Here’s the thing about David Foster Wallace, and the main reason I’m having such a hard time reviewing this book. In my experience, people either love, hate, or haven’t yet read anything by DFW. If they love him, it’s most likely for all the reasons I do—his unique outlook, his superb vocabulary, his singular writing style, his ability to pair poignant observation with subtle humor—and if they hate him, well it’s probably for those exact same reasons. So the only scenario I can really think of to address is the one where you, as a reader, have against all odds managed to dodge his work. In the interest of providing some sort of service to my three-person audience, copied below is a passage from one essay in Consider the Lobster, which gives a fair (though woefully inadequate, in the grand scheme of things) idea of what exactly it is to read an entire book of words written by DFW. (This particular essay, for reference, is an extremely detailed evaluation of Standard Written English, and the merits or disadvantages of enforcing its use).
“When I say or write something, there are actually a whole lot of different things I am communicating. The propositional content (i.e., the verbal information I’m trying to convey) is only one part of it. Another part is stuff about me, the communicator. Everyone knows this. It’s a function of the fact that there are so many different well-formed ways to say the same basic thing, from e.g. “I was attached by a bear!” to “Goddamn bear tried to kill me!” to “That ursine juggernaut did essay to sup upon my person!” and so on. Add the Saussurian/Chomskian consideration that many grammatically ill-formed sentences can also get the propositional content across—”Bear attack Tonto, Tonto heap scared!”—and the number of subliminal options we’re scanning/sorting/interpreting as we communicate with one another goes transfinite very quickly.
And different levels of diction and formality are only the simplest kinds of distinction; things get way more complicated in the sorts of interpersonal communication where social relations and feelings and moods come into play. Here’s a familiar kind of example. Suppose that you and I are acquaintances and we’re in my apartment having a conversation and that at some point I want to terminate the conversation and not have you be in my apartment anymore. Very delicate social moment. Think of all the different ways I can try to handle it: “Wow, look at the time”; “Could we finish up later?”; “Could you please leave now?”; “Go”; “Get out”; “Get the hell out of here”; “Didn’t you say you had to be someplace?”; “Time for you to hit the dusty trail, my friend”; “Off you go then, love”; or that sly old telephone-conversation-ender: “Well, I’m going to let you go now”; etc. etc. And then think of all the different factors and implications of each option.*
*(Footnote) To be honest, the example here has a special personal resonance for this reviewer because in real life I always seem to have a hard time winding up a conversation or asking someone 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” — which evidently makes me look either as if I’m very rude and abrupt or as if I’m semi-autistic and have no sense of how to wind up a conversation gracefully. Somehow, in other words, my reducing the statement to its bare propositional content “sends a message” that is itself scanned, sifted, interpreted, and judged by my auditor, who then sometimes never comes back. I’ve actually lost friends this way.”
Bottom line: If you didn’t like the above (excluding a lost-in-translation element that comes with taking an excerpt from a fairly long and involved essay), then DFW is not the man for you. And if you did like it, well hey, I’ve just introduced you to some of the best shit you’ll ever read.
I have my moments of frustration with David Foster Wallace—his writing can be extremely dense and he sometimes shows little regard for the knowledge level (or interest level) of his audience—but to be honest there was just no way this book wasn’t getting four paper cuts. As an author, he will make you laugh, make you think, maybe make you cry, challenge you intellectually, question you ethically, and just generally manage to make you interested in whatever he’s writing about, and more often than not, in himself. Since his suicide, I find I also notice and in some ways embrace an undercurrent of depression in his writing, an occasional crossover from general cynicism to something darker. For me personally, it’s something I can relate to, something I appreciate seeing in someone who is so clearly gifted and intelligent and capable of finding the humor in things.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that in DFW’s work, there’s a bit of everything, wrapped in an extremely well-written package. If you’re a newbie to the author, start with the nonfiction; it’s more accessible and a good way to ease into his writing. And if you’re old hat, I’m looking for suggestions on which novel to read next. (No Infinite Jest, I’m just not ready).
TITLE: Consider the Lobster
AUTHOR: David Foster Wallace
PAGES: 343 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Infinite Jest
SORTA LIKE: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
FIRST LINE: “The American Academy of Emergency Medicine confirms it: Each year, between one and two dozen adult U.S. males are admitted to ERs after having castrated themselves.”