Singularly American and difficult to categorize, David Foster Wallace is the product of his setting and time: a Midwestern-raised boy witness to an America fueled by conglomerate Yuppie consumerism, an unending, hundred channel barrage of ironic market-tested televised entertainment, and a dizzying political sphere filled with PAC-funded salesman doing their best to act like “real humans.” With an acute awareness for the dysfunctional and obscure in his world, Wallace proves himself as a charming, erudite writer — one who all together is a geek for lexicon and fashionable grammar usage, a démodé moralist in a postmodern world, and a superb humorist, whether genuinely funny or simply unusual.
Consider the Lobster, Wallace’s collected non-fiction essays , the follow-up to his 1997 A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, features ten separate pieces that have appeared previously in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Gourmet, The Philadelphia Enquirer, The New York Observer, and Rolling Stone. Covering the topics of food festivals, sports stars, politics, and American language, Wallace approaches each topic in a thoughtful and intelligent way while retaining his unparalleled humor and wit.
Reporting on the 15th Annual Adult Video News Awards (the Oscars of porn) in Las Vegas, Wallace presents an easy, immediate target, providing an introspection on the ceremonial parade of the grotesque, sycophantic, and X-rated entertainment industry. Between the usually egotistical and far-too human stars (imagine the personal discomfort felt when seeing a male star fumbling with a lighter in an attempt to light a cigar while you know the artillery-esque power and load of their ejaculate or witnessing a visibly bored female star interact with sweaty, child-like gawking men as she chews on a Snickers bar while you remember the shape of her breasts, the color and size of her areolas, and the fact that she has a small, noticeable freckle an inch away from her asshole) or the ludicrously satirical porn titles and awards announced (Best Anal Scene in Video or the Cream Productions’ 1998 Blow it Out Your Ass), Wallace utilizes the blatant absurdities of the gala event to exhibit them for what they are: unpalatable and foolish, but intriguing enough that you cannot avert your eyes.
Contracted by Gourmet Magazine to visit the annual Maine Lobster Festival (MLF), Wallace transforms a simple reporting job into a philosophical dissertation on the carnivorous eating habits of said festival. Both intrigued and perplexed by the swath of people that arrive to feast on these crustaceans en masse, he becomes troubled by a moral interjection often raised in protest by PETA activists and deflected by the festival founders and leaders: do lobsters feel pain when they are boiled alive, and if so, is it moral for us to do so (torturing another animal) for the end means of providing us with a gourmet pleasure? Through hypothetical contemplations (we do not object to plunging live lobsters into boiling, salted water – the MLF features a mass-boiler that can cook 100 lobsters at a time – so we may enjoy their decadence when utterly fresh, but would we stay silent if there were a Midwestern Beef Festival that slaughtered cows on the spot, providing you with the freshest burgers possible?) and scientific evidence (the fact that even though lobsters do not have a conscience, it has been proven that they can feel pain, and that the method of severing their main nerve ganglia does not render them wholly senseless, since lobsters nervous systems have several more neural “epicenters” unlike humans, meaning that only a part of their body goes numb while all other stimulation is still felt). While an answer on the morality of the festival and its culinary basis is left unanswered, Wallace leaves the readers with a collection of questions meant to be chewed on and digested, causing you to ask yourself whether that delectable meal is worth it.
Another highlight comes while Wallace profiles right-wing radio talk show host John Ziegler, known best for his 7-10 pm talk show The John Ziegler Show, which ran on KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles, California, from Jan. 2004 to Nov. 2007. Wallace sits in-studio observing Ziegler and his staff, analyzing the character that fuels Ziegler’s dystopian reality, the rise of right-wing talk show radio, and his qualm with the right-wing news fallacy of “giving you the news, then the facts, and then the truth” (the notion of “red-pilling” your listeners) in a non-partisan way. Whether through the popularity of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, right-wing news and talk radio had become a prominent moneymaker, political front used to influence non-standard voters, and an inflammatory, non-liberal affront for hosts to disguise themselves much like chameleons, identifying themselves as entertainers rather than political commentators at the mere utterance of societal critique pointed in there direction. In regards to the current political climate of America, this essay, “Host,” is The most pertinent to today – considering the likes of Limbaugh and Hannity are still media giants for the GOP and far-right fanbase, as well as the likes of Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones entering the hosts for right-wing listeners (I’d say that Jones is the most reminiscent of Wallace’s description of Ziegler). For those interested how the likes of these hosts have survived as media giants since the Bush presidency and the history of “truth”-based, off-the-cuff, blue-collar, every-man right-wing talk show hosts will find a great deal of worth within this essay.
Other essays within the anthology involve Wallace following Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) along the trail of his election-bid for the GOP nomination of the 2000 presidential campaign and recounting his experience of the September 11 attacks from his far-off hometown of Bloomington, Illinois. Discussing literature at length, Wallace delves into Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, pondering over the corruptions of the English language and its usage in current day America, lamenting over Kafka’s markedly overlooked humor, reviewing Joseph Frank’s biographical works of Dostoevsky as well as Doestoevsky’s moral genius in exploring the human character, and critiquing John Updike’s Toward the End of Time and his phallic, overly-indulgent narcissism. Finally, he displays his heartbreak over reading Tracey Austin’s autobiographical dud that he believes classically overlooks, yet equally proves, the genius of the athlete’s mind.
While some may criticism Wallace’s seemingly pretentious tone, reliance on moral objectivity for rational, and his stylistic – sometimes dizzying – use of footnotes (the serve-return use feeling akin to a match of tennis), I believe that his informative, humorous meditations on nearly any subject, coupled with his mindful perception for discursive and grammatical momentum, cancels out basic frustrations. As a resolute critic and casual journalist of the irrationality and morality of American life, the behind-the-scenes of political caucuses and political media, and the literary greats – whether sardonic, narcissistic, comedic, or wholesome – of an era that once was, he provides his natural genius and wit, ultimately proving his status as the writer of a generation.