I love David Foster Wallace's fiction, so trying his non-fiction seemed like the next logical step toward becoming a true David Foster Wallace fanboy. (Boy, I'm sure he'd have something to say about that word.) I was not disappointed—Wallace's sense of humour, wit and excitement shine through here, just as in his other work.
Some people object to DFW's use of footnotes or to his verbosity (or to both), but these do not bother me. Sure, it's a bit jarring to jump between Main Thought and Tangent every twenty words, but one doesn't have
to read the footnotes. (In fact, it might be easier to first read Consider the Lobster
sans footnotes and then dive into them the second time through.) I also quite enjoy DFW's often verbose writing style. While some writers come across as jaded and cynical when they pick up the thesaurus, DFW always sounds genuinely excited to be gushing about John McCain or Maine Lobsters or porn stars or Dostoevsky or Universal Grammar, and that's precisely what makes reading these essays so much fun.
The topics are also unique and well-presented, and while you may never have considered linguistic prescriptivism or Franz Kafka's sense of humour, you'll certainly be aware of these issues after reading Consider the Lobster
. These essays are finely written and infinitely better than the stuff Malcolm Gladwell writes, which is all I ask for in my non-fiction.
Why didn't I give this five stars? Well, some of the essays are pretty academically narrow. You probably wouldn't give the Dostoevsky one to a friend to flip through over coffee, and I really can't see anyone reading about linguistic usage wars at the beach. Since I've never read Kafka and I barely finished Crime and Punishment
, I'm sure I misssed out on a lot of content in those essays. This isn't DFW's fault, but it means that Consider the Lobster
isn't really designed for mass reading, and that will only discourage some readers.
Another nagging problem is that DFW doesn't quite nail the endings of a few essays. For instance, the John McCain piece goes into quite some detail about whether McCain is an authentic leader or a salesman, and how his imprisonment in Vietnam affects this decision, and whether modern American cynicism has anything to do with this, and whether his "always tell the truth" shtick is truthful or, well, non-factual. But DFW doesn't wrap the story convincingly; he basically says, "well, it's for you to decide". That's all fine and good—after all, we're the ones who end up voting—but it seems like all that exploration leads to a non-conclusion. This also happens at the end of the lobster piece: DFW acknowledges both sides of the is-eating-animals-okay-if-it-causes-them-pain-okay?
debate, he tells us that he enjoys eating meat, and he examines the notion that lobsters act as if they're in pain when they're in a boiling pot, but he doesn't tell us whether any of this matters. It's a mass of highly interesting information that doesn't lead to a definite endgame. Granted, the piece was written for a gourmet magazine, so perhaps that isn't the venue for such an ethical inquiry, and DFW readily acknowledges that these questions are the sort of hardcore philosophy that most people don't deal with on a regular basis. He lets us make up our own conclusion, but since he's done such a bang-up job with everything else, our own ideas seem pale and flimsy by comparison.
That's about all I could find wrong with Consider the Lobster
, and it's not even that big a deal. All in all, a great book.