A completely biased book review

David Foster Wallace

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 doβ€”his unique outlook, his superb vocabulary, his singular writing style, his ability to pair poignant observation with subtle humorβ€”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 acrossβ€””Bear attack Tonto, Tonto heap scared!”β€”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 β€” “I want to terminate the conversation and not have you be in my apartment anymore” β€” 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.

Continue reading “A completely biased book review”

Lobster, considered

I really didn’t want to read this book. Or at least I wasn’t supposed to.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love David Foster Wallace. I think he was one of a kind, which is why it pains me every time I decide to read one of his books. Because I know there are a finite number of them; once I’ve read the last one, fin. …I suppose that’s true of many authors, including the classics’, but the circumstance and timing of DFW’s death make it feel relatable, more familiar. In reading his work, I’ve found myself upset that I’ll never know his insight on the current time period–on Obama or Twitter or the Biebs, on Shake Weight, or Watson or 3D movies–because I know his humor, his neurotic thoroughness and unrelenting cynicism, would have made that insight so unique and perfect. Instead I soak up his inner monologues on things like McCain’s 2000 campaign, and pore over his descriptions of a fictional futuristic world eerily like our actual present. And really wish he was still alive to write.

Sigh. Back to the task at hand. So reading any DFW book feels moderately epic. In addition, though I’m a fan of his short stories and novels, I’m partial to his nonfiction books, of which Consider the Lobster is one. Not one, but my last, because I am weak-willed and powerless over a good essay. Also, there’s a lobster on the cover. I can’t be held accountable for that kind of temptation.

Long story short, I’ve decided to drag this one out an extra week, a decision aided by the fact that DFW frequently includes half-page footnotes in footnote-size typeface, and that these footnotes frequently themselves have footnotes in even smaller typeface, so that one feels they’ve read entire pages when they’ve really just managed three lines of a footnote’s footnote. But also, because I want to enjoy it.