Thursday, October 2, 2008

Reviewed: Consider the Lobster, and Other Stories

For those who don't know, David Foster Wallace, considered one of the nation's most talented writers and a darling of the college literary scene, hung himself on September 12 2008. He was 46.

I could not have known what would happen to DFW when I purchased Consider the Lobster, as the author's depression wouldn't take its final turn for a week yet.

Consider's back flap features this commentary from New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani, "Wallace can do sad, funny, silly, heartbreaking, and absurd with equal ease; he can even do them all at once."

An interesting remark, since when his first novel was published DFW told Salon, "I wanted to do something sad. I'd done some funny stuff and some heavy, intellectual stuff, but I'd never done anything sad."

But that's the thing about these essays, thrown together with little apparent concern for a reader's limited field of knowledge and even less for thematic unity: they are sad, particularly against the backdrop of DFW's life.

In these essays, DFW wades through the muck of American life. "Big Red Son" is a review of the adult film industry as a theater of the grotesque, a place so unconsciously awful that it is only by assuming multiple faux-journalistic personalities (in other words, by consulting the voices in his head) that the author can survive it.

The title essay, a piece that originally ran in Gourmet, turns a review of the annual tourist-palooza known as the Maine Lobster Fest into an urgent examination of animal rights, one so underhandedly compelling that it nearly turned me vegan.

But by far the best essay in this bunch is "Host," written for The Atlantic Monthly back when that magazine was still called The Atlantic Monthly. In "Host," DFW goes behind-the-scenes in conservative talk radio, analyzing the brittle relationship between corporate profit and social loss in this under-explored but much-reviled medium. Perhaps one of the most telling quotes in the entire story is from conservative commentator Mr. Z, who complains that his "low six figures" salary puts him seriously behind all national radio hosts in terms of annual compensation. Small spiritedness is big business in modern American politics.

As in any collection of essays, some are much, much better than others. "Big Red Son" is subtly hilarious, but in an age when Jenna Jameson has become just another celebrity, it lacks vitality. "Up, Simba," about John McCain's first run for President, is another dark gem, and one with a current national relevance the author could not have predicted. DFW's essays on Updike, Kafka, Usage and Dostoevsky are densely literary and philosophical, and only the most dedicated readers will unlock them.

But here's the thing that drives DFW's writing and makes it important: too often, modern journalists take "media integrity" to mean "tabula rasa." Many of today's writers seem to think that being "unbiased" means ignoring the patently absurd and the grandiosely false, even when it happens in front of them. For those who don't understand the difference, click here to read "Host," which the fine people at the Atlantic have made available for free as a (perhaps unwitting) public service.

But the grand point I was making is that these essays are sad. And this is why: even when talking about the most inhuman ways that people mislead, misquote and mistreat each other, DFW maintains his obvious optimism about the human species. "We're all capable of awfulness," goes the subtext, "but that means we're also all capable of greatness."

And the overwhelming tragedy of this is that David Foster Wallace, whose raison d'ecrire seems to be to prove that nothing in society is beyond our collective control, in fact died of depression, one of the few things in life beyond his control.

Read it if you like: Jonathan Safran-Foer
Skip it if you prefer: Rush Limbaugh

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