David Foster Wallace wrote the acclaimed novels The Pale King, Infinite Jest and The Broom of the System as well as the story collections Oblivion, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and Girl With Curious Hair. He died in 2008.
"[T]his collection showcases Wallace’s love of language, emotional IQ, and curiosity about the world (and the starlets who populate it). His trademark footnotes, essays in themselves, rarely fail to entertain—if you can follow them."
"Wallace's complex essays are written, and rightfully so, to be read more than once."
"He induces the kind of laughter which, when read in bed with a sleeping partner, wakes said sleeping partner up . . . He's damn good."
"A writer of virtuostic talents who can seemingly do anything' New York Times 'Wallace is a superb comedian of culture . . . his exuberance and intellectual impishness are a delight."
Consider the Lobster is the first book I’ve read by David Foster Wallace. I've been interested in him since reading the commencement speech to Kenyon College's Class of '05, in which he suggests that the value of a liberal arts education is not that it teaches you how to think, but that it teaches you what to think about. Awareness of one's thoughts, he says, is the means to the end of compassion, which "involves attention and awareness and discipline and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day." It takes real effort, he argues, to snap out of our default setting of seeing ourselves as the center of everything, to adjust our thinking. "This," he continues, "is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship." And we all worship something—if not a god or gods, then money, or power, or our bodies. (Here he makes an compelling argument for religion when he suggests that theistic figures are the only things we can worship that won't "eat [us] alive.") Be aware of what you worship, what you grant value to, what motivates you. He concludes by saying that paying attention to our thoughts is immensely demanding to do while trying to survive the day-in-day-out of adult life, and is truly the work of a lifetime.
Consider the Lobster is a very varied collection, and none of these essays truly fit a type, but to generalize for now, the collection contains a piece of lit crit ("Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness..."); a personal narrative of 9/11 ("The View from Mrs. Thompson's"); two pieces that see Wallace play journalist at huge-in-certain-circles type events ("Big Red Son" [The Adult Video News Awards], and the title piece [the Maine Lobster Festival]); two behind-the-scenes looks at rather niche industries ("Host" [conservative talk radio], and "Up, Simba" [political campaigning]); and four book reviews whose subjects range from Tracy Austin's autobiography to A Dictionary of Modern American Usage ("How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart," "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky," "Authority and American Usage," and "Certainly the End of Something or Other..."). The ideas articulated in Wallace's Keyon speech in some way inform every essay in this collection, and I can say without reservation that every single essay is terrific. I feel ridiculous even pointing this out, but it's all true: his gift for analysis of just about anything was surreal, and he was incredibly deft at writing with clarity about even the most abstract ideas. But most importantly, I think, he had the ability to ask the right questions without ever making an argument for his answer over yours; like in the Kenyon speech, he just wants you to be aware, to choose consciously.
Maybe this is best exemplified in the title essay, where he wraps up by encouraging readers to ask themselves a host of questions about eating meat:
"Do you think about the (possible) moral status and (probable) suffering of the animals involved? If you do, what ethical convictions have you worked out that permit you not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands? If, on the other hand, you'll have no truck with confusions of convictions [. . .] what makes it feel truly okay to just dismiss the whole thing out of hand? That is, is your refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that you don’t want to think about it? And if the latter, then why not? Do you ever think, even idly, about the possible reasons for your reluctance to think about it? I am not trying to bait anyone here — I’m genuinely curious."
See what I mean? He is not asking you to stop eating meat, but asking you to have some awareness about the thinking that underlies that decision. Consider.
Wallace had convictions, of course; but he was incredibly skilled at presenting his ideas without arguing for them. He seemed to approach everything with what he describes in "Authority and American Usage" as a Democratic Spirit, which "combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others." For example: Wallace explains that on the topic of abortion, his stance is both pro-life and pro-choice. He is pro-life because he believes that if something might be a human being, “it’s better not to kill it.” On the other hand, he is pro-choice because given the "irresolvable doubt" of the situation, the Democratic Spirit requires him to respect your opinions and the decisions you make as a result of them.
He is never, ever, not once, dogmatic. In “Host,” Wallace talks with conservative radio show host John Zeigler, who is obsessed with the O.J. Simpson murder trial. John Zeigler, who is sure that he “know[s] more about the case than anyone not directly involved,” and even more sure that O.J. is guilty. John Zeigler, who after being fired from his radio show for making what he describes as “an incredibly tame joke about O.J.’s lack of innocence” blames it on the station’s “cav[ing] in to Political Correctness.” Zeigler’s worst offense? For DFW, it’s his refusal to acknowledge that he could be wrong—about O.J., about anything; it’s his absolutely certainty about everything: “. . .one can almost feel it: what a bleak and merciless world this host lives in—believes, nay, knows for an absolute fact he lives in.” Wallace’s response: “I’ll take doubt.”
He maintains the Democratic Spirit even while writing a totally scathing review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time. It’s surprising that Wallace would write a piece verging on a takedown, except that his main problem with both Updike and his protagonist is that they lack awareness, lack the consciousness of thought that he implores the Keyon Class of ’05 to have. Discussing Updike’s protagonist’s confusion at his relentless unhappiness, Wallace writes: “It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.” And Updike does nothing, Wallace suggests, to separate himself from his protagonist, to ironize him; he is guilty of the same lack of awareness.
And this, I believe, is what made Wallace such a very special writer. All the things that separate him stylistically are reflections of his commitment to seeing things from as many angles as possible. The footnotes? On the Charlie Rose show in 1996, Wallace linked them to a desire to create a fractured text, to disrupt linearity. This ambition is inextricable from his ambition to be conscious of thought — the enemy is always narrow-mindedness. The sprawling, multi-clause sentences, chock full of words you might never again see elsewhere? He needs each and every one of those obscure words if he’s going to give proper voice to his ideas and those of others; lest something be misunderstood, he needs each of those clauses to articulate his ideas — which he believes in passionately — in all of their complexities, and to articulate the convictions of others, for which he has nothing but the greatest respect. The humor? It’s mostly observational, the result of simply being open to seeing.
It is through this approach that Wallace achieves the trait he praises in Dostoevsky: he, as a deeply moral writer, is not moralistic. Wallace leaves you, his reader, thinking, pondering new questions and, most importantly, pondering your own pondering. And after reading this collection, you’ll be more open than you’ve ever been to the idea that maybe you don’t know.