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.