Friday, June 1, 2012

Porn, Kafka, and Talk Radio

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace, containing Big Red Son; Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think; Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed; Authority and American Usage; The View From Mrs. Thompson's; How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart; Up, Simba; Consider the Lobster; Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky; Host (1996-2005; Collected 2005): Brilliant, wide-ranging collection of previously published essays from the late Wallace, who remains best known for his massive modern classic of an American novel, Infinite Jest.

David Foster Wallace was something of a polymath when it came to his interests as both an essayist and a writer of fiction. In this collection, he assesses the American porn industry as a fly on the wall at its annual awards convention; John Updike's solipsism; Kafka; a new volume on Standard Written (American) English; the events of 9/11 as experienced while Wallace was living in Bloomington, Indiana; sports autobiographies; John McCain's 2000 run at the Republican preisdential nomination; the annual Maine lobster festival; a new volume of Joseph Frank's exhaustive literary biography of Dostoeevsky; and a conservative LA talk radio host. Whew!

Wallace may be the smartest man in the room, but he's also humane and sympathetic and often self-deprecating. His cultural insights will make one pause at points, especially his outsider's view of McCain's campaign experienced as a temporary insider on the campaign bus. It's not that McCain and his 'Straight Talk Express' were or were not 'authentic' in a way few politicians are -- it's the complex nature of 'authenticity' on the campaign trail that Wallace investigates both generally and in detail.

Wallace also deploys an encyclopedic array of facts about his topics like a discoverer describing the culture and habits of a new country. I learned more about the nuts and bolts of American talk radio in the early 21st century here than everywhere else; I learned way more than I really wanted to know about the history of lobsters as a foodstuff. Thankfully, I'm allergic to lobsters already or I'd be ideologically allergic to them as a menu item after the title essay.

Do any of the essays suggest the long-standing bipolar disorder that would eventually help cause Wallace's suicide only a couple years after this collection was published? No, not really -- Wallace seems fully engaged with the world, his demons almost completely hidden except for a September 12, 2001 panic attack in an Indiana convenience store as he realized he couldn't find an American flag to buy for his house, American flags having sprung up everywhere after the attacks. Otherwise, though, Wallace's accounts of his interactions with the broad spectrum of people and places in this collection suggests someone intelligent, highly analytical, earnest, witty, and thoroughly engaged with the world. Highly recommended.

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