Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace
I wrote this review a while ago, but I just recently read Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, and was reminded how much I love him. I can’t quite explain why writing a true review of The Pale King seems silly since it was never finished by Wallace, but I just don’t feel inclined to. That said, I do recommend it for no other reason than chapter 22 is one of the best things I’ve ever read. (And, though I don’t feel that way about the novel as a whole, I do recommend it.) I loved chapter 22 it for all the reasons I love Wallace’s non-fiction, and so I’m posting this older review of a collection of Wallace’s essays.
There’s an appropriate meta-experience a reader of this collection of essays by David Foster Wallace encounters. On one hand, much of Wallace’s writing is laugh-out-loud funny–I certainly embarrassed myself a few times reading on public transportation. Wallace also comes across as broad-minded, sharp, and full of humanity, which is why it’s impossible not to be aware, while reading, of what it means to be reading the work of someone who took his own life at such a young age. I couldn’t help but wonder the whole time I was reading how someone who seems so aware could not figure out a way to keep living. Thus, at the same time that these essays are so enjoyable to read, there is also a sadness to it.
Wallace is probably best known for his huge, sprawling novel, Infinite Jest, but these essays, ranging on topics such as prescriptive versus descriptive grammar, the art of the sports autobiography, the porn industry, and his personal reactions to September 11, 2001, while much smaller; have a depth that is equal to Infinite Jest. Part of the reason for this depth is that Wallace is so good at asking questions about his subjects and allowing the discussion that unfolds around those questions to shed light on his own curious thinking. The best essays in this collection are those that admit to Wallace’s own ambiguity and delve into the difficult questions behind that ambiguity. His essays read much like someone’s thoughts; he generously uses footnotes, sometimes footnotes to footnotes, as a way to capture the different levels of his thinking, and, for some readers this can feel tedious or pretentious. But I think it works simply because Wallace comes across as so thoughtful.
I was first introduced to Wallace’s non-fiction when I read his 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College, which was recently published in the small volume entitled This is Water, and which can still be found online at http://www.kyleriedel.net/teach/documents/dfwcs.pdf . If you haven’t read Wallace, or if you have but haven’t read this speech, it’s worth taking the time to read it. And then, if you like it, I recommend these essays. Some of them are dense; some of them are intellectual, but all of them will challenge you to think and maybe even make you laugh.