Saturday, March 04, 2006

Consider the Lobster

I love David Foster Wallace books. He's one of a handful of writers whose books I religiously pre-order when they show up on Amazon. Consider the Lobster is his latest essay collection, a curious grab bag of reviews and journalism which seems to span a period of some ten years. I have a sneaking suspicion that somebody wanted to get "Up, Simba!" and "Host" into print, realised that this wasn't really enough to justify a whole book, and reached for the archives. I don't care because, aside from one short book review, I haven't read any of this stuff before, and it's mostly great.

Wallace is best known for his novel Infinite Jest, an intimidating doorstop of a book which I still don't fully understand but love anyway. It's a strange novel, technically qualifying as sci-fi, set in a satirical near future where wheelchair-bound Canadian terrorists are trying to bring down America using the world's most entertaining videotape. (In retrospect, it's perhaps unfortunate that Foster didn't anticipate the rise of DVD, but so it goes.) While the plot tries its best to make progress in the background, the actual novel focusses on a variety of characters on the fringes of the plot who barely interact with one another, but does so in perversely compelling detail. A tennis academy, a drug rehab clinic, the experimental film industry, and student radio all figure heavily.

It also has an utterly frustrating ending which has led fans to spend ages arguing, on the strength of a couple of flashforwards and dream sequences, about how the story actually finishes. It clocks in at over a thousand pages of small print, some two hundred of which are endnotes. And don't think you can skip the endnotes. You can't. They contain vital plot points. Some of the endnotes have footnotes of their own.

It is, in short, a terrifying-looking novel which, understandably, tends to send a lot of people fleeing to the hills. Some people find it incomprehensible; others, perhaps more fairly, find it intolerable. In some circles it's been acclaimed as a modern classic, which probably scares off more people than it attracts. I'm still not honestly sure how the story ends, but I don't care, because once you get into the rhythm of Wallace's writing, he's incredibly entertaining. Unless you find him intolerable, of course.

I'm evangelical about Infinite Jest (which, come to think of it, I must get around to reading again), but it's not exactly the most accessible thing he's done. Actually, your best options would be his numerous short story collections, but the essay books are a good start as well. Given his writing style, it's surprising that Wallace gets as many assignments as he does. These are the unedited versions of articles that, in some cases, required drastic revision for mainstream publication. Wallace is big on analysis, and likes to write footnote-strewn articles that seem to spiral off in five directions at once from the central thread. Sometimes there are so many marginal additions, of such length, that you actually have to stop and work out, practically speaking, how you are going to read this text. With the vast majority of writers, this would be an ungodly annoying affection. With Wallace, he really does have that much to say, and he really does know what he's doing.

A common theme with Wallace's non-fiction - which is why it tends to sprawl so badly - is a recognition of just how complicated and multi-faceted most issues are, combined with an awareness that perpetually teetering on the brink of intellectual paralysis. Like a lot of intelligent, educated types, he's exasperated by the refusal of others to reason properly, but also awkwardly aware that unfounded conviction tends to get a lot more done. Just how much analysis is over-analysis? Why are we, or should we be, thinking about this subject anyway? Wallace articles tend to descend into this sort of vertiginous abstract spiral while remaining interesting, which is something very few writers seem able to pull off. Half the time he seems more interested in framing the right questions than in coming up with any answers (except, notably, when he's writing about his specialist subjects of literature and maths), but he usually ends up convincing you that there's an urgent question-framing problem which has hitherto been overlooked.

"Up, Simba" is a piece of relatively straight journalism which Wallace wrote in 2000 for Rolling Stone. In a downright curious choice, they sent him to follow John McCain's primary campaign for a week. Typically enough, Wallace overshot his word count spectacularly and turned in an 80-page epic which Rolling Stone politely rejected on the grounds that, in order to run it, they would have had to cut every other article from that week's issue, and bump some of the adverts too. The published version is, therefore, heavily bowdlerised. This version, however annoying it may have been to the commissioning editor, is great stuff, combining a detailed outsider's account of the campaign journalists (Wallace never got anywhere near McCain himself) with a serious discussion of McCain's appeal as an anti-establishment candidate, and whether it's possible to market an anti-spin candidate effectively without undermining his appeal.

"Host", a profile of Californian talk radio host John Ziegler, is one of the formally strangest things Wallace has ever produced, taking the footnotes obsession one step further by actually integrating them into the main page. The result looks like a demented flowchart, which is probably the point, as the central argument increasingly gets shoved to the side and bludgeoned into oblivion by the sprawling sidebars. It actually gives a better impression of what Wallace is trying to achieve than the footnotes did, although it can't be doing wonders for his accessibility.

Also impressive is, of all things, "Authority and American Usage", an extended review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, which remarkably manages to be utterly compelling while dissecting the big linguistic arguments of the last few decades. (The actual dictionary, of course, ends up being a bit of a side issue, although Wallace comes back to it from time to time to assure us that it illustrates the point wonderfully.) This is a subject on which Wallace actually is an expert, and he turns out to be remarkably good at packaging the difficult issues in digestible and compelling terms. For something more personal there's also "The View From Mrs Thompson's", which describes what Wallace was doing in his Illinois hometown on 9/11 and the days following, and develops into a strangely distressing example of social pressure as Wallace realises that he seems to be the only man in the town who doesn't own an American flag, seemingly kept on stand-by in the event of national catastrophe.

A lot of people find Wallace's rambling style arch and annoying, but that's a shame. It's not just pointless meandering - it captures a train of thought. It also takes a while to get into, admittedly, but it's worth the effort.