Considering the Lobster

“David Foster Wallace is sui generis on a stick.”

–  Robert McCrum, Observer

“He’s so modern he’s in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us. Goddamn him.”

 – Zadie Smith

David Foster Wallace’s essay on Franz Kafka entitled, ‘Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed’, from the book Consider the Lobster is probably the best thing I have read all year. I actually emerged from the six or so pages with a genuine, consummate ‘wow!’ I purchased Consider the Lobster from my new favourite (second-hand) bookstore, the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Glenferrie Road, Armadale.

You wouldn’t expect to find an outpost of a charity organisation in Armadale, but it’s a fantastic place to buy books. I bought T.C. Boyle’s After the Plague in hardback for about $15 and a couple of other things for two-thirds of fuck-all. I find that second-hand bookshops are becoming increasingly expensive, so to be able to pick up a book for between five to ten dollars is my kind of joy.

That aside, I have been driven to read Wallace on account of the buzz that surrounds him. One of my favourite Australian writers, novelist and journalist Malcolm Knox, wrote a gushing piece about Wallace in The Monthly. Sam De Brito has also written a bit about him and his apparent greatness. The gush continues on the back cover of Lobster; I posted some of the comments above.

I have read the thing now, and I have to say that one of my most salient responses is suspicion. Granted, you find your way to things on the basis of word-of-mouth, but sometimes, you’ve got to wonder what it is that floats the currency.

Reading some comments in relation to Wallace, it sounds a bit like all the other kids ascribing admiration for a popular kid as a way to increase their own status. Not something I would want to accuse Knox of, but we only know a writer in terms of the fragments of them that turn up as published works.

The supposition that persists about discerning one artifact from another is that we discriminate on aesthetic grounds – whether something is ‘good’ or not, according to our own subjective opinion. At this point in history it’s accepted that such judgements are relative, but there has to be some quality that makes us speak favourably about a book, whether it’s the prose, or the plot, or the insights.

And this is where I start to wonder about Wallace. To be frank, the Kafka essay is, to me, as good as this kind of thing gets. But the overall quality of the book is patchy. The essay on the US porn industry awards, ‘Big Red Son,’ is dull and brims with bland, bourgeoisie evaluations. The essay on following John McCain down the campaign trail is unremittingly dull, even though the position Wallace succeeds in taking on McCain the candidate – a highly admirable man with a host of fairly unattractive policies and opinions – is rendered in a genuinely remarkable way.

The shittiest end of the stick, for my money, are the two essays entitled ‘Authority and American Usage’, a review of Oxford University Press’ publication of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage and the final essay in the collection, Host. ‘…American Usage’ is sadistic in its dullness.

Wallace begins by talking about the book and then segues into an anecdote about his family who were semantic snobs, terming themselves snoots, who had evolved a whole culture of nerdy word games with which to amuse themselves.

Host showcases what is, purely in my opinion, Wallace at his worst. The entire layout of the article is festooned with footnotes slotted into rectangular boxes that float around the page. Most of it is extraneous information, and dull to boot.

This is where I find Wallace at his weakest; in showing us what I assume is a highly intelligent, meticulously organised mind, we become bored and distracted by minutiae which doesn’t amount to much more than showing off.

***

I think David Foster Wallace’s literary reputation has been boosted by his tragic suicide. Art has a good amount of it; a person’s credibility seems to increase at least ten per cent if they kill themselves outright (Cobain, another wildly over-rated artist) or slowly (Bukowski, Dylan Thomas), proving that, because of their immense talent, they are simply too fragile to remain vibrating on this mortal coil.

‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’, Wallace’s review of Tracy Austin’s autobiography, is as good as the Kafka essay. Wallace laments that sports biographies of this kind are always unremittingly shit-house, because athletes always regurgitate asinine clichés to describe their intimate experience.

Wallace explains his own personal investment in reading Austin’s book, having been a tennis player himself. He could never reduce himself down to a simple, focused imperative on the court.

‘But what if I double-fault here and go down a break with all these folks watching? …don’t think about it… yeah but except if I’m consciously not thinking about it then doesn’t a part of me have to be thinking about it in order for me to be not supposed to be thinking about? Shut up, quit thinking and serve the goddamn ball… except how can I even be talking to myself about not thinking about it unless I’m still aware of what it is I’m talking about not thinking about?’                   

p. 154

When a person directly interrogates a subject, the truest thing they reveal is themselves. And I suspect Wallace’s success in doing that to these essays transcending their original publications to be compiled into a collection of their own.

I have photocopied the Kafka essay for a couple of people, one of whom is a highly intelligent, 75 year old friend of mine. I asked what he thought of it, and he said, “You can see how he [Wallace] ended up the way he did.” I hope he got to read Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, beforehand. It was amazing – and everything Austin’s clearly wasn’t.

I came away from Consider the Lobster feeling that I had read a patchy book which, at its best was genuinely amazing. If anything, rather than staring into the soul of a fragile maybe-genius, reading it felt a lot more like peering into the fractured prism of a mentally ill person whose intellect is the primary driver behind his disease.

The experience of reading him is like peering down into the prism of his mind. As you look closer, the more obvious the footnotes become, scrawled thick and spidery, all over the walls.

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One Response to “Considering the Lobster”

  1. Amusingly, I had the mirror-image reaction to your own: I shrugged at the end of the Kafka bit, and thought the pieces on porn, McCain and talk show hosts to be the standouts. I did like the Austin piece though, so annoyingly we have a convergence of opinion there.

    You should check out a recording of a speech he did for some graduating students at Kenyon College: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5THXa_H_N8. Again, you can see the signs of where he’d end up, but it manages the difficult trick of being angry, self-critical and moving all at the same time.

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