Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

consider the lobster

Somehow i went ages without posting about David Foster Wallace's latest, Consider the Lobster.

I feel i haven't much to say about DFW anymore. if it is writing that you like, he's the best. nobody writes better. Lobster, the book at hand, is a collection of essays and articles, and is no exception. These follow in the spirit of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, altho with possibly varying degrees of success as far as the original patrons of the essays may be concerned.

The title piece, for example, seems to be Gourmet's ("The Magazine of Good Living") attempt to cash in on the sparkling prose of A Supposedly Fun Thing's Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All, in which somebody (Harper's?) commissioned DFW to spend a few days at the Illinois State Fair and write about it. The results are absolutely charming. So Gourmet ditto'd-up with a paid few days at the Maine Lobster Festival, the results of which are desirously picaresque and charming until about half-way thru the essay, when our hero DFW turns to the pretty much inescapable question of the morality of boiling lobsters alive. Henceforth it pretty much reads like PETA propoganda, except two orders of magnitude better written, which made this reader pretty deeply happy and self-satisfied. It actually wasn't so much the self-satisfaction of the vegetarian-over-meat-eater, as more just Huzzah!ing at DFW's big old middle finger in the face of Gourmet, The Magazine of Good Living. - I've since mentioned several of the moral arguments DFW presents to friends who enjoy lobster, and concluded that sans more evidence i possibly can't weigh in any stronger than i can on any other um, issue of mortal gastro-dominion, and probably the less said here the better.

So but the title essay was actually far from my favorite.
One of the problems i have with DFW is that it's all so good that my favorite is pretty much defined as whatever i read last. -With the exception of The Broom of the System. So maybe i should just run a quick summary of the essays.

* Big Red Son, for Premiere Magazine - DFW is comissioned to attend the Annual Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas. Basically the Grammies or whatever of the porn industry. It's pretty horrifying, and you can easily empathize with poor DFW, altho he surely had some idea when he took the job. One quick quote here, in which "we" and other first-person-plurals are, fyi, referring to DFW:
Burly casino staffers stand taking tickets and being very discouraging about anybody trying to bum-rush the show. The crush of bodies out here entails a degree of physical contact that [male porn groupies] never even dreamed of. ... A suspicion that we'd has all week but decided was unverifiable is now instantly verified when one of yr. corresp[ondant]s get accidentally shoved against a starlet and is jabbed in the side by her breasts and it hurts.
[italics his]

* Certainly the end of Something or other, one would sort of have to think, for The New York Observer - This is a review of John Updike's recent book Towards the End of Time. Basically DFW tears into Updike and says he hasn't written a single non-masturbatory word since the late 60s. Personally i've only read The Poorhous Fair, and loved it, but i have a feeling he may be right. Interesting Harper's Index-style statistics DFW cites: (It should be noted that Updike's novel is posing as Science Fiction, set in a near-future apocalyptic world)
  • Total # of pages about [fictional] Sino-American war - causes, duration, etc: 0.75
  • Total # of pages about deadly mutant metallobioforms: 1.5
  • Total # of pages about flora arounf Turnbull's New England home, plus fauna, plus weather, and how his ocean view looks in different seasons: 86
  • Total # of pages about Mexican repossession of US Southwest: 0.1
  • Total # of pages about Ben Turnbull's penis and his various thoughts and feelings about it: 10.5
  • Total # of pages about [life in Boston after a nuclear war]: 0.0
  • Total # of pages about prostitute's body, w/ particular attention to sexual loci: 8.5
  • Total # of pages about golf: 15
  • Total # of pages of Ben Turnbull saying things like "I want women to be dirty" and "She was a choice cut of meat and I hope she held out for a fair price" and ... "The sexual parts are fiends, sacrafacing everything to that aching point of contact" and "ferocious female nagging is the price men pat for our much-lamented prerogatives, the power and the mobility and the penis [sic?]": 36.5
So all told, i'm highly disinclined to read this recent Updike before going thru more of the canon.

It might also be noted that July's issue of Harper's has a similarly cutting review of the even more recent Updike novel, "Terrorist". Robert Boyers comes to similar conclusions as DFW regarding Updike's ability to comment on the contemporary world.

* Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed, for Harper's. - An essay about the deep humor in Kafka. Would probably have meant more to me if i had actually read much/any Kafka, but an excellent essay none-the-less.

* Authority and American Usage, for Harper's. Allright. Me reviewing this essay is where you will see real restraint. Basically folks, there is a war raging in America and the world today over not only what is grammatically correct, but what is theoretically grammatically correct. The two sides are The Prescriptivists and The Descriptivists. The basic delineation is that Descriptivism holds that Proper Grammar is however the language is *actually* used, while Prescriptivism says that P.G. is how the language *ought* to be used. Picture say popular Hip-Hop versus English Teachers. DFW and myself are Prescriptivists. Many of my best friends are linguists, and consequently Descriptivists. The pleasure of reading a rhetorician such as DFW finally break down and stoop to conquer a little bit *on your side*, well, possibly again the less said the better. Deeply satisfying. I guess i should also add the the essay itself is a review of the book A Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner. Who is also prescriptivist.

* The View From Mrs. Thompson's, for Rolling Stone - an essay recounting the days immediately after 9-11, during which DFW happened to be in Bloomington, Illinois. The basic thesis is that Bloomington, Illinois is a good altho sedated place and far removed from the politics of The United States of America.

* How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart, for The Philadelphia Enquirer - The story of DFWs celebrity-crush on Tracy Austin, tennis star. I confess i sort of missed exactly how she broke his heart. I'm not sure if it was by turning out to be a child prodigy and no more, or by having a terribly 'auto-biography' ghost-written about her. It's a great essay tho.

* Up, Simba, for Rolling Stone - Possibly the most interesting essay in the set, Up Simba is DFW's story of being embedded with the John McCain 2000 presidential campaign. It's a fabulous piece but the big takeaway is that while McCain is clearly terrifying in his right-wing politics, he possibly, in the opinion of DFW, has something which no other presidential candidate since possibly Anderson has had*, which is basic earnestness. ie that when McCain says he wants to "show america's youth how to belive in something larger than themselves", that he in fact means it. Most of the pro-McCain opinion comes from his famous time spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam in 1967: Basically McCain was shot down while bombing Hanoi, landed in the middle of downtown Hanoi, obviously the guy who was just bombing them, was beat-the-crap-out-of, and thrown in prison in Hoa Lo. Where his wounds were untreated, etc. And then after being barely alive for a few months, the North Vietnamese suddenly offer to simply let him go, as a gesture of good-will or whatever to McCain's father, a US Admiral. And the catch is that McCain, barely alive, refused the offer of freedom because "The US military's Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who'd been in Hoa Lo a much longer time, and McCain refused to violate the Code". He was then beaten and remained in prison for four years.
* - i should note that i know absolutely nothing about the Anderson campaign. i'm not sure why i said this. i feel i heard it somewhere.

So, much is made of this, McCain's apparent belief in something larger than himself. And possibly rightly. It's a great essay covering not just this but the freakish mechanisms of presidential candidacy and image-management, etc.

* Consider the Lobster, for Gourmet - see above.

* Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky, for The Village Voice Literary Supplement - Essentially a lauding of Dostoevsky and his recent biographer, Joseph Frank. All very good.

* Host, for the Atlantic Monthly - a rather extensive portrait of Los Angeles conservative talk-radio host John Ziegler, of KFI. Okay. The good lord knows that i love DFW's use of footnotes. Mmmm, even the footnotes have footnotes! It's like cake! So whoever decided it would be a good idea to take DFW's trademark footnotery and make it GRAPHICAL AND MODERN AND CHALLENGING TO THE READER'S WHOLE VISUAL SENSE OF JUST WHAT IS A FOOTNOTE ANYWAY is no friend of mine. The actual perps of the footnote->graphical chicanery are Marie Mundaca and Peter Bernard. - what were you guys thinking ? the footnotes are *already engaging* guys. no need to try to make a static book "hyperlinked" to itself or whatever you were going for. If i want annoying self-conscious typography i'll pick up a high school poetry 'zine. Enough cannot be said negative about this, imo, obviously.
So, typographical manglings aside,
the story itself is great, threading the ins-and-outs of the very big business of AM Talk Radio. We cruise the dial from technical mechanics to high-level business models to actual polemic. For the tenth time in this review, a great essay.

.. and that wraps it up.

I saw DFW speak briefly/indirectly on the occasion of the release of this book, about eight months ago in San Francisco, and at that time he expressed the idea that basically any writer of salt and/or conscience could more or less have no topic except the current erosion of liberty under the Patriot Act and other post 9-11 fallout. Together with the rather 'serious' topics in this book (Lobster, McCain, Mrs. Thompson's, Host) i feel that our friend may indeed be leaving the comparatively fanciful fields of Infinite Jest for somewhat darker pastures. Martin Amis obviously took a similar turn with Koba the Dread. While i'll naturally mourn such a transition, at least i know the writing and the grammar will be top-shelf all the way.


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