Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace

Going to try and write thoughts on this as I finish each essay, having learned from past compilations that I tend to lose my perspective of the earlier stuff as I move through the later stuff.

Big Red Son

Reminds me of a Hunter Thompson piece. I think that's what DFW is going for. It's like his version of Wearing and Tearing, Led Zeppelin's attempt to show they could be punk too, if they wanted. DFW seems to have less contempt for his contemporary than Robert Plant. You get the impression that his focus on Gonzo porn-man, Max Harcore, was actual some kind of meta-reference to the style of investigation used in Big Red Son, too -- which, as far as technique goes, is right up Wallace's alley.

Anyway, that's all style stuff. Content wise, this hits home. Porn is horrible, everywhere, and has an unspoken eye-rolling crass acceptance. People tend to think of it somewhere between a dull, inevitable habit and immoral, cultural bankruptcy. I started (puberty?) thinking the former. I've since moved more toward the latter. It dilutes life. It induces solipsism (can you tell I've been reading this guy a bit?). And David gets right up behind the source of it and shows it for what it is: sad, shallow, annoyingly self-obsessed in a sort of pseudo-celebrity way, and worse of all witless. There's nothing less sexy than predictable. There's no worse turn off than boredom. The AVNs seem to be the distillation of all this. What's left if everything is material?

I think it's all better understood less from a puritanical, dogmatic perspective, which tends to ring oedipal and pearl clutching, and more from a Brave New World, entertainment is eating everything perspective; you know, the topic for which David Foster Wallace is the latest patron saint. It's not just porn, but it seems like porn seems to be the basement of this particular race to the bottom. It's the ultimate titillating vanity, kind of by definition. Advertising. Instagram. Sex, guns, and drugs based TV shows and movies. It's all of the same cloth, just of varying intensity.

I'd be interested to see him contrast pornography with sex-positive attitudes about life and relationships. I'm not sitting here promoting prudence, and I don't think he is either, but that part of the question is left unanswered. "Sex is good" is probably a safe statement. But prostitution seems to be abuse of the concept. If you factor out that abuse what's left? That's not rhetorical. There's something left, for sure. Be an interesting contrast to write down. Thinking about it, maybe DFW wasn't the guy to do it anyway. Need someone more sensual and less cerebral. Too late now. Thankful he got to write what he did.

Certainly The End of Something or Other and Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness

Reading these essays was similar to reading Orwell's All Art is Propaganda. They're somehow engaging reviews of authors I haven't read, John Updike and Kafka, distilling down criticisms and reactions to specific writing into morals and topics of general interest. Like Orwell, Wallace seems to make this kind of an effort worthwhile and fun, which doesn't seem possible at first glance of the original just-mentioned premise. Not much more to say. Seems like Updike is a dick. Seems like Kafka's someone I need to read. How is it that I know Kafka is the guy on Bureaucracy, but don't even know the title of one of his books. Shrug. The roadmap of hyperlinks in all these peoples' work is one of the most fun things I've discovered and attempted to explore.

Authority and American Usage

This has been my favorite of the bunch so far. Again, surprising. An essay reviewing and elaborating on a book about the usage of American English sounds completely unappealing. Yet it appealed. And hard.

First off, DFW is prophetic: this guy calls the entire Identity Politics conversation, currently popularized on certain media, a decade before it started? But then he goes on to shade in all the complimentary pieces to that argument, again all the more impressive given he seems to have done all this thinking in isolation (at least from the contemporary players). How dogmatic prescription works both ways. Reduced (heavily): Political Correct language is prescription in liberal form, frustration with deviation from WASP approved Standard English is prescription in conservative form. Both the prescriptions themselves and the conclusions drawn from deviance from those prescriptions are vapid, implying that the appearance of political change (in either direction) can be substituted for substance. And it goes on...

The View from Mrs. Thompson's

Summary: View of and from a midwestern town during September 11th, 2001. Interesting 'cause it's candid and personal. Not really about patriotism, catharsis, or grief, but more about the things that passed in front of DFW's eyes in Indiana, and how those things relate to being human.

How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart

Summary: Prodigious tennis star writes a memoir that ends up being insipid and meaningless. DFW describes his frustration. The description ends up being entertaining and relatable, but the conclusive question raised is the most interesting part of the whole thing: is part of being a star athlete having the ability to clear your mind of inner, critical dialog? or rather lacking the ability to have that inner conversation in the first place? And is this inability simply then reflected in the writing? Or is there a further secret. Who knows? How could you know?

Up Simba

Summary: DFW, hired as a Rolling Stone journalist, follows the McCain campaign around during the 2000 election. He tells the story of the campaign, the people around it, and the man himself, ignoring the political positions/policies being promoted. What's revealed is a meta-truth (shocker, for DFW) of what politics boils down to, how it's related to character, and how we perceive all of that. How that individual perception shapes the world is left unaddressed.

Once again this guy gets right down to the heart of something fundamental and seemingly unanswerable.

He starts by talking about the impossibly horrible and difficult to sympathize with situation -- difficult only because it's so unique and inaccessible that our civilian sympathy falls short, retarded by lack of experience -- of McCain's experience as a POW. Of his refusing release for the sake of a Code which says POWs must be released in the order of capture, despite the fact that McCain has been tourtured by way of being stabbed (in the crotch) and ceaselessly beaten (breaking multiple bones) all after having ejected from a plane in such an extreme circumstance that his arms and leg were already ravaged and broken, not to mention being in a foreign prison away from home. How all of this demonstrates, rather than claims, an incredible integrity and discipline.

He then goes on to describe the campaign in Mr. Notices Everything detail, illustrating tactics and practices and the minute movements that together add up to the performance us civilians know as Politics. The question asked is: if these movements are human, how do we come to find politics so robotic and perverted?

Well, it would seem part of the reason is there being a difference between a leader and a salesman (the author's distinction, not mine). What a brilliant and succinct cleavage. A leader inspires, with a detectable selflessness; building something bigger and more important than what might directly benefit them. We voluntarily give leaders our attention, patronage, following; as opposed to an appointed authority, which we follow out of structure. A salesman, on the other hand, might be benevolent and similar, but is always motivated by their own bottom line. 21st century marketing culture has made us cynical and precisely tuned to recognizing salesmen, and we see them everywhere in everyone. We can't help but know all politicians are salesmen.

And yet, here's McCain, detailed by Wallace to the extreme in a way that teaches the reader how politicians operate and work. The paradox being: we want to believe he's like every other Washington, his actions calculated to produce an effect: winning. We roll our eyes at his sound bites, etc. like we've done all other politicians since mass-marketing.

BUT!, with McCain, you can't ignore the fact that he turned down release from impossible-to-bear hell out of principle. Paradox. Which, then, interpretation of his campaign is the valid one? Is he a politician looking out for #1? Or is he an honorable character trying to do something good for his country? We don't know. This question goes beyond policy. It's about authenticity and whether it can be assumed in the political process. Checks And Balances, a la high school social studies starts to sound familiar...

BUT! again, it might not matter as much which is true -- is he a salesmen or a leader -- as which you decide to have faith in. That sounds a bit post-modern, I guess. Curious, yet again. Do you pick a side until the truth reveals itself through new evidence? Or do you dissolve into apathy, considering everything an interpretation, the truth itself an impossible to touch illusion? AHHHHH. I don't know, man...

The author says it better than me, but damn what a powerful thing to think about, all the more-so because it's not an invention or a tool, but a flesh-and-blood example acid-burned onto the wall, direct from high-fidelity, non-fiction, reality.

Consider the Lobster

I forgot to write something in response to this, and now I feel like i've forgotten too much of it to comment in a way that'd be either interesting to me later, like a journal entry; or interesting to anyone else, as a proper review or reaction. A tiny bit of irony, given that I decided to write these reviews individually, piecemeal to avoid this issue.

Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky

Another one. Jesus. How does this guy make such a gripping set of points about an author I've never read? Part of me feels, has felt throughout reading DFW, that I need to mention Jordan Peterson. (The other part of me feels like I'm pigeonholing DFW and also bringing up someone else out of context, but the point isn't to just gawk at how similar the two are in a fanboy kind of way. The point is this:) Peterson's the guy who got me interested in Dostoevsky (among other people and ideas (e.g. postmodernism)), and for a long while Peterson's ideas were so unique and fresh to me that I thought he was some kind of singular muse-genius that had distilled mystical wisdom into modern language. While I still think he's a genius, as I've read DFW, Orwell, and others I'm hearing the same points Peterson's made over and over, and further in the same language he uses. So now I realize that Peterson isn't alone, but a participating and fruitful member of this academic group, exploring these ideas. Yay me. Not all that interesting of a realization I guess, except the reason I think Peterson's relevance is worth mentioning is that I don't understand how all of these ideas seemed so far away and unarticulated just 1-2 years ago, and then somehow after he crystallized it all, I end up finding DFW and Orwell's essays. The information had been organized years before, and yet it's taken Peterson's popularity to bring them back into the mainstream (for a lot of people). That's an odd dynamic that I'd like to better understand.

That digression aside, what about Dostoevsky? Well it seems the main takeaway is that of what makes a modernist a modernist, and that seems to be the ability to be serious about a subject and get away with it; to not be mocked for being sentimental. Dostoevsky, or so it's said, was the guy for this. He printed archetypes, or so it goes.

I don't have much else to say, having not read him, but it seems to me by way of contrast with the current culture's lack of seriousness and idolization of irony -- which maybe I'm drinking too much DFW kool aid, but it's a criticism I can't help but nod my head with in agreement -- like Dostoyevsky is a X that marks the spot for what I'm looking for. Scary to think that might be a slippery slope towards becoming religious in some loosely defined way.


First, a bit about the format and intention:

This essay seemed to lack the meta-analysis or pointed-out outer significance that DFW is known for, although there's a lot of interesting stuff in here which gets you thinking about the types of arguments and opinions you end up wishing DFW would've fleshed out and expressed. However, just 'cause I wanted the essay to be done in a certain way doesn't mean I'm owed that. Without looking it up, it feels like the piece was commissioned as a biography and all these parenthetical notes (weirdly formatted in a way I don't know I appreciated as it comes off more as a look-how-bleeding-edge-innovated-I-can-be gimmick, rather than a better way to reference tangential information (e.g. as compared to the author's typical footnotes)) are Wallace's personal yellow legal pad notes that were decided might make an interesting unedited piece after the fact. Does that observation imply anything about the content of the essay itself? Not really, but it's how I feel the thing was built which hypothesizes why things are the way they are.

Ok, back to the content:

The overarching implied point of the whole essay, and also more interesting than any trivia about radio, the host, or the specific topics he's discussed on the air, is that the news media is a business misunderstood as a public good. And because it's a business all kinds of kooky shit can and does happen, kooky shit that doesn't have obvious moral value. Mr. Zeigler's career and style seem to be an examples of this. Does his advertisement funded form of entertainment, using the news as fodder, end up doing good or bad? This is the question you want Wallace to ask, and he seems desperate to, but that's not the point of the essay, and so... sigh. (The question is slightly different from the question he's more famously associated with: whether the distraction of entertainment is good for the individual.) You also want Wallace to go into his typical investigation of authenticity and responsibility as a function of selfishness. Does Zeigler care about the truth as far as it steers the world in the right direction or as far as it steers the station's revenue in the right direction? Is it possible to figure that out?

K. That's it for Consider the Lobster. Good stuff.