(Attention conservation notice: 1700 words, having reached the end of the line with David Foster Wallace’s brand of free-associative rambling.)
I’ve spoken with a great many people by now who’ve found Weezer’s last few albums so terrible that it’s made them reconsider whether the Blue Album and [album: Pinkerton] were as great as we all thought at the time. I’m sad to say that “Consider the Lobster” has made me do the same for David Foster Wallace.
What makes Wallace really charming is him, as a person. His best essays are really about him. Take the title essay in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, for instance; it’s one of the most enjoyable essays I’ve ever read, and what makes it so is a) that Wallace is funny, b) that Wallace is neurotic and aware of his neurosis, and to a much lesser extent c) the funny commentary Wallace deploys about society in general and what cruise ships have to say about life in late-20th-century America among upper-middle-class folks whose every want is basically already taken care of. Even on that last point, though, Wallace is at his best when he talks about his own experience as a microcosm of the larger point. He’s spoiled on a cruise ship, and he finds himself getting more and more annoyed at the little deviations from perfection that would, land-side, never have bothered him in the slightest — e.g., that all they have is Dr. Pepper rather than Mr. Pibb, when everyone knows that the former is just no goddamn substitute at all for the latter. Being spoiled beyond comprehension has made Wallace sensitive about far too much. I submit that almost none of what’s memorable in “A Supposedly Fun Thing” has to do with the world beyond Wallace’s own head.
That’s not true of that entire earlier essay collection, though. A Supposedly Fun Thing has some neat thoughts about the role of television on fiction writing (I believe that was in “E Unibus Plurum” [sic]), has an obsessive little essay about David Lynch, and so forth. Wallace is definitely a smart guy. But he’s really just run out of steam in “Consider the Lobster”. There’s an obscenely long essay reviewing an English-usage guide, ably torn to shreds 8 years ago on the Languagehat blog; most of that takedown can be reduced to “Wallace just goes on and on and on, but he doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about.” And that critique extends to most of the rest of what’s in “Consider the Lobster”. Much of it sounds like a college bull session committed to paper. For instance, on page 85, in the middle of “Authority and American Usage” (the essay that Languagehat took down), we have Wallace saying that
Even in the physical sciences, everything from quantum mechanics to Information Theory has shown that an act of observation is itself part of the phenomenon observed and is analytically inseparable from it.
Well … I’m no physicist, but I’m fairly certain that this is what happens when you get a guy who’s trained in critical theory and let him read In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. I invite physicists to critique my interpretation here, but I believe QM says that only at very small scales does the act of observation change the thing observed. That’s because when you, e.g., shine light on a particle, you impart momentum to the particle and thereby move it. So the act of observing the particle has changed the state of the particle. Our observing the Sun has no effect at all on the Sun.
The extra-special irony here is that on page 56, in an otherwise great essay on John Updike’s self-centric, penis-centric writing, Wallace takes Updike to the woodshed for similar sins:
[One of Updike’s characters] is particularly keen on subatomic physics and something he calls the theory of “many worlds” — which actually dates from 1957 and is a proposed solution to certain quantum paradoxes entailed by the principles of Uncertainty and Complementarity, and which is unbelievably abstract and complicated but which Turnbull seems to think is roughly the same thing as the Theory of Past-Life Channeling, apparently thereby explaining the set pieces where Turnbull is somebody else. The whole quantum setup ends up being embarrassing the way something pretentious is embarrassing when it’s also wrong.
(I’ve assumed all along that Wallace’s Everything and More, which purports to cover Georg Cantor and the various shocking, counterintuitive results about infinity, would be more Wallace bull-session wankery. Nothing in “Consider the Lobster” encourages me to read Wallace’s thoughts on higher math.)
Wallace’s demeanor is so folksy and charming that I found myself not normally paying attention to whether what he says makes any sense at all. Then the Languagehat blog comes along and pricks the balloon, and suddenly I realize that Wallace just doesn’t have much to say in a lot of this book. Much of it starts to feel like a man who’s talking and talking and talking to delay something that’s not clear to the reader (and may not be clear to the author).
And talk he does. He needs an editor more than ever. Infinite Jest apparently started out as a 1,500-page work, which eventually got chopped down to just over 1,000, according to David Lipsky’s biography. Infinite Jest was great, but it would have been even greater had it been half as long. “Consider the Lobster” could be reduced from 300 pages to maybe 200 without a lot of substantive loss.
While I’m here, I have to comment on Wallace’s footnotes; they’re one of the most noticeable features of his writing. They are terrible. I have always found them terrible, especially in Infinite Jest. There, the footnotes were mostly endnotes, so one had to keep two bookmarks going and continually interrupt the flow of the novel to read some 20-page excursus about the director’s [foreign: oeuvre]. It made Infinite Jest actually cause mental pain, of exactly the same sort that you feel when you’re trying to think hard about some important problem at work and get interrupted every couple minutes by some well-intentioned but annoying coworker.
Come to find out, in Lipsky’s book and dramatically confirmed in “Consider the Lobster”, that this similarity was not coincidental. Wallace’s contention in Lipsky is that the world we live in is so fragmented, with so many streams of information coming at us at once, that literature has to reflect this somehow. There don’t exist enough capital letters, enough bolding, and enough italics in this world for me to express just how terribly wrong I think this is. The world is fragmented and saturated with news, yes, which is precisely why literature — and for that matter, the rest of our institutions — needs to provide filtration, perspective, and order. When I read a book, I want to get lost; I want to forget, for a time, the maddening flicker and noise of the outside world. I want to submerge myself in the author’s world. Wallace’s strategy, and apparently his philosophy, are to keep me from ever getting immersed in his work. The strongest evidence I can amass for this claim is the very final essay in “Consider the Lobster”, whose final two pages look like this:
(click to enlarge)
This takes Wallace’s footnote habit and runs off a cliff with it. Like the footnotes, which sometimes have sub-footnotes, the boxes and arrows sometimes have their own sub-boxes and sub-arrows; as you can see from this example, sometimes you need to follow arrows onto other pages, then trace your way back to the page where you started. I don’t believe this image captures one further annoyance of the boxes-and-arrows system, namely that sometimes a box precedes the text it refers to, so you have to train yourself to skip the boxes until the arrows tell you it’s time to read them.
Maybe you find the notes charming. After all, they’re a natural extension of what’s often charming about Wallace: you feel like you’re getting direct access to his mind and the funny things that he thinks from moment to moment. Clearly his own mind is fragmented, so his writing is the same way.
Me, I just find it lazy, and I’ve found it lazy as far back as Infinite Jest. A more disciplined writer would find a way either to flow the content of the notes into the body of the text, or would just strike out those digressions that don’t add to the content of the work. That Wallace clearly disagrees with me here, and that this isn’t laziness but is entirely deliberate, is exactly the problem: Wallace believes that the digressions and the footnotes are absolutely crucial to the body of the work.
This particular final essay, with the structural experimentation and the arrows and boxes, features Wallace sitting for a night or a few nights in a Los Angeles-area conservative talk-radio station, telling us all sorts of things: the particular mechanics of beaming a story from the station to the millions of L.A. listeners, with particular reference to which machines get used for which purposes; the sound engineers and their mastery of special devices that speed up and slow down sounds to fit within a precise window and give advertisers their allotted on-air time; the radio host himself, and what he’s like when the mic is turned off; some notes on the Fairness Doctrine and what its end had to do with the rise of talk radio; and some college-bull-session-level out-loud meditations on What It All Means.
A lot of this stuff is good, but a lot is just needless digression. When Wallace applies the same formula to John McCain, in what became “Up, Simba!”, it essentially has one through-line with a lot of useless ornamentation. The story is that John McCain spent five years in a box in Vietnam, and explicitly refused to be released from prison just because his father was a bigshot in the military; he waited to be released after others who’d gone in before him. Wallace asks us to imagine the psychological and physical torment McCain underwent, and the sense of duty that must exist inside McCain to make that sacrifice for his brothers. McCain has become a politician since then, so it’s hard to know whether what he says is just salesman bullshit, or whether maybe he really is the Leader that he wants us to believe he is. In the world we live in, it’s hard not to impart cynical motives to everyone around us — especially politicians — but Wallace holds out hope that McCain might be the real deal.
All of that is wonderful. Adorning it, though, are pages and pages of Wallace’s ramblings. I’ve reached the end of my patience for that. Much of “Consider the Lobster” feels like I’m reading a series of blog posts, albeit written by a very smart friend. The world supplies me with enough blogs; when I read a book, I want to read a book.
“Well Im no physicist, but Im fairly certain that this is what happens when you get a guy whos trained in critical theory and let him read In Search of Schrdinger’s Cat. I invite physicists to critique my interpretation here, but I believe QM says that only at very small scales does the act of observation change the thing observed.”
I think Wallace’s confusion here actually goes a good deal further than that. The mistake he’s making (and it’s a common one) is a confusion between the uncertainty principle and the observer effect. The observer effect is an important issue in all science, which (AFAIK) has no special significance in QM: how do we take into account the fact that our act of observation may affect the behavior of the phenomena we’re trying to observe? This applies to just about any scientific experiment — including, say, psychological experiments, where it stands to reason that people might behave differently in the context of an experiment than in “real life.” On the other hand, the uncertainty principle is just a statement about the statistical properties of quantum phenomena; it says, roughly, that the product of the variances of the probability distributions for position and momentum (or any other pair of noncommuting observables) can’t go below a certain value. There’s no tricky business related to observation going on here — QM says that if we do a bunch of experiments, the results will follow a certain probability distribution, and the uncertainty principle is just a constraint on the kinds of distributions that are allowed by the theory. (I apologize if you know all this, and were making a subtler point. I’m no physicist, just someone who’s taken a semester of QM, and all I’ve done here is recite conventional wisdom with which some smart people disagree.)
Consider The Lobster was my introduction to Wallace, followed by A Supposedly Fun Thing… and, much later, by Infinite Jest. This caused me to appreciate him merely as a prose stylist at first, and only later as someone with actual ideas and stories to tell. I agree with you that the stuff in Consider The Lobster is not his best work, but it does at least keep up his inimitable style, and that’s worth something in itself. (Wallace is one of the only writers who I actually find enjoyable no matter what he’s talking about — indeed, even if he’s saying things I consider stupid.)
Wallace definitely has a sloppiness with facts (a lot of the scientific/technical/medical factoids in Infinite Jest, for instance, are half-right at best), but in an odd way, this is one of the things I find intoxicating about him as a writer. He has an inconsistency of quality that suggests someone trying to push himself to the limit. Sometimes his essays have insightful points to make, but then sometimes they’re like “Tense Present.” One moment he’s taking you to dizzying heights of narrative and prose in Infinite Jest and the next he’s going on for pages and pages about backstory minutiae which you suspect even the characters involved don’t really care about. The range of intellectual fields from which he draws his references, and the wildly variable accuracy of those references, is part of the same phenomenon (as is his frantic, sentence-packing prose) — it all creates the impression of a person struggling to take it all it, to draw together all the diffuse threads that make up the world, to somehow account for everything all at once. Such ambition is likely to exceed the actual competence of any mortal writer, but damn if it isn’t fascinating to watch.
The Language Hat article you link to is mistaken, mostly by indicting usage that is not in fact wrong. And it’s unclear what its point is: seems to be attacking a straw man.