Sunday 2 February 2014
Consider David Foster Wallace
Not that I know of everything that Wallace tried his hand at being, just what's in the second-released of three collections of his essay work: Consider The Lobster. There's no general theme connecting Wallace's journalism/essay work which is why Lobster has such a plethora: a report on the 1998 porn awards; the little reported reactions to 9/11 from Wallace's home in the South; a look into the morales of eating Lobster through the lens of the 2003 Maine Lobster Festival; the transcript of a college lecture he did on the easy-to-miss humour in Kafka's work and many many others. The pieces differ so much I'd be greatly surprised if anyone was avidly interested in reading all of them for the subject matter alone, when instead, even for the pieces that might interest you, it's Wallace who you read for. While reading Lobster I kept thinking of a quote, by someone important enough to be quoted on the back of a book, on the back of a Lester Bangs collection I own that called the 70s rock critic "one of life's greatest gurus" which I guess would seem strange to someone who had never read anything by the man, known almost entirely for record reviews and Lou Reed interviews. Although if you read Bangs you'll know exactly what the quote means: he used rock journalism, which I guess doesn't give writers much room to spread their legs, to talk about everything he could, from religion to feminism to sexual desire. He commented on a whole culture while riffing on Blondie. I don't know exactly what Wallace thought of Bangs, although he (Wallace) considered Bangs enough of an influence to dedicate his little read, co-written book Signifying Rappers to him. Wallace's writing is just as far reaching: he's another great life guru. During the essay Authority and American Usage Wallace reviews Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, although the "review" is just a book-end for Wallace to talk about language use in general. He praises Garner's book, and Garner's prose in particular for their lack of personality, allowing the reader to take his uses of grammar and phrasing on face value, unconnected to Garner's ethnicity, gender or age, yet the irony here is obvious as Wallace can't even write a simple book review without injecting himself all over the page: he talks about being a kid and learning the songs his mum (an English teacher - explaining a few things) would come up with to make her son remember correct grammar. Then talks about the prosecution he and every other grammar-loving kid would get when showing off this knowledge in the classroom. It's these little injections of personality, and of Wallace's highly opinionated self that comes through on almost every page, that made reading a review of a book I have no interest in so readable.
Much has been made of Wallace's arguing style, the weighty description of the subject matter and the frequent diversions covering the surface so you no longer notice an argument is even being made (and just as much has been made of the apparently bad influence this has had on the many bloggers who take to doing bad Wallace imitations). A good example of his essay technique can be found in Up, Simba where Wallace followed John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. Like usual he opens by telling us how unqualified he is for the job (in the same way he opens so many footnotes with (paraphrasing here) "although you're probably not interested I'm going to explain anyway" or "the editor will probably take this out anyway") and starts by giving us the story of how he got the job in the first place. It's Rolling Stone who hired him for the campaign and he turns up in the Bangs-style leather he thought all people working for RS were supposed to wear. Wallace knew full well he was no political journalist so instead he fills up what is one of the longest essays in Lobster with more information about how a presidential campaign actually works - the backstage rooms, the tour buses, the atmosphere between parties, the chatter between the techies etc - and shies away from going full-detail into the nitty-gritty of the politics. Wallace does report on some of these politics, though, and having written it all just as it happened means the article, which doesn't section off exactly when one time zone in the story has became another, reads like a live journal from a press event. In the end though it's not the end message or even the sudden bursts of personality but Wallace's clear mission to paint for the reader the full picture of whatever he's reporting on. In Big Red Son, about the porn awards, Wallace doesn't pass judgement on the stars or the producers - or even the millions watching at home - yet neither does he have a major argument to get across (although his musings on the modern state of porn and it's place in society/place right next to Hollywood are insightful and sometimes hilarious, like usual) but instead he simply describes, in details most writers don't bother to go into, the porn awards, including the way the award shows work, the people he met there and even the recent history of the awards. It seems like Wallace's mission, more than anything, at least in his non-fiction work, was to give readers the whole picture of something; the truth behind it. There is undoubtedly much more detailed analysis of John McCain's presidential campaign, and the man's politics in general, than you'll find in Up, Simba, yet I know I wouldn't be interested in reading them. Although Up, Simba is interesting, and seeing the inner workings of the campaign and the reactions of those actually close to it make it much more than an essay on John McCain or the 2000 presidential campaign, instead they make it relevant to politics in general, even for those, maybe even especially for those, not interested in politics in the first place.
I loved reading Consider The Lobster, and would recommend it to anyone whether the list of essays particularly interests them or not, although it's hard to separate the subjects being dealt with from the man himself, which is why I'm still not sure if this post was about the book or about Wallace himself and all that is to be found of him in Lobster. Some will say this is Wallace's flaw, that he wanted to be known as a great writer so he made his writing so that he would be. Which is true, although that's just adding to the Wallace myth, isn't it? When he was really just a normal guy, an impressive writer sure, and someone you need to read, but so frequently linked to his generation as a voice or figurehead, when he was actually just like everyone else of his generation, he just never quite wanted to be.