A review of CONSIDER THE LOBSTER (David Foster Wallace)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
It is said often of David Foster Wallace (or “DFW,” as his ovine fanboys have christened him, as if he were a shoe store or an airport) that he was a genius. Would it be curmudgeonly of me to ask, “What kind of a genius was he?”? He certainly was not a literary genius. I would be willing to allow that he was, perhaps, a mathematical genius. But a literary genius? No, absolutely not.
Anyone who reads D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace will recognize that Wallace was a likable, sincere, soft-spoken person who had interludes of mean-spiritedness, and his death is an absolute loss. At some stage, however, one must put one’s sentimentality aside and examine, coldly and soberly, the assertion that his writing is great literature.
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CONSIDER THE LOBSTER is an agglutination of athetic “essays.” The collection itself lacks a driving thesis, a sense of cohesion, a thread that would bind all of the pieces together. Not a single one of the “essays”—such as they are—contains an argument, sustained or otherwise.
Because the book itself is disjointed, it might be useful to pause over each individual text.
“Big Red Son”: An appraisal of the pornography industry from which we learn that this industry is “vulgar”  (shocking!) and that Las Vegas is “the least pretentious city in America” . It is disheartening when someone who seemed to care so much about English usage abuses the word “pretentious.” “Pretentious” means “making the claim to be something that one is not.” It does not mean “upscale,” “upmarket,” or “snooty.” If we keep the proper meaning of “pretentious” in mind, it could just as easily be said that Las Vegas is the most pretentious city in America.
“Certainly the End of *Something* or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”: Not so much a negative review of Updike’s TOWARD THE END OF TIME as a negative review of John Updike the Human Being as he appears to Wallace. From reading the first five paragraphs, one would sort of have to think that Wallace would eventually make a general statement about phallocratic American writers such as Updike, Mailer, Roth or American virility or fading masculinity, etc., but, no, the review has no implications beyond itself.
“Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed”: At the beginning of this astounding lecture, Wallace makes the disarming comment that he is “direly underqualified”  to speak on the subject of humor in Kafka. This assertion is correct. Wallace knows nothing about Kafka or his work. If you are not qualified to speak on a subject, then why speak on it at all?
“Authority and American Usage”: An “essay” on the conflict between prescriptivism and descriptivism, ruined by ingratiatory remarks (“Do you like me?”). I found the piece to be smarmy and bizarrely cloying, and the racist nonsense about African-Americans made me cringe.
“The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”: The most inappropriate response to the September 11, 2001 attacks ever written, with the exception of “Chuck” Palahniuk’s “The View from Smalltown, USA.” Palahniuk’s response, incidentally, is a plagiarism of Wallace’s.
“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”: A very strange review of the tennis star’s autobiography BEYOND CENTER COURT: MY STORY. Wallace seems puzzled that Tracy Austin is a skillful tennis player AND a bad writer. I am puzzled by his puzzlement.
“Up, Simba”: Painful-to-read meanders through John McCain’s doomed campaign for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. Completely irrelevant since McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Incidentally, did you know that Palahniuk considers “meander” to be a “gay” word?
“Consider the Lobster”: From which you will learn, among other things, that the lobster and the cockroach (for instance) are cousins. I thought that everyone already knew that. The “essay” is nothing more than a catalogue of facts and is devoid of anything like an organizing thought. Unless “lobsters exist” is an organizing thought. As Hegel reminds us in the preface to THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT, factual knowledge is not genuine knowledge at all. It is possible to memorize facts JEOPARDY-style without ever understanding anything.
“Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”: Wallace did not have a background in classical or modern literature. He read the postmodernists, and that was the extent of his knowledge of the literary arts. His solipsism is painfully evident in the Dostoevsky essay. He doesn’t even seem very interested in Dostoevsky’s work, except to the degree that it affects American readers and writers: “The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we—here, today—cannot or do not permit ourselves” . A Russian writer is significant only insofar as he has an impact on an American writer or reader, then. Is America the epicenter of the universe? Of the multiverse? Wallace’s solipsism reminds me of the obituaries of J.G. Ballard: “Ballard’s short story ‘The Sound-Sweep’ inspired the Buggles’ song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star,’ which became the first music video ever to be broadcast on MTV.”
“Host”: The editorial, annotative remarks will seem original to anyone who has not read Nabokov’s ADA, OR ARDOR: A FAMILY CHRONICLE.
CONSIDER THE LOBSTER is superficial, not radical. I intend “radical” in its strict etymological sense of the word: “to the root.” Wallace never even attempts to get at the root, the radix, the core, the heart of the subjects that he pretends to analyze.
But who cares? No one cares about logic these days. No one cares about language these days. No one cares about logos these days. No one cares about writing these days.
The blind, slavish, uncritical worship of David Foster Wallace represents one of the dangers of ad hominem “thinking.” An ad hominem attack attacks the musician instead of the music, the philosopher instead of the philosophy, the artist instead of the art, the sociologist instead of the sociology. But the reverse is also the case: Ad hominem praise praises the musician at the expense of the music, the philosopher at the expense of the philosophy, the artist at the expense of the art, the sociologist at the expense of the sociology, the writer at the expense of the writing.
David Foster Wallace’s fanboys worship the ghost of the bandana-wearing writer, not the writing that he generated.
A DFW follower once explained his worship of the Dear Leader in these terms: “He is a genius, but he says, ‘like’ and ‘whatever.’” He was a down-to-Earth genius, then. An interactive genius. A nice genius. A friendly genius. If the Friendly Genius attends your wedding, your son’s Bar Mitzvah, your son’s confirmation, etc., well, then, he is a good writer. If he brings a casserole, then he is an especially good writer. The Friendly Genius smiles at you. The Friendly Genius smiles at you because he likes you. If the Friendly Genius likes you, then maybe YOU are a genius, too! Fanboys like writers who are nice and friendly and hip. Accommodating and accessible.
[For a nice discussion of the competitiveness behind DFW’s ‘niceness,’ see Rivka Galchen’s review of the Wallace biography.]
The Cult of Genius has no interest in the letter. The Cult of Genius is not interested in writing at all. The Cult of Genius is obsessed with the appearance and personality of the author, not the extent to which he or she knows how to write. Fanboys are preoccupied with Writers, not with Writing. And they want to become Writers themselves, without bothering very much about Writing. They don’t want their unwritten books to be published and read; THEY want to be published.
A genuine author, however, loves writing for the sake of writing. This is one the things that Nietzsche might have intended when he wrote, in HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN: “The best author will be the one who is ashamed of becoming a writer.”
Dr. Joseph Suglia