on 14 February 2006
I love Wallace's novels and short stories, but in my opinion his intellect sometimes impedes his storytelling. I like my books smart, but Wallace's footnotes and in-jokes and surely-you-all-know-this-as-well-as-I-do type en passant references can be a bit over the cerebral top. But what can be annoying in fiction, works far better in the essay format. His quirky and brainy and alienated reporter persona seems to me a perfect position from which to comment on the current state of affairs in such diverse spheres as porn, literature, US language, electoral campaigns, lobster festivals and conservative talk radio. His hyper-reflexive analyses are wonderfully mind-bending, his command of language supreme, and his uneasy embeddedness in real-world situations both touching and very very funny. Wallace at his essayistic best rewires your synapses and vastly expands your neural nets. You should definitely go for it.
I've never read Wallace, mostly because his best known work ("Infinite Jest") is so long. But I tend to like writers that digress and use footnotes for asides, so I thought maybe this collection of ten essays would give me enough of a taste to know if I should check out his other stuff. Ranging in length from 7 to 80 pages, the essays all appeared previously (albeit often truncated) in various magazines such as Harper's, The Atlantic, Gourmet, Rolling Stone, Premier, etc. They can be roughly categorized into three categories: brief review, personal piece, and long in-depth topical examination.
The brief reviews generally tend to take an item and use it as a staging area for discussing something more interesting than the given subject. For example, in "Certainly the End of Something or Other", Wallace uses his review of John Updike's novel Toward the End of Time to highlight the general narcissism and shallowness of writers such as Updike, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer. His 20-page review of Joseph Frank's biography of Dostoevsky is largely dedicated to making a larger point about literary criticism, and his 25-page review of tennis player Tracy Austin's autobiography is similarly dedicated to identifying the fundamental problem of sports memoirs. I have to admit that the essential point of the shortest piece, "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness", eluded me.
The two more personal pieces are strikingly different, but in each one gets a vivid impression of Wallace working through his own feelings. In, "The View From Mrs. Thompson's", he uses 13 pages to recount his own September 11 experience in Bloomington, Indiana. As one reads of the mysterious sprouting of flags, Wallace's hunt for a flag of his own, and his spending the day watching the footage with old ladies who've never been to New York, his mounting alienation from his neighbors is fascinating. The titular story is ostensibly a standard travel piece on a Maine lobster festival, but rapidly evolves into a thoughtful meditation (with scientific research) on the ethics of preparing and eating lobster.
The four in-depth essays are the real stars of the book, in each Wallace gets deep into his material and wallows in it with intellectual vigor and above all, wit. In the 50-page "Big Red Son", he covers the porn Oscars and emerges with scenes and quotes so surreal they must be true. Over the course of the 50-page "Authority and American Usage", he takes a topic close to his heart as a writing instructor and provides a layman's overview of the Prescriptivist vs. Descriptivist "usage wars". The underbelly of political campaigning is exposed in the 80-page "Up Simba", detailing his week on the John McCain's 2000 campaign trail -- the ultimate lesson is that if you want the most astute and nuanced political analysis, turn to the camera and sound techs, not the journos. Finally, the 70-page "Host" takes us into the world of talk radio, via a profile of an LA radio personality. All of these long pieces are wonderful (albeit in very different ways), as they allow Wallace's intellect the space to range free and elaborate.
Ultimately, it's not hard to see why Wallace is a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" award-winner. His combination of smarts, thoughtfulness, self-awareness, wit, and ability to write killer prose simply can't be ignored. One does have to raise an eyebrow at his overuse of footnotes, however. While I'm a big fan of footnotes (yes, even in fiction), I find Wallace's use of footnotes within footnotes rather tiresome (not to mention tough on the eyes). In many instances, it seems like the material could have been handled much more elegantly within the text, or within a parenthetical. This is especially true of "Host", which is very nearly ruined by the attempt to use boxed text and arrows to replace footnotes. There's no textual reason for the method, and the experiment doesn't work at all, only serving to highlight the unnecessary divisions of information and reducing their navigability.
Although a few of the pieces failed to totally captivate me, and the overfootnoting grated (especially in it's final iteration), this is still a highly entertaining and enlightening book. Chuck Klosterman's essays are like potato chips -- yummy, hard to stop at just one, and not super filling. Wallace's are generally a full nutritious meal at your favorite restaurant.
on 31 July 2014
If you are thinking of buying the Kindle edition there are two things you should know:
1) The essay "Host" is not included in electronic editions of the book, although it is included in physical editions.
2) David Foster Wallace's style includes extensive use of footnotes, and on older Kindles it's somewhat fiddly to navigate to footnotes and back.
For these reasons, this particular book is probably best read in hard copy.
on 21 October 2015
My introduction - bit late, but never mind - to DFW. This essay collection divides between reportage and what I can best call scholarly dissertation. The former's simply brilliant. The best written and most entertaining examples of gonzo journalism I've read since Hunter Thompson. The scholarly dissertations are desperately hard work. Maybe a bit of an exercise in intellect-flaunting. Making a point/reaching a conclusion - and then repeating the exercise from umpteen different angles. Again. And again. And again. Both styles require stickability from the reader, with endless footnotes, asides, and footnotes to footnotes. You get into the swing of things after a while, but physically - as well as mentally - it's not an easy read. (But ultimately very rewarding). One thing that really *did* irritate me - and this has nothing to do with the author - but (and I'm guessing this was in a bid to keep body copy and notes within bounds) the publishers of the edition with the lobster on the cover printed the text in what I'd call a 'normal size' type...but the footnotes are *miniscule*. A real effort to read. They finally got to grips with this with 'The Host' - the last essay in this anthology - but why this type of layout wasn't utilised for all the entries is baffling. Anyway, the good way outweighed the bad. I so enjoyed my DFW introduction and look forward to experiencing more. Recommended.
Erudite, prolix, exhaustive and entertaining, David Foster Wallace bends his impressive intellect to some vagaries of American life in this delightful, but demanding, book. I would not recommend it to anyone who wants a quick read, or anyone not prepared to think hard while reading.
Foster Wallace is addicted to footnotes and in the last piece in this book he tries another method of interjection with arrows to squares dotted around the text, which I found exhausting to read in a peculiar and resigned-chuckle-inducing manner. Some people will throw the book across the room at this point. However, what he has to say, regardless of his sometimes irritating textual tricks, is always, always interesting. He is formidably loquacious, forbiddingly clever and also damned smart with the sort of wit that creeps up and stabs you in the back. He is an enfant terrible, albeit one who teaches English to undergraduates. He is also a deeply original thinker and an absolute delight.
In this book he discourses upon: the `soft-core' porn industry in America; why Kafka is funny; the usage and abusage of American English (perhaps the most fascinating essay I have ever read (yes, really!)); watching 9/11 unfold on a neighbour-lady's television; the pallidity of sports biographies; following John McCain on the hustings; whether or not lobsters can feel pain (they can); Joseph Frank's books about Dosteovksy; and a radio shock-jock's late-night phone-in programme.
Personally I feel my life is the poorer for not having a huge anthology of Foster Wallace's essays to hand to be able to read whenever I want to feel cheered and hopeful for the human race. However, he is not an easy read. You need to want this kind of discourse in your life. You need to enjoy a voice in your ear saying, nothing is easy, nothing is simple, and there is very little about life that doesn't deserve much deeper consideration than it is ordinarily given.
on 3 March 2015
Some very well written and revealing pieces in this diverse collection, though I think "Pulphead" is better, being a more cohesive and controlled example of the genre. He covers some really interesting topics here like following John McCain on the campaign trail and being a part of the AVN (porn)awards and of course, Maine lobster. I thought the piece on the D-J John Ziegler was great.
I understand it's always horses for courses in tastes but I thought he took the whole quirky footnote gimmick and footnote upon footnote idea too far and it definitely got more than a little tired and old for me and by the end of the book I found it just got in the way of the main body of the work and as a result undermined the overall message and quality of his book. I'd probably give him another shot though.
on 14 December 2007
I finished Consider The Lobster by the US writer David Foster Wallace a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, it's now back at the library, so I can't refer to it when writing this, but I wanted to sing the praises of DFW a little. OK, a lot.
DFW first came to my attention when his epic novel Infinite Jest was published in 1996. I was blown away by the irreverence and wit of this author; the way he wore his attitude on his sleeve like a young Martin Amis. To my shame, a demanding job meant I put the book aside because I couldn't give it the attention it deserved, but I'm going to tackle it again sometime when my arm muscles are strong.(The paperback edition runs to 1080 pages of teeny tiny type.)
Subsequently, I forgot about him for a few years. Then, a couple of years ago,I borrowed Brief Interviews With Hideous Men from the library. This is one of DFW's collections of short stories, and I highly recommend it. He brings to life several ghastly characters who will make you laugh and cringe simultaneously.
One attribute of DFW's that I find unique to him is that he makes an art form of being long winded. He is a master of the footnote, and often, there's a footnote on every page in his work, with the footnote being as long as the page. Yet he is never tedious to read - on the contrary, he is refreshingly easy to consume, partly due to his dazzling ability to write and partly because there's something endearing about the way he has to explain every little point. The latter attribute means that he leads off on tangents the whole time, and the tangents have tangents too. (I'm not joking - sometimes the footnotes have footnotes). But he is definitely worth discovering. Brief Interviews is a collection that most serious readers will gobble up; the mix of dry humour and talanted eloquence being almost intoxicating.
Consider The Lobster is a collection of essays from the late '90s and early noughties. The opening one is a foray into the world of pornography: DFW attends a mega porn award show in order to write about it. The weird, twisted world of porn is accurately nailed and the reader comes away with conflicting feelings including disgust, contempt, pity and sadness.
My favourite essay was the one where DFW joins the press entourage following the Republican candidate John McCain in the last US elections. DFW writes as an impartial observer, freely admitting he voted Democrat in the election. The essay brings the world of US politics sharply into focus. The most revealing parts are those outlining the dirty tricks played by the George Dubya Bush team. Because DFW is actually on the campaign trail, following the Straight Talk Express (McCain's tour bus), there is a sense of comtemporaneous following of the trail. I found it fascinating.
The essay that gives the collection its title, Consider The Lobster,which is a piece about a major annual lobster festival in Maine, is also full of food (ouch) for thought. DFW is not a journalist who covers only the superficial aspect of a subject - he pokes around in the little niches and dark corners where other writers fear to venture. His matter-of-fact and intelligent musing on the myths we are fed about lobsters' ability to feel pain will certainly make me think before eating lobster again. The fact that he is so scrupulously researched, so damned clever, means that you want to keep reading, unlike many simplistic pro-animal rights individuals who shove partisan views down one's throat in such a biased not to mention uninformed and inaccurate way that it makes you want to avoid the issue totally. The great thing about reading DFW is that it's like listening to an incredibly bright friend give their opinion on issues in an entertaining way.
The only reason I gave this collection four stars rather than five was because of the slightly esoteric subjects covered and the fact that I tend to prefer fiction to non fiction. But DFW is probably the young (under 50) writer I would most like to be stuck in a pub with.
on 16 July 2014
This is a book that is stimulating, funny, and very informative at the same time. Its great to read a book where you learn so much about such different subjects (from the workings of the press coverage of a presidential campaign to the neurology of lobsters) while laughing out loud in some occasions, and being constantly amazed at the writter's inteligence and wit.
I'm also curious about how a kindle verison of this book would look like, given all the boxes, footnotes, and footnotes to footnotes. To be on the safe side, I'd recomment buying on the paper version.
on 4 February 2014
I haven't read a great deal of DFW's works. I tried tackling 'Infinite Jest' but it's taking me a long time to get through it (I think the 'Jest' is on us for reading it). However, this was my first introduction to this quite intriguing figure, a man who, sadly, took his life in 2008. This is not a standard book of essays in the same way that, say, Hitchens or Orwell would write essays. There are only a handful of essays ranging from the short to the very long and I feel that such a funny intellect as DFW would have been better spent covering more topics: I never felt I was getting my money's worth. A trend in DFW's works is his love of tennis: B-O-R-I-N-G. 'Infinite Jest' is littered with tennis stuff: to someone like me, that is just not going to cut it. One of the essays is about tennis and I nearly fell asleep reading it. The longest essay ('Up Simba') is interesting as it looks at an American political campaign (I think it was John McCain's early one) in a sort of Hunter S. Thompson manner. The first essay (essentially a look into the AVN - porn - awards) is laugh out loud funny and showcases the brilliant comedic talent of DFW. His review of Joseph Frank's 'Dostoevsky' will make you want to read the old Russian master's works - such is his wonderful praise. But these two essays ('Big Red One' and 'Joseph Frank's "Dostoevsky"') were, for me, the only real interesting essays - the others were dreadfully mundane. Another caveat: DFW is notorious for his use of footnotes, some are very funny, but they often get very tiring and are overused. A very idiosyncratic author. I'd recommend 'Infinite Jest' (if you enjoy a challenge) but I'd steer clear of this book if it's your first go at DFW.
on 4 December 2011
Firstly, I have to admit to having skimmed through a lot of this book. This was my first foray into the Foster Wallace world and, as has become clear from reading both the book itself and several other reviews of Foster Wallace's output, he is an author known for his verbosity and copious use of footnotes. I was not aware of this before reading the book but I am in no doubt that this is part of the reason I found some of his essays quite tedious, hence my resorting to skim-reading the more dense ones. These include a "review" (or more accurately, treatise) on a new edition of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage which, though probably of interest to scholars of language and linguistics, is really too long and involved for the average reader. I also skimmed through the essay about John McCain's 2000 New Hampshire campaign trail (again, long and cumbersome) and the last essay Host which deals with talk radio and has by far the most annoying layout in terms of its footnotes (and footnotes within footnotes), which I can only assume was adopted out of some sort of obtuse wish to end on a presentational flourish. It isn't so much the length of the essays which is the problem - a long exposition on a given subject can be just as satisfying as a short, pithy opinion-piece. It is the fact that pages and pages of the essays (and hefty half-pages of footnotes) are taken up with asides, lists and incidental tangents which do not add anything to the work. In short, they distract the reader and consequently the prose (at least in the longer, more florid essays) does not flow as it should with any good writer.
This puzzled me because, probably like many people, I was drawn to Wallace following many hearty recommendations of his work which had described him above all as "a writer of virtuosic talents" (this is actually on the blurb at the back of the book). It seems to me odd that such a talented writer should misuse footnotes so readily and gratuitously. Surely part of being a good writer is having the ability to communicate clearly and to be able to use stylistic strictures such as footnotes in an effective way. In fiction writing, these strictures are necessarily looser and therefore I think it is less of a problem in novels, however in non-fiction works such as these essays I think it is more important to use them well. It is also important in non-fiction to edit your work well in order to avoid possible repetition, inclusion of extraneous or irrelevant material etc. and this is obviously another area where this supposedly great writer falls down. I'd like to make it clear here that this is less a criticism of Wallace per se (there are essays here which are indeed well-written and less obsessed with footnotes) and more a criticism of the apparent "emperor's new clothes" feeling of the literary analysis that surrounds him and his work.
The other essays which I did read fully vary in their subject matter from porn to the September 11th terrorist attacks to sports biographies. The latter essay, written in 1994 and concerning a biography of American tennis player Tracy Austin, is an excellent and thoughtful analysis of fame and fate and is interesting even if, like me, you have no interest in tennis. The essay on Kafka is also an interesting read (though ironically too short!) Of all of them, the title essay is by far the best and least egregiously footnoted. This concerns the Maine annual Lobster Festival and is noteworthy not only for its description of lobster taxonomy, but also for its discussion of the moral problems (or not) of cooking said lobsters. Even this gem, however, is mired by an ambivalent and therefore rather limp conclusion. This ambivalence is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, however I had the feeling that Wallace desperately wanted to come down on one side of the argument but refrained himself from doing so, though this perhaps has more to do with the commercial considerations of writing for magazines than anything else.
Overall, I was disappointed with these essays. Some of the subjects they deal with are intriguing, but most of them have an unfinished, rambling quality which meant that they just couldn't sustain my interest. Wallace also seems more concerned with the style of his writing than the substance, and quite often uses self-consciously complex phraseology and obscure words. If that's the sort of writing you enjoy then I think you'll be a fan of his work. If not, then you'd probably best avoid this book.