; on the other hand, none of them are as laugh-out-loud funny as the title essay or the State Fair one. Wallace is at his best when combining his considerable intellect with his also-considerable frank self-deprecation. The funniest part of this book, for me, was a footnote in which he confesses the problems he has with figuring out how to politely end a conversation, and the troubles it's caused him. That insecure, over-analytical person was the highlight of ASFTINDA (the titular essay), but in "Consider the Lobster," he mostly appears more subtly, in the labeling of certain sections of essays as "INTERJECTION: OPINION" or "INTERJECTION THAT IS MORE OBJECTIVE THAN MIGHT AT FIRST GLANCE BE EXPECTED," for example.

Still, Wallace is either the smartest funny writer, or the funniest smart writer, working today. It's just that the humor in "Consider The Lobster" is somewhat restrained. He still has his signature footnotes sprinkled throughout the text, and discusses a large number of subjects with what is, when you think about it, a rather astonishing level of authority and knowledge. The Adult Video News award essay, which leads off the book, is one that you would expect to be full of humorous situations. Instead, there are some chuckles, but most of the situations just leave you shaking your head, either in disbelief or in sympathy (there should be a shorter word here denoting sympathy for people who are unaware that they are tragic figures). It is, perhaps intentionally, similar to the effect Wallace describes of watching too many adult films, in which the intimacy taken out of context and made public just becomes uncomfortable more than titillating (in fact--this would be a footnote if it were one of his essays--Wallace describes several times the odd sensation of meeting people whose genitals you have seen close up on a TV screen).

I loved the essay on English usage, and this blog's readership might be more disposed to agree with me than the general public would. I find it hard to believe, just from my own experience, that most people would be interested in the origins and philosophical differences between the prescriptive and descriptive camps of dictionary-writing and style guides. I thought it was cool. When I took a Linguistics class in my freshman year of college, I came home and told my father that any form of language that accurately conveyed the intended meaning of the speaker was correct because it was accomplishing its purpose. He and his English degree scorned that concept ("is that what I'm spending all this money for you to learn?") without really clarifying his argument. I've since drifted to a sort of middle ground, which is more or less where Wallace finds himself as well.

Sometimes, as with the Updike essay and the lobster essay, Wallace just writes too much about a simple question or premise. His digressions are usually interesting if you're the sort of person who just wants to know things about everything, as he obviously is. If you are, then you'll enjoy this book. If you're not, you should try to find some of his writing online (like this excellent essay on Roger Federer, not in CTL), and just pick and choose his essays rather than buying a whole book that's going to be hit or miss for you. And if you are looking for an introduction to his writing, start with "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." "Consider The Lobster" is more of the same, only slightly less so.


Lyric said...

Wow, I definitely want to check this out now. I haven't read him before, but the prescriptive/descriptive essay alone probably would have sold me. :-)

I also want to let you know - we met briefly at Further Confusion in January of this year at some sort of panel, and I just recently started reading your blog through LJ. I'm really enjoying both your observations on writing and reviews. Thanks for providing such interesting content.

Tim Susman said...

Hey, thanks for reading! I met a few people at the panels; which were you? I'll be at FC again this year, next to the Sofawolf table. Stop by and say hi. :)

If you just want to read that essay, it's online here, but I warn you that it's actually easier to read and appreciate the footnotes in the print edition. However, this will give you a good flavor of it.

Lyric said...

I'm friends with Watts Martin- I think we walked into the "Furries in Literature" panel together. A bunch of us, including you (I think?), all ended up trying to explain furry fandom to this ex-navy guy who came to the con with no connection to it whatsoever. He just liked animals (wolves in particular). :-)

Anyway, I definitely need to make some more Sofawolf purchases, though I doubt it will happen until after the holidays. I enjoyed Breaking the Ice, which was the collection I purchased in January. Unfortunately, I doubt I'll be at FC this year - it's a long trek from central Florida - but I hope you have a great turnout.