Monday, May 7, 2012

David Foster Wallace's "Consider the Lobster": Book Review

I'm about the same age as Wallace, too old for the Gen-X category to which he has often been consigned as one of its infinite jesters, and too young for being a full-fledged baby-boomer, seeing that we came of age in the 70s and at the tail end of that. This ability to tilt between the boomer's desire for a utopian and liberated zone of unrestricted freedom and the anomie of the slacker's suspicion in an era where all politicians are tainted by the ghosts of Watergate and the relentless marketing of alt-culture's corporatized irony and self-referential smugness: here Wallace thrives. I have never read his fiction, and admired his journalism mostly at a distance. But, my curiosity got the better of me. His early essays seemed too jejune. Yes, he himself delights in loops of references and doggedly pursues his subjects with rueful sardonicism, but he has grown as a writer and a human being since his earlier journalism collected in 'A Supposedly Fun Thing...' into a more compassionate witness, a more disciplined thinker. While these essays tire you out if read too many at a sitting-- the effort to follow the notes in 'Host' being the worst-case scenario of his Stern-like (Tristram more than Howard I think?) passion for footnotes, asides, and marginalia-- they do inspire self-examination.

I would not have expected to sum up these essays with the term 'moral clarity,' but this is precisely the ideal that Wallace seeks amidst adult porn, Kafka's very un-American humor, prescriptive rules rather than only descriptive analysis of American Standard White English usage, or the reactions his midwestern neighbors have as they watch Dan Rather the morning of 9/11/01. He stops and notes, if in passing, a small detail in each essay that shows, despite the shenanigans and digressions, that he possesses intelligence and compassion. He reminds me of Tom Wolfe in that he is not so much a satirist as a moralist, in that he expects people he observes to live up to their code, and not to lie to themselves when they recognize a glimpse of truth within our cynically commodified market-driven celebrity-crazed dumbed-down culture.

For instance, in the porn article, he notes a retired cop's admiration for adult videos: they show, in the unguarded moments when the purported nasty bad girl experiences unfeigned pleasure as shown by a moment of ecstatic happiness on camera as she reaches orgasm, a window into our vulnerable humanity that mainstream actors can never equal. An insipid, ghostwritten autobiography of Tracy Austin moves former tennis sub-star Wallace to muse about its laconic dullness: could this not represent the inner drive, the absolute non-verbal total state of concentration that the superstar athlete can enter and so triumph over their nervous opponent? John Updike's turgid 'Toward the End of Time' contrasts its narcissism with Wallace's refutation of its 'bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants to is a cure for human despair.' Kafka's ambivalent wit resists reduction even as it can be summed up in the ultimate joke: 'the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle.'

[A brief aside: in the American usage essay, Wallace correctly castigates theory-addled academics, but his footnote only gives the newspaper secondary citation for a source that looks-- lots of "carceral" blather-- to be another Marxian jeremiad from (perhaps an acolyte of?) Angeleno apocalyptic Mike Davis; Wallace needed to credit the primary author of this excerpt of the worst scholarly boilerplate award circa 2003.]

His long investigation into American usage leads Wallace into a realization that the SNOOTs (his acronym) who obsess over proper standards reveal the lie that so many Americans are taught: contrary to our attitude of populist reverse snobbishness, conventions do matter after all. Despite our American 'we're all just folks' insistence that class does not count (in both the classroom and the economic applications), Wallace reminds us that, like it or not, we are judged by how (and if) we handle English in a somewhat competent fashion.

The news footage of 9/11 leads Wallace into an uncomfortable epiphany: those who fly the planes hate not the America of his gentle elderly female neighbors nearly as much as the macho, aggressive, self-aggrandizing America he and his fellow younger men represent. A trip with John McCain inspires an essay far too long, but which hammers away at the complacency that, contrary to rhetoric, the parties in power love to sustain and churn up: keep politics dull, sanctimonious, and so repulsive that voters will stay away in droves and all the incumbents will be all the more secure come election day. McCain, whose Vietnam torture Wallace describes movingly (and which I, contrary to his assumptions, knew nearly nothing about beyond the fact he was a POW for five years), drives Wallace into an impossible predicament. Is McCain calculated in his public persona or is he genuine, and where does one end and the other begin if one is an intelligent candidate in the public eye for months on end? On a lighter note, any writer who can link the Hanoi Hilton to the mundane torment more familiar to the rest of us as a chain motel deserves kudos. The essay is wearying in its detailed itineraries, but after a while you enter a Zen state akin to that of stupor on the campaign trail, which may be its sly intent.

The title essay similarly challenges moral assumptions held if not often examined by most Americans. If PETA is right that 'Being Boiled Hurts,' how does this pertain to boiling lobsters for our delectation? Why do we kill other creatures? How do we justify doing so? Can we question our habits without ending up equating rats with pigs with each other? Writing for Gourmet, 'the magazine of good living,' Wallace honestly scrutinizes the uncomfortable truths about the need that drives us to consume animal and fish and bird flesh-- that most of us every day when we eat likely choose not to consider. He does this without sounding preachy or pompous, and ends his essay just in time, I suppose, about this difficult subject.

Joseph Frank's studies of Dostoevsky are interpolated with Wallace's own précis of the philosophical quandaries his reading of D. conjures up. These, again, illustrate Wallace's growing sophistication in tackling the tough questions, the existential angst we feel, especially as we age. Wallace conveys the core of Dostoyevsky's thought. Wallace deftly draws us into the limning of our own circle of responsibility, where we find the sheer impossibility to separate our selfishness from our altruism, and laments our lack, in today's writers, of any serious successor to D's own 'morally passionate, passionately more fiction' that somehow manages to be realistic and convincingly human.

Finally, in the interminable if intermittently interesting 'Host,' among many other issues around the supposedly populist voices of AM talk radio, Wallace does raise relevant questions. Why do so many on the left lack the cohesion and the passion with which conservative pundits can express their ideas? Why do the chattering classes hold the flyover states in such contempt? In blurring moral and cultural critiques with political right-wing lobbying, how do talk-shows promote the status quo rather than truly upending an unjust status quo? And, how much do these pundits pander as corporate shills for all sorts of products pitched to play into their listener's fears, credulity, and loneliness? He also challenges us to imagine why, beyond the stereotypes, many listeners to such shows may well be right (no pun) in their judgement that-- as the first essay showed us with porn that itself seems to have no taboos left to its voracious market expansion except the (so far) off-limit snuff films-- America has drifted away from a moral center-- however hypocritical or distorted, standards did once hold sway-- into debauched cultural permissiveness.

Wallace wearies this reader, but he does make me think harder about such issues. He goads us by his presentation of the material, and irritates our complacent expectations of how passive readers should be. The author has done more work here than the usual journalist. It may look undisciplined, but it is carefully-- if rather too generously for our patience-- constructed. Wallace kicks out the chair from under us, and makes us scurry about his pages as if they scurried away from a Kafkaesque typesetter.

The book jacket inside cover blurb trumpets this book as funny, as if to assure the cowed reader that all the footnotes won't be too scary. Yet amidst the flash of the rather undisciplined form, the content does contain sustained depth. His jacket photo studiously expresses Wallace's wish-- as he says in the usage article-- to be able to blend incognito with the rural midwesterners of his childhood. He does strike the requisite grubby pose. But, as he admits, he also carries his parents' own elevated (and at times snobbish-- but in a good way!) expectations that we everyday people live up to our potential intellectually and ethically. I know this is not the same as "uproariously funny," but in the tradition of Tom Wolfe, Mencken, or Gore Vidal, Wallace combines his own stint in the ivory tower with long treks across the lands where lurk the rest of us, the great unwashed.

He admonishes us, himself included, to live up to what America and our own abundant resources allow us to profit from: the exertion of our minds for the betterment of our souls. Not a flag-waver, but nonetheless another prophet awakening us from our malaise. I wish the press promoters would have advertised this morality supporting Wallace's social criticism. Perhaps his own essays will draw more writers-- and better yet readers-- towards the serious examination of cultural and moral trends that Dostoevsky might have expected us to continue.

(Since I posted my review of "The Pale King" yesterday, this one is reprised from 12-25-06--5:10 "helpful votes" w/one comment: "Pathetically pedantic. Get over yourself." via  Amazon US)

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