‘Consider The Lobster,’ David Foster Wallace
I had heard of DFW, the Next Great Thing, the Tragic Author, (Wallace committed suicide in 2008, at the age of 46, mid-novel), but had avoided reading him due to a) the intimidating thickness of the only book I had ever seen by him, and b) his reputation for being all-but unreadable. With six months living on an idyllic lake to look forward to I decided to remedy this situation, and took his generally acknowledged masterpiece, ‘Infinite Jest,’ along with an hors d’oeuvre of his essays, ‘Consider The Lobster,’ along with me to Guatemala last year.
The essays in this collection were many and varied, but all were a great introduction to Wallace‘s style and his later, lengthier literature: footnotes, of which he was an absolute addict, abound, as do a wry tone and a seeming passion for any and everything. The essays also highlight a penchant for in-depth analysis of subjects which you initially doubt merit in-depth analysis, but often end up engrossed in anyway, from elections to grammar mavens. All of this new knowledge stood me in good stead for the challenge of reading ‘Infinite Jest‘…
Wallace clearly has a passion for words: below is a typical, dictionary-infused paragraph:
“…who got to watch all this brave new individualism and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation – today’s subforties have very different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness…”
‘Anomic’? ‘Anomie’? ‘Solipsism’? All in the space of a single sentence? This can take some getting used to…
but when you do get used to him, there can be some deeply insightful messages and ideas behind the often opaque language, like his views on humour buried in the depths of an essay on teaching Russian Literature:
“A crude way to put the whole thing [humour] is that our present culture is, both developmentally and historically, adolescent. And since adolescence is acknowledged to be the single most stressful and frightening period of human development – the stage when the adulthood we claim to crave begins to present itself as a real and narrowing system of limitations (taxes, death) and when we yearn inside for a return to the same childish oblivion we pretend to scorn – it’s not difficult to see why we as a culture are so susceptible to art and entertainment whose primary function is escape, i.e. fantasy, adrenaline, spectacle, romance, etc. Jokes are a kind of art…”
the person often shines through the writing of Wallace
the writer, (one of the things I enjoy most about essays, as I had previously found whilst reading Rushdie
, Amis and especially Jeff Dyer
): I loved the slightly autistic view he presented of himself in passages like this one:
“…in real life I always seem to have a hard time winding up a conversation or asking somebody to leave, and sometimes the moment becomes so delicate and fraught with social complexity that I’ll get overwhelmed trying to sort out all the different possible ways of saying it and all the different implications of each option and will just sort of blank out and do it totally straight – ‘I want to terminate the conversation and not have you be in my apartment anymore’…”
On music being a linguistic barrier between generations:
“Nor are lyrics like ‘I can’t get no/Satisfaction’ an accident or any kind of sad commentary on the British educational system. Jagger et al. aren’t stupid; they’re rhetoricians, and they know their audience…”
A beautiful description of athletes:
“To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves…”
The most fascinating essay was, somewhat surprisingly, on the seven days Wallace spent following Senator John McCain, (future Presidential candidate), as he attempted to become the Republican Party candidate for President in 2000, losing out eventually to, of course, ‘Noocalar’ George.W.Bush.
“There is still an NV statue of McCain by this lake [in Hanoi] today, showing him on his knees with his hands up and eyes scared and on the pediment the inscription ‘McCan – famous air pirate’ [sic]…”
John McCain statue, Hanoi, Vietnam
On a stupefying fact about Fyodor Dostoevsky:
“His Moscow childhood was evidently so miserable that in his books Dostoevsky never once sets or even mentions any action in Moscow…”
Finally, a metaphysical question which in four short sentences plumbs the depths of Foster Wallace’s soul:
“Is the real point of my life simply to undergo as little pain and as much pleasure as possible? My behaviour sure seems to indicate that this is what I believe, at least a lot of the time. But isn’t this kind of a selfish way to live? Forget selfish – isn’t it awful lonely?…”
I enjoyed the essays, and the sometimes challenging nature of them, and will look out for more collections of them: but really, they were just mental training for confronting his magnum opus…
‘Infinite Jest,’ David Foster Wallace
Dave Eggers, in his Foreword to the new edition, name-checks a wide and wonderful chunk of culture, many of which are or have recently become some of my favourites, (Kerouac excepted). This left me with high hopes, and I wasn’t disappointed:
“If we are drawn to Infinite Jest, we’re also drawn to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Songs…Or the work of Sufjan Stevens…It’s why we watch Shoah, or visit the unending scroll on which Jack Kerouac wrote (in a fever of days) On The Road…or Michael Apted’s 7-Up, 28-Up, 42-Up series of films, or…well, the list goes on…”
(And here is a video of from one of these artists mentioned to enjoy whilst you read the rest of the blog!)
So, what was it like to read? It was like a million different things, from fascinating to confusing to inspiring to despairing…
The style is truly fascinating: the author’s obsession with grammar, (‘sics’ spattered throughout the text), butts heads with the deliberately chatty style, (“…and so…but then…”), leaving you wondering who the narrator is. Is there even a narrator? Why is the narrator so non-omniscient, (see Note 216 to the text, which the narrator inserts merely in order to tell us that he has: “No clue.”)? Or are these merely notes in novel form?
The novel is also like a giant literary jigsaw puzzle: Wallace may mention a character has two-and-a-half fingers missing, and then 400 pages later it will be mentioned in passing how he lost them. This can either make for a very frustrating read, or a wonderfully pleasant roller-coaster if you give up on logic and traditional narrative technique and just enjoy the ride..
However, it is the prose which carries you through the 1,000+ pages of this work. Playful, serious, descriptive, emotive, critical: maybe a bunch of quotes will help:
“This is not working out. It strikes me that EXIT signs would look to a native speaker of Latin like red-lit signs that say HE LEAVES…”
“I can picture DeLint and White sitting with their elbows on their knees in the defecatory posture of all athletes at rest…”
“Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves…”
“..he, too, has to struggle with a strange urge to be cruel to Ingersoll, who reminds him of someone he dislikes but can’t quite place…”
“The U.S.S.Millicent’s hand was large and hot and at the level of sogginess of a bathmat that’s been used several times in a row in quick succession…”
“He plays golf. Your grandfather. Your grandpappy. Golf. A golf man. Is my tone communicating the contempt? Billiards on a big table…anal rage and checkered berets…”
“The ones it says here the ones the cruel call Two-Baggers – one bag for your head, one bag for the observer’s head in case your bag falls off…Those who undress only in front of their pets…”
“In a different little notebook, the M.P. noted the date and time of each Heineken he consumed. He was the sort of person who equated incredibly careful record-keeping with control…”
“We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly…”
As serious as it often is, (one of the major themes being drug and alcohol addiction and their effects, another Canadian separatist terrorism in a near-future dystopia, although the latter is treated a lot more amusingly than it may sound), ‘Infinite Jest‘ is also full of subtle, hidden, teeny-tiny jokes scattered throughout. This humour spews out in various ways, often in wordplay and wonderful analogies, similes and metaphors:
“‘Kid, sobriety’s like a hard-on: the minute you get it, you want to fuck with it’…”
“…the Dean…’so full of himself he could have shit limbs’…”
One major feature of Wallace‘s writing is footnotes, (although these are found not at the foot of the page, but at the back of the book, being so numerous. Is there another word for these? If so, I don’t know it). Note 324 lasts from page 1,066 to 1,072, and there is absolutely no need for it not to be part of the main body of the text. But DFW loves a good note: ‘Infinite Jest‘ in my edition weighs in at 1,079 pages, of which 96, (or 8.9%), are notes.
By the end of this novel, you will know more than you ever wanted to about how a kid becomes a professional tennis player, (it’s not pretty, yet somehow hypnotically interesting), and almost as much as a recovering addict about the ways and means of AA, DA and various rehabilitation centres. You will not, however, know how the story ends: with a few dozens pages left to read, I realised that the several storylines were never going to be tied up in time: I briefly remembered that Wallace had died in the middle of one of his novels, and when I reached the anti-climactic final sentence I cursed my luck that it was during the first one I decided to read.
Except it wasn’t: Wallace had killed himself halfway through the posthumously released ‘The Pale King.’ With ‘Infinite Jest,’ he had merely given up. This left me angry at first, until I realised how often endings had disappointed me, and not just in books but everything from Monty Python skits to, specifically, the sinking feeling I had with every passing episode of the last season of ‘Lost‘ as I realised that nothing was going to be explained. So…