- Consider the Lobster and Other Essays
In addition to his singular, pyrotechnic prose, encyclopedic mastery of disparate information systems, and an almost unparalleled breadth and depth of imagination, what makes David Foster Wallace’s books interesting is that although they appear at first to be a grab-bag of unrelated topics, each one is in fact woven from a particular theme’s thread: thus, the 1996 novel Infinite Jest and American entertainment culture, the 1999 story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and male heterosexuality, and the 2003 story collection Oblivion and corporate despair. In Consider the Lobster, his most recent collection of essays, although his subjects range from pornography to dictionaries, Kafka to talk radio, crustacean neurology to sports autobiographies, the most fundamental issue is politics. In an era when every former politician and current talking head pens their screed about their own patriotism, virtue, and intelligence while attacking the other side of the aisle, Wallace is not merely refreshingly neutral but legitimately perceptive. Unlike most other writers, Wallace is neither a moralist, a satirist, nor an apologist, and because of it, he stands at a vantage from which he truly can observe.
The first essay, “Big Red Son,” describes Wallace’s coverage of the Adult Video News Awards—the Oscars of American pornography. The show itself and the accompanying hoopla give Wallace the opportunity to compose typically hysterical set pieces, the funniest of which is a footnote a page and a half long describing a bizarre tête-à-tête with child actor turned porn star Scotty Schwartz, of A Christmas Story’s tongue-to-thefrozen- flagpole fame, who describes in detail both his direction of hardcore films and his apparently platonic relationship with a born-again Christian girl. But under the surreal, gauche hilarity, Wallace detects a tragic note to the porn industry as well, a hollowness that he finds depressing more than anything else. The industry power-hitters he meets are distinguished more by their self-absorption than their anatomy, and Wallace pursues this melancholy angle. Instead of falling into the typical polarization about the issue, that porn is bad because it’s sexually explicit or that it’s good because it exemplifies American freedoms, Wallace sees it as primarily pathetic, a microcosm of contemporary American loneliness and ennui. In this light, even the repulsive Schwartz comes off as especially sad because he doesn’t know how sad he is. But Wallace doesn’t refrain from making judgments, and while he doesn’t condemn porn out of hand, he does note mainstream adult movies are becoming more like snuff films, with scenes of bondage, grotesque humiliation, and even rape now commonplace. Since such trends are rooted in violence and misogyny, he unreservedly describes them as dangerous and vile.
Yet Wallace recognizes the differences between reportage and editorializing, which affects the form of a number of the essays, in particular [End Page 194] the last, “Host,” a sort of night-in-the-life of a conservative Los Angeles late-night radio talk show host. Certain section titles explicitly make the distinction between opinion and fact: “Purely Informative,” “Contains What Might Be Perceived as Editorial Elements,” “Unalloyed Information,” “Editorial Quibble,” “Strenuously Non-Editorial.” The selfconsciously ironic titles, allow Wallace to enact in form what he discusses in the content of the essay, namely the issue of framing in contemporary American news media and the murky overlap of journalism, entertainment, and punditry that makes shows like The O’Reilly Factor delightful to some and infuriating to others.
About conservative host John Ziegler, Wallace says, “Even though there is plenty of stuff for reasonable people to dislike about Political Correctness as a dogma, there is also something creepy about the brutal, self-righteous glee with which Mr. Z and other conservative hosts defy all PC conventions.” But he refuses to caricaturize Ziegler or others, and in describing what he observes about the host without condemning or valorizing him, Wallace makes the political personal. His description of Ziegler is most keen at the very end of the essay (and the collection itself). Ziegler, watching...