Friday, January 15, 2010

Book Review: Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

(Originally published in The Compulsive Reader)

Whether he is considering lobsters or the porn industry, John McCain campaigning in South Carolina or an “as told to autobiography” of Tracy Austin, David Foster Wallace has created a voice for himself that is erudite without pedantry, critical without stridency, humane but not preachy. He has created a persona that more often than not focuses on the ironic contradictions inherent in his subject–appearance and reality, theory and practice, form and substance, a persona that is, more often than not, amused rather than indignant at these ironies. Moreover, since the whole idea of persona, both as it applies to a writer and as it can be used to denote the public face people try to present to the rest of the world, is one of the major themes in the various essays, it is probably a good idea to pay some attention to that face that Wallace creates for himself and perhaps ask as he often does himself what does it all mean.

Persona is the term used to describe the voice a writer uses to speak to his readers. Sometimes, most usually in fiction, he creates a character other than himself to speak for him. This would include narrative voices such as Nick in The Great Gatsby, the governess in The Turn of the Screw, Gulliver telling of his travels. These are voices recognizably distinct from those of the author. Sometimes he speaks in a voice that seems to be his own, at least not a voice identified with any other character, yet it seems clear to the reader that some distinction needs to be made between the speaker on the page and the author in his study. The voice may be something very much like what both he and his readers consider his actual voice to be (so close indeed that the reader may well imagine it not a voice at all); it may be a complete fabrication, a creation of a persona with a personality and world view separate and distinct from that of the author even though it speaks in the first person. Perhaps the Henry David Thoreau of Walden at the one extreme, the Jonathan Swift of “A Modest Proposal” at the other. Voice, mask, face (as in prepare a face to “meet the faces that we meet”) are more or less synonyms for persona.

No matter the term used, implicit in the idea of the persona is a desire on the writer’s part to hide what he considers his real self [whatever that my mean (with apologies to Wallace)] behind this created voice. His motive may be privacy, modesty, embarrassment at what his writing may reveal about himself. As for example Robert Browning’s famous resolution to write in “so many voice not my own” after reading John Stuart Mill’s review of the confessional “Pauline.” It may be an attempt to present himself to the world as he would like the world to see him–noble, witty, sincere, sarcastic, adventurous, idealistic, worldly, pragmatic, objective, sensitive (or even erudite, critical and humane). Consider the epigrammatic wit of Oscar Wilde in “The Decay of Lying,” the sensitive sincerity of Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes; the visionary preacher of Martin Luther King’s speeches, the indomitable strength of Churchill’s. More than likely the author’s motive will be at least in part rhetorical. He will want to affect his audience, and he creates the face that he supposes most likely to do the job..

David Foster Wallace’s persona is fair minded. He is constantly labeling footnotes and interpolations as editorial, opinion rather than fact. He is quick to make the reader aware of any axes he may have to grind. When he writes about McCain, he confesses that he voted for Bradley (which may also explain the constant references to McCain’s opponent as Shrub). While he admits to qualms about live lobster boiling, he recognizes that those qualms are not strong enough to prevent him from partaking, preferably with melted butter. Although recognizing that there are certainly political implications underlying the concept of Standard Written English, he is more than a little inclined to defend both its practical usefulness and even its aesthetic value. Besides it makes it abundantly clear he is a “snoot” (defined in a footnote as the reviewer’s “nuclear family’s nickname a clef for a really extreme usage fanatic. . . .”).

He tends to be modest, somewhat self effacing and open to learn from others. He culls political wisdom from the electronic technical support people traveling with the McCain entourage. He tags along with two of the “marginal print journalists” from the “sorts of men’s magazines that sit shrinkwrapped behind the cash registers of convenience stores.” He picks the brains of talk show screeners and producers. He warns us a number of times that what follows may be a lot more than we might really be interested in knowing, but than goes on to tell us anyway, whether he is expounding on the biology of the lobster or taking us “substantially farther behind the scenes” of the McCain campaign than we’re “apt to want to be.” On a variety of occasions he tells us that what we’ve just read or what we are going to read is unlikely to survive the editing process. All of which is to suggest an authorial voice very much like the reader himself, someone who has found out all this interesting stuff and can’t help but want to share it with others very much like himself. In other words, Wallace rarely (although sometimes when writing about language and literature) presents himself as an expert writing down to his audience.

He manages this self deprecating ordinary guy mask despite the fact that almost everything else about his essays cries out a voice anything but ordinary. His choice of vocabulary (e.g. apsidal, ayotolloid, amentia, cancrine, Euthyphotically, luxated) will have readers back and forth to the dictionary with regularity. He uses quotations and phrases from other languages without bothering to translate. He tosses around labels like deconstruction and structuralism. He disparages the prose of academics, especially that of English professors, while obsessed with footnotes and footnotes within footnotes, parenthetical asides and parentheticals within parantheticals [readers should be advised that often embedded in the small print of the foonotes (tiny as it may be) there may well lurk a gem]. He is as comfortable, if not more so, writing about Dostoevsky and Kafka as he is about talk radio and porn starlets.

In effect then he has created a paradoxical persona that seems both elite and ordinary at the same time. It is a persona one suspects is adopted for his readers in the same way that the various writers and public figures he talks about in his essays have adopted their voices and faces for their audiences. The elaborately made up, sexily clad porn queens at the Consumer Electronics Show, dress in “baggy jeans and cotton halters and big fuzzy slippers” in the privacy of their hotel suite. The self assured cocky combativeness of the talk radio hosts is unlikely to have anything in common with their off air personalities. He even speculates about whether John McCain’s campaign image as someone who will always tell the truth and never pander to the voters is not merely a cynical ploy to create the kind of persona that he and his handlers have determined will appeal to that disaffected portion of the electorate that dismisses all politicians as crooks.

In a sense, then, there is something dishonest in the very idea of the persona. Isn’t the persona–whether in the politician, the porn queen, and yes, even the essayist–simply a way to manipulate the public? On air personalities, Wallace opines, are adopted by talk show hosts to “heighten the sense of a real person behind the mike.” In other words, to make himself seem more true, the host creates a fake personality. In this sense the idea of the persona suggests that what is false may seem more true than what is true. On the other hand, what if the creator of the persona is not only manipulating his audience, what if he is manipulating himself? Does McCain tell the truth because he is a truthful man or because he wants to think of himself as a truthful man so that voters will think of him as a truthful man? This is an ethical problem which Wallace crystalizes in an interpolation in his essay on Dostoevsky (what more appropriate place):

“**Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person,
or do I want only to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will
approve of me? Is there a difference? How so I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?**”

Does true goodness depend on the reason for being good? To be good is not enough, in a sense one must be good for the right reasons.

Unless. . .. What if the perception is the reality? There is no reality other than the persona. Persona is everything. What you present to the public is what you are. What you think you are is in some sense irrelevant.

The essays collected in “Consider the Lobster” were written in the 1990's and in the early years of the new century. They were written for periodicals as diverse as Gourmet, Premiere, the Atlantic Monthly and the Village Voice Literary Supplement. Some are book reviews, others are editorial assignments. All of them look at their subjects with a freshness and insight, in a style that is innovative and original.

Wallace has an eye for the telling detail that gives the reader the sense that nothing escapes him, large or small. Whether it’s a starlet’s inflatable implants or the reward for the waiters at the end of the adult film awards banquet, the problems with the bathroom door on one of the McCain campaign busses, or what the call screener is watching on TV while the host chats on air, he spotlights the kind of intimate details that reinforce the reader’s feeling that here is someone who knows what he’s talking about.

But, ultimately, Wallace is concerned with the larger issues raised by his subjects. “Authority and American English,” ostensibly a review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner, is more importantly an analysis of the great language wars of the past few decades against the backdrop of language theory and linguistic politics. His essay on McCain uses his account of his week with the campaign to examine the whole issue of politics and image. An essay on the reaction to 9/11 in a small Mid-Western town contrasts the reactions of more or less average ‘apple pie’ Americans with that of more jaded intellectual types like himself. “Consider the Lobster,” the title essay uses a Maine Lobsterfest to question the ethical treatment of animals, to question the morality of inflicting pain on animals and using them for fodder. Is this something people even consider? If not, why not? Talk show hosts, the adult film industry, Dostoevsky and John Updike, there are always similar questions to be asked.
David Foster Wallace’s essays range over the broad expanse of contemporary American culture. He analyzes. He explains. He critiques. And always he questions. Whatever the topic, what he has to say is original and well worth reading. His voice, his real voice or the voice he has created for the readers of Rolling Stone, is a voice that demands attention.

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