Consider the Walster

Ed Champion provides an amusingly detailed description of a recent David Foster Wallace reading in Haight-Ashbury.

I recently spent about an hour with David Foster Wallace’s new book of essays, Consider The Lobster, in a comfortable aisle at a Border’s bookstore (apparently my free review copy was “lost in the mail”). I’m finding him far more palatable than I used to.

I used to dislike Wallace on principle, because I don’t want to support a novelist whose page numbers reach four digits and keep climbing. But Wallace has calmed himself down considerably since Infinite Jest was the hot book of the year, and he also began an appealing habit of dressing like a slob for author photos. All of this is enough to turn me around, and now I guess I like him.

The title piece in his new book is a winner. It starts as a compendium of general facts about the crustacean lifestyle, but slowly and sneakily builds to a study of the ethics of lobster killing. The most memorable moment is when Wallace tackles the question of whether or not lobsters feel a lot of pain when they are boiled alive. At least one lobster-industry organization has been spreading the word that lobsters do not have the brain power to suffer, but Wallace counters this by describing the way a lobster will often cling desperately with its sad claws to the rim of its container in a hopeless attempt to avoid being dumped into the roiling water. This seems like pretty good evidence that the lobster does actually feel pain, and it’s about time somebody settled this question once and for all.

Wallace’s pieces on Franz Kafka and John Updike are worthwhile but less fulfilling. It’s hardly big news that Kafka is best understood as a comic writer, and Wallace really spends too much time establishing this point. He does better with Updike, but he misses two targets when he says Updike’s twin obsessions are sex and death. Adultery and religion, lobster-boy! Updike characters don’t have sex with people they’re allowed to have sex with (unless they’re having makeup sex after one or both is caught having an affair, and even in this case it’s a sure thing the adulterous parties will soon be at it again).

All in all, though, it’s a good enough book that I will probably pick it up again the next time I’m loitering in a mall. I will consider the lobster, David — thank you.

15 Responses

  1. personallyI would not think

    I would not think of boiling a lobster without first getting him three sheets to the wind on vodka. I’ve not heard one complain.

    Then, there is my famous papavero di aragosta (poppy lobster), a dish prepared by first dosing the old boy with opium – that’s right, pack it into the shell – then, wait until the crustacean begins quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge and you know he’s not going to feel a thing.

  2. WallaceIt’s exciting to hear

    It’s exciting to hear you talk about DFW. His essays alone are usually excellent. If you like movies at all, his essay on David Lynch (David Lynch Keeps His Head) is very enlightening without being preachy, and you don’t even have to be interested in Lynch by any means to enjoy it.

    I am from Maine and I remember when Consider the Lobster was published in whichever cooking magazine. A local journalist (Emmet Meara) reviewed it and did a pretty decent job, although I could damn well tell he hadn’t ever picked up Infinite Jest or anything, though he did name check it…ahhh…local papers.

    I think I have read on here that you prefer postmodernists with a high boiling point…do you consider Wallace a low-boiling point type? I agree he has calmed down quite a bit lately.

  3. Hi TH … actually yes, I
    Hi TH … actually yes, I would consider DFW a good example of a postmodernist with a fairly low boiling point, as opposed to the austere Lydia Davises and Richard Fords of the world. Maybe that’s why I’m starting to like him some …

  4. One time I was looking at a
    One time I was looking at a tank full of live lobsters at a restaurant, and it started taking on aspects of a Hieronymus Bosch painting – so much that I had to leave the restaurant. But this was back before I started sharing my drugs with the lobsters.

  5. DFWWell from what I’ve read

    Well from what I’ve read he’s taken a lot of heat for the lobster article, and there’s a mini-cottage industry devoted to debunking his claims.

    For all praise Wallace gets as a fiction writer, I’ve actually much preferred his essays. His first books of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is really good as well. He manages to come off as really humble and likeable in his non-fiction. And from my two experiences meeting him, he does seem like a genuinely nice guy. He once taught where I went to school, and I saw him read one night in the back of a used book store with Richard Powers and somebody else. This was at the height of the Infinite Jest hype, but he was very modest about his success. The 2nd time was a couple years later when I worked at Borders. He came to read from Brief Interview with Hideous Men, and I was working the event. At one point he had to use the bathroom, but he didn’t want to upset the people waiting in line by walking away, so he sat there for an hour holding it. And afterwards he hung out and talked with a few of the employees and customers he stayed around, no rush to get away. Plus he showed up for the reading in a dirty bandana and a sweat-stained t-shirt with a big hole in the right armpit. And the book signing was actually interupted when Agent Mulder (in town filming a movie) and his hot wife cut right to the front of the line to tell DFW he loved his work. Agent Mulder, now there was a jackass.

    I’m actually suprised you don’t like him more as you both share a literary love of rap. One of his first books (I’ve never found it in a library and I believe it’s out-of-print) is called Signifying Rappers, written with another guy and attemping to place rap in a social context and make claim for it as literature. I’ve never read it, and I heard it’s a bit Thesis-y, but it sounds interesting.

    PS-While not having read the essay, I have to wonder if it is not actually Bloomington, Illinois and not Indiana where the 9/11 essay is set. Since he taught at Illinois State right next door in Normal, IL. I know the Indiana Bloomington is more famous because of Larry Bird and the Dalai Lama’s uncle, but Colonel Blake from MASH was from the Illinois version. I guess I’ll have to pick up the book and see for myself.

  6. Didn’t know that about
    Didn’t know that about Signifying Rappers, Shamatha — you’re right, I like him even better now. I guess I gotta start paying closer attention.

  7. Cookedmy own goose while

    my own goose while working as a cook at Steak & Brew Restaurant in Willow Grove, PA (S&B no longer there; Willow Grove is).

    After being instructed on the lobster boiling technique I pondered the agony the creature must go through before death’s sweet release.

    I could not bring myself to do it and was fired. (Later rehired as a salad boy.)

  8. Wait until you hear the
    Wait until you hear the high-registered wail of a celery stalk … chilling …

  9. I probably only know about
    I probably only know about the guy because he was teaching at my school when Infinite Jest came out and it was kind of a big deal for a state school in the middle of Illinois previously best known for the 1984 Beer Riots to have the big writer guy teaching there.

    I just found this quote from the book on an Amazon review, regarding rap, they write “quite possibly the most important stuff happening in American poetry today.” And they were writing this in 1990.

  10. I’ll consider the lobsterbut
    I’ll consider the lobster

    but only with some drawn butter. Because, really, yum.

    Wait until Russell Simmons gets on this one. Oh boy.

  11. Lobster for peasantsI don’t
    Lobster for peasants

    I don’t know where I read this, but it is an interesting, if possibly untrue factoid. Lobsters used to be for the lower classes, fed to people in insane asylums and prisons because they wouldn’t know the difference.

    Another bit of lobster trivia: Gerard de Nerval, in the height of his brilliant madness, used to take his lobster on walks through Paris on a silk leash. He was subsequently locked up (and possibly fed lobster?).

  12. Actually “Signifying Rappers:
    Actually “Signifying Rappers: Race and Rap in the Urban Present”, is readily available in print, I found it in library, and you can get it online at Amazon and prolly elsewhere. It’s really not all that “thesis-y”. Mainly Wallace and Mark Costello (the other guy) just discuss rap in a cultural context, and have a lot of fun with the post-modern implications of the cut and past nature of sampling other music for beats or what have you.

    Wallace in particular doesn’t come across as a rap fan per se…he just seems to have really appreciated the fact that rap was at the time becoming a mainstream phenomenon initiated by Black Americans, which in America, obviously, is not an every-day occurence.

    Anyhow Wallace’s main thesis if I remember correctly was that rap music is a genuine literary event, but that unfortunately rap performers have a tendency to highlight either radically superficial elements of life like money and clothes, or sensational elements like drugs, sex etc., in order to sell the music to a voyeristically oriented white society that would never actually dirty its hands in the actual places where the better aspects of the music live and breath.

    I think time has supported Wallace’s argument. For example consider the success of “club” rappers as compared to more activist type rappers like Ded Prez, who I think aside from a little hyperbole pretty much speak the truth…and have phat beats! 50 who?

  13. as a chefi cant even tell you
    as a chef

    i cant even tell you how many lobsters I have broiled steamed or cracked alive for the sheer pleasure of someones dinner. At times i still hear the 1000’s of little lobster screams while my head hits the pillow. lobsters will cling to the side of the pot becuse they dont want to go into a place they don’t want to go — the same would be true if you took them out of the trap and placed them in a bucket, they will cling to that too. they dont have the brain power to know the difference between the cold water tub or the hot boiling water death. So if they fill pain and or suffer because of it is irrelevant.

    I do think that they feel pain but that’s not why they reach out their claws.

    Without religon would there be adultery?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!