Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
As with other collections of this wondrous writer's essays, here we get a chance to watch as a supremely gifted writer and thinker works out the colossal conundrums of our time; and indeed of all time. These conundrums are colossal because, by definition therefore, they require some colossus to work them out. What right does David Foster Wallace have even to attempt it!? And what right did he have to take his own life? I'm asking the question seriously.
He self-consciously attempts things which are the province of more accomplished professionals in their fields. Literary criticism, political journalism, gourmet-level food evaluation, and most prominently for me, athletic accomplishment. Even while he may claim better credentials than you or me, he doesn't claim them as any basis for his writing.
His essay on athletic accomplishment inquires about the vacancy - one might call it vapidity, and I think he calls it something like that - of athletes writing about themselves. In this case, child tennis starlet Tracy Austin. He at once dismisses the notion that athletes might not have strong minds, as well as the notion that some ability to comment on their own experience of their accomplishment is any indication of its value.
DFW was himself an accomplished tennis player, but he confesses here that he never could achieve that emptiness of mind which allows his performance to be solid in the presence of an inhibiting crowd. It is precisely this ability to perform in the face of an adoring and thus defining crowd which is what is meant by a great athlete.
So, I said, advisedly, that we get to "watch" DFW work these conundrums out, which is, of course precisely what we're not allowed to do. We must, in fact, move right along with him as he leads us to the very spot which poses him the most trouble, and then we must do it right along with him, whatever it is he's doing. That right there is the performance art of writing.
He forces you to stumble among quirky footnotes, clumsy abbreviations, and idiosyncratic seeming-colloquialisms, which might just as well be DFW-isms at least half the time. And it is his genius to allow you to achieve such heights as you would be scared away from were you to even try to follow the more professional language of those authors whose fields he trespasses.
He seems to have mastered their language for you, and then he does precisely what Tracy Austin could never do; he translates the experience not into language which you can relate to. No, he actually takes you there yourself, as some sort of guide, and you feel that you never did have to read Tracy Austin's ghost-written memoir for instance, because you got to read it as she would have written it were she able to write.
Which means, of course, that you also got to read the literary critic if he knew how to write, which is a pretty funny thing to say, but still true. Or the gourmand, or the activist PETA crusader. I also did read DFW's recitation of the life of abstraction, in the guise of a short history of infinity, just in case you don't think he really can take you right to the heights, in that case, of mathematical thinking. Which he also, DFW, was pretty darned accomplished with, or at, or in, or by, himself.
I suppose that what he couldn't do, then, was to do for himself - in the same way that Tracy Austin couldn't do it for herself - that thing which gives us a glimpse of what it must be like to be David Foster Wallace. And, he didn't have the fulsome sense of self as did, say John Malkovich, being him. But it still pisses me off that he didn't ask my - the readers' - permission before, well, you know.
I think he thinks - thought - he could have used a little bit more of what Tracy Austin did have. Which is being OK with vapidity. Which, well, in the end, I guess he actually was. Let's be clear. It's our loss. And I think we should have read him better. Though there may have been nothing we could have done. As he himself tells us about the lobster. Whose pain we cannot know, explain it away though we will.
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