The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


David Foster Wallace. I admire him, but he troubles me. I finished INFINITE JEST thinking that he was brilliant but that he must be a tremendous bully to get his publisher not to edit this 1200-page behemoth. There's a 700-page classic in there, and even cutting that much you could still get Wallace's voice in there with no problem. (I heard him read from INFINITE JEST at BookPeople in Austin when the book came out and found Wallace to be a very appealing guy--down-to-earth and funny.) His writing, especially at journalism, comes very close to being schtick; I imagine eventually there'll be a DFW imitation contest like the Hemingway contest they have every year in L.A.. Even given that, I do like the cruise-ship essay ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again") and read that collection. So, I looked forward to reading CONSIDER THE LOBSTER, but knew that it would be scattershot and memorable for one or two great essays--most likely the title one.

And that was true. He writes on literary topics for a while with no great insight; although I disagree with Jonathan Franzen's views on fiction they are at least distinct and well-argued. But I really wouldn't look to Wallace for literary essays. The journalism included in this collection is the finest work in it, and yes, it is the title essay that stands out.

"Consider the Lobster" was commissioned for GOURMET and it's one of the great acts of chutzpah I've seen in a while--again, not surprising from the guy who could get INFINITE JEST published. Essentially, this foodie-magazine article asks whether it's okay to kill lobsters the way we do. And Wallace, in his just-curious, non-ideological way, makes a very powerful argument that it's NOT, primarily because the stories we tell ourselves about lobsters--that they don't or can't really feel pain--are just bullshit. He does it without hectoring and in a way that makes you always respect his curiosity: he's no PETA mouthpiece (although this site tries to make him out as one).

The other standout, "Host," is a long profile of an LA right-wing talk-radio host, notable both for its willingness to take measured editorial stands and its odd design--think footnotes turned into flow-charts interpolated into the text. Why can't the left explain their views in such clear--and funny, and appealing--ways? the essay asks.



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