Profiling a conservative radio personality, David Foster Wallace concludes, “What a bleak and merciless world this host lives in—believes, nay, knows for an absolute fact he lives in. I’ll take doubt.”
In his new essay collection, Consider the Lobster, the Infinite Jest author treats America like a Dostoyevsky hero—idealistic and grand, brutal and banal—whether he’s dissecting a vapid porn-industry gala with Jesuitical vigor or reviewing tennis prodigy Tracy Austin’s lobotomized 1994 memoir.
Wallace’s dense style is a homeopathic antidote to our verbose information-overloaded age. In “Authority and American English Usage” he gives an F to academic prose, calling it “[p]ompous . . . sesquipedalian, Heliogabaline . . . jargon-ridden, empty: resplendently dead.” An English lit professor himself, Wallace is always lucid, and in both his fiction and nonfiction he evinces a heartfelt desire to engage your ethics and beliefs—when not sending you staggering to the dictionary—by laying out indefatigably researched (if sometimes contradictory) conclusions.
In the title essay, about Maine’s annual lobsterfest, Wallace informs Gourmet‘s readers: “Pain reception is known to be part of a much older and more primitive system of nociceptors and prostaglandins that are managed by the brain stem and thalamus.” He also asks, “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental?” Next he’s describing PETA’s slaughterhouse exposés while musing whether his editors will countenance such soul-searching.
The most overtly political piece, “Up, Simba,” is a mash note to John McCain’s 2000 presidential run, which acknowledges the “sometimes extremely scary right-wing” candor of the Arizona Republican while remaining openmouthed at the former P.O.W.’s sense of duty and sacrifice. McCain lost to Bush’s scorched-earth campaign in South Carolina, for which Wallace early on sets the mood: “The central-SC countryside looks blasted, lynched, the skies the color of low-grade steel, the land all dead sod and broomsedge.”
Wallace’s encyclopedic knowledge of porn seems a direct corollary to the “social costs of being an adolescent whose overriding passion is English usage.” He elaborates: “From personal experience, I can assure you that any kid like this is going to be at best marginalized and at worst savagely and repeatedly Wedgied.” Even as the adult Wallace pushes the frontiers of the written word, his self-deprecation rings sincere. Consider his final verdict, after 20 pages of pondering humanity’s hegemony over the food chain in “Lobster”: “There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other.”