Saturday, April 7, 2012

Assaying Essays

“Consider the Lobster and Other Essays,” by David Foster Wallace, 2006

Wallace is the author of “Infinite Jest,” a book hailed as a modern masterpiece; a friend of another prominent author, Jonathan Franzen (author of “Freedom,” reviewed below) a famous 2008 suicide (think a literary Kurt Cobain) and also a reporter and essayist. “Lobster” is a collection of non-fiction work from 1994 to 2005. Some people prefer Wallace’s essays to his fiction and there is a reason for that. From a review of these 10 essays, even they are limited by the non-political culture of the U.S. during this period. I call this ‘writings of the sensitive liberal academic at the beginning of something.’

Wallace starts off with a hilarious look at the 1998 Adult Video Awards show in Las Vegas at Cesar’s Palace (where else?). Pornography is the massive bastard stepchild of Hollywood, for many years raking in more money than the mainstream movie industry. Even now, hotel corporations have become their best customers. However, with the growth of free Internet porn and amateur porn done by drunk college students, exhibitionists, strip clubs, prostitutes and sex advertisers, the long-form ‘filmic’ part of the industry is no longer the cash cow it was in 1998. Chris Hedges also wrote about this industry later (in “Empire of Illusion,” reviewed below) and made far more politically astute comments than Wallace. In essence Wallace sees the whole thing as an enormous and only partly sad, joke. Hedges probably had the benefit of reading Wallace’s prior reporting about an industry that is never mentioned in polite society – or establishment journalism - but that is all.

As a literature professor, Wallace normally writes about other writers. In his essay on Updike the phrase ‘great male narcissists’ makes its first appearance. This phrase was later used by Alexander Nazrayan (my commentary below, “Follow-up to a Smack-Down”) to describe the middle-class, self-centered fiction favored by Masters of Fine Arts programs (“MFA”), and why Americans fail to win Nobel prizes. As Wallace puts it about Updike, his ‘rise … established him as the voice of probably the most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.” In writing about Kafka, Wallace bemoans American college students inability to get the humor in Kafka, as Americans are trained to think of humor as only entertainment, not about the gallows, or tragedy. Wallace’s third literature essay is on Dostoevsky. Wallace understands that Dostoevsky, for all his macabre plots, was essentially an ideological writer. He admires him as a genius, even given Dostoevsky’s essentially conservative and Christian point of view, because he actually believes in something, and he actually writes about serious topics. Wallace thinks the post-modern fiction he’s surrounded by believes in nothing. Of course, bourgeois fiction does not need to believe in anything, since ‘this is the best of all possible worlds.’ Is this why Wallace committed suicide …because he was no Dostoevsky? His coverage of a young, injured tennis-pro, Tracy Austin, also smacks of a kind of genius worship.

Certainly Wallace’s coverage of the 2000 McCain campaign in this book is no Hunter Thompson screed. Thompson was a believer, not a reporter. Wallace ends up respecting McCain for being trapped in a north Vietnamese prison for years – the standard ‘respectful’ image of McCain - and nothing much more. In this essay for Rolling Stone, the story was so long they had to cut it by one half or more. And this is the sub-text of DF Wallace. Like Dickens, he engages in exhaustive detail on issues that are not that relevant – except to a compulsive.

The last and latest essay in this collection shows this ‘Achilles heel’ in all its glory. “Host” is about right-wing talk radio in Southern California. You learn details down to the types of mics and receivers the talk jockeys are using. While making basic points about how these entertainers will say anything that results in ratings (and hence profits), the article is constructed in such a way to make it almost unreadable. Inserted text boxes and arrow lines going around corners pack the pages, while useless, multi-faceted, microscopic details abound. And this, folks, is also what marred “Infinite Jest.” It is like eating many, many bowls of porridge.

The essay, “Authority and American Usage,” is a classic however. It basically takes apart the two approaches to the English language today, subtly embracing the good points of each, but coming down on the side of the ‘prescriptivists’ against the ‘descriptivists.’ If you don’t know what this means, and you are interested in the politics of language and semantics, find out.

The most famous of these essays is “Consider the Lobster” itself. It is a chronicle of Wallace’s visit to the Maine Lobster Festival one summer. After describing the congested event tents, tiny food samples, high prices, crowds, traffic and general unpleasantness, he focuses on the lobsters themselves. How they are caught, crammed in tanks, their pincers bound, then dropped in boiling water while alive, or after one of their nerve pathways is ineffectually skewered. While protesting any similarity to PETA’s opposition to lobster boiling, Wallace, in spite of himself, begins to make vegetarian arguments. He knows it is only the egoism of the eaters that argues for the continued pain and death of animals. And in this essay, he, again, is timidly is searching for a path other than the conventional.

Wallace would have benefited by not committing suicide. I don’t say this as a joke – he might have come into his own as a writer, who actually believed in something, and who actually wrote about significant topics in a way that mattered – if he had lived through the 2008 crash and taken it to heart, as so many other non-fiction writers have done. He might have become our left-wing Dostoevsky, or the Hunter Thompson of detail. But he did not, and collections like this only show what could have been.

And I did not buy it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog,
April 7, 2012

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