My eyes first glanced over David Foster Wallace’s words in the early 2000s. I was in in my grad school days. Only in Harper’s magazine did I ever read him, though. Then he died and I started to travel the world, in countries where the bookstores don’t carry much serious contemporary American literature. Finally, with this trip back to the States I dug into Consider the Lobster.
Our reading preferences change greatly in ten years. Wallace’s words no longer had that resonance, his voice no longer had that ring. Words spinning like the cogs in a clock.
Literature need not ramble endlessly on. That’s obviated by the fact that today works brief enough for a Hallmark card fill innumerable publications. It’s evidently his free-association that rubs me the wrong way. (I felt similar after reading other authors/writers who rose with Wallace. That style leads me to empathize particularly with one quote from Consider: “Has the son of a bitch ever had one thought published?”).
Consider some examples from Wallace’s book. Let’s look at the essays “Up, Simba”, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”, and “Authority and American Usage”. The first wasn’t an essay but long enough for a graduate thesis. That makes a reader long for its end. Its lack of structure is a pathos that annoys the reader, resulting in a distant reader/writer relationship. Its constant shifting feels like a house of mirrors until no points made seem to stand up or take on relevance. In the “View” Wallace spent half the essay to reveal its subject matter. Its lack of dynamism makes a reader feel like she’s crawling through mud. The images are enjoyable until wandering enough along makes her wonder what the whole point is. “Authority” possessed the same structure flaws as “Simba” but made them two-dimensional by using excessive footnotes that even scholars would roll their eyes at.
A subtle control and implicit use of literary tropes appeal more than rambling and careless structure. For me the difference between the free-association writing style and one more like Graham Greene’s is the difference between simple and easy. This is thanks in part to editors. They shape our writing. Editor after editor in my 15 years of professional writing made me shorten paragraph lengths, deconstruct elevated vocabulary, and deftly structure the work.
Not everything in Consider irritated me.
Wallace does address more societal issues. In his essays he shows his quandaries and questions. He ponders the power and clone-like behavior of mainstream American media in “Simba.” He addresses the fact that Americans find politics so deceitful to place much faith in anymore, too. In “The View” he implicitly writes that most Americans are overly reliant on television, that they can barely communicate effectively any more.
In “Lobster” he notes the dissonance between animal-rights activists and those who attend an overhyped annual lobster bonanza in Maine. He, in true essayistic style, doesn’t give us an answer but lets us brood on the matter. Take these examples:
“I’m not trying to give you a PETA-like screed here— at least I don’t think so. I’m trying, rather, to work out and articulate some of the troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and festivities … of the Maine Lobster Festival.”
“I’m also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I am is more confused.”
Just like my recent posts on Chuck Palahniuk, it’s clear that as we read more and grow (AKA age) we outgrow some authors. It’s a tough pill to swallow sometimes. It’s good to remain thankful, however, for the joy you once derived from their work.