I would suggest, dear reader, that when considering Consider the Lobster
, that you consider it in the same light as David Foster Wallace’s collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again1. Use that book as your frame of reference for style and content and you can place this collection firmly into the category of “typical” DFW. That being said, if you thoroughly enjoyed A Supposedly Fun Thing… then you’ll likely thoroughly enjoy this one as well; by that same coin, if you’re on the fence, you’re unlikely to be won over; and if you dislike DFW2 then this collection will probably do you no favors.
So in this reviewer’s opinion: Consider the Lobster is more of the same. But that’s a good thing.
One thing that CtL has over ASFTINDA is that it reads like an essayist’s equivalent to a DJ’s mixtape. While the essays individually are more than capable of standing on their own (e.g., apart from each other; i.e., in their original printings) they are arranged in such a creative way here that they build upon each other. The essays are vaguely self-referential, perhaps purposefully so; “jokes” from a given essay may rely heavily on you properly “getting” and then retaining the thesis of a preceding essay. I submit as an example: “Authority and American Usage” contains several sections that are slightly humorous in their own respect but can only be truly appreciated as bracingly so when you recall Wallace’s thesis on Franz Kafka’s humor from the prior article and the accompanying explication of said humor and why it is thoroughly pointless to try and explain any joke anywhere, let alone Kafka’s absurdly dark and probably pathological comedy3. In this way, CtL may be Wallace’s finest collection to date; the interleaving of the essays, their strength when taken as a whole, an obscurely surreal recursion. It’s really all quite expertly done.
Perhaps the highlight of this collection is the maturity that Wallace is showing. Previous collections have his tone and style coming off as a bit of an effete intellectual, a nerdy-but-hip smartest-kid-in-class tone that is simultaneously masterfully humorous and maddening. Like maybe he’s just trying to make you feel dumb but then again maybe it’s thesaurial sleight-of-hand to play into some particular joke. Which is not at all to suggest that he has discarded this completely. But maybe like he’s toned it down a bit4? His signature style is definitely still there but he seems to have grown into it, it’s a better fit. Whereas before it may have felt borderline confrontational (see above), it comes across now as disarming. For example, in the midst of “Authority and American Usage”, Wallace comes across (on the one hand) vaguely condescending of SNOOTs5 and then on the other hand admits to being one; and then he takes a deeper dig on SNOOTs by eviscerating their essays and articles and other writings (e.g., the heavy-handed and jargon-laden “worst ever” publications of Comparative Lit profs) by using the very same over-the-top vocabulary to get to that point6. The whole routine can be a little jaw-clenched maddening but is for those same reasons endearing and worthwhile.
It is also seems worth mentioning that Wallace masterfully frames pretty grand subject matter in all kinds of tangential and frankly genius-like-a-mad-scientist ways that it’s formidable and a bit frightening. Example: Wallace uses “Authority and American Usage” as a vehicle to discuss linguistic politics and the critical role of socialization, language learning, and regional dialects on individual growth and development7. Example: Wallace uses his coverage of McCain2000 in “Up, Simba!” to discuss the political brokerage through media outlets and the bizarre power dynamics at work between journalists, politicians, and their handlers8. Example: how Wallace goes to work on the ethics of food in “Consider the Lobster”, working through the logic rather elegantly and then stupefyingly relinquishing it all with the atavistic admission that that simply isn’t enough to tear you away from the desire to enjoy something delicious. In light of all this, it’s no wonder an aspiring author Such As continues to find himself enthralled and intimidated by this literary Cronus.
Parting shots? I have two: the first regarding my “four of five” rating and the second a mere sidebar.
First: though the tone in CtL shows a refreshing maturity and welcome evolution, and though every essay is engaging and timely and brilliant, there also seem to be moments of tedium. Perhaps this is expected and unavoidable. But an essay on a book on the life and times of Dostoevsky (e.g.) can disappoint. Abandoning the F.N. format for a House of Leaves-esque series of drawn boxes is more distracting than textually informing (even if the essay’s content is exhilarating and terrifying). And maybe it’s just me but “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” seemed (via the text) a parody of itself as much as it was a parody and/or review of the book in question.
Second: while I don’t believe that these kinds of things, should matter, I’m also of the opinion that Wallace should have fired the photographer. Or perhaps chosen a better photo from that particular shoot. I realize that folks may want their book jacket photos to be relatively current, and I realize that our bodies change over time, and all of that is fine; but I also wonder if his publisher could have perhaps insisted that they find a photo that did NOT make him look like a squinty-eyed and slightly slumped Jeffrey Lebowski. Seriously sir, that’s your credibility at stake here.
- See also: my review on GoodReads. [↩]
- If you truly and I mean honestly and passionately dislike DFW, well then I suggest some rigorous therapeutic interventions. [↩]
- Which is totally drained of its humor when you try to offer any kind of explanation. I offer as further evidence for this that (after a protracted bout of laughing) I read aloud (to A.) a passage from “Authority and American Usage” and how it’s humor is underscored by the thesis of the Kafka essay to which A. offered scarcely an acknowledging chortle. [↩]
- Maybe? [↩]
- Just read the essay. [↩]
- I mean seriously: do you know anyone to drop “solecistic” in casual conversation? [↩]
- Compare/contrast with similar arguments posited in Freakonomics. [↩]
- Let it also be known that this becomes painfully apparent when the essay’s title appears in the text. It’s a real head-slapping moment with a kind of chilling aftershock. [↩]
About Rob FrieselSoftware engineer by day, science fiction writer by night; weekend homebrewer. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →
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