David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: Consider the Lobster / CONSIDER THE LOBSTER by David Foster Wallace

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” [7] (shocking!) and that Las Vegas is “the least pretentious city in America” [4].  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” [60] 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” [271].  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

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Three: Both Flesh and Not

A review of BOTH FLESH AND NOT (David Foster Wallace)
By Dr. Joseph Suglia, the Greatest Author in the World

Published four years after David Foster Wallace’s career-advancing suicide (a despicable suicide that was an assaultive act against his widow Karen Green), BOTH FLESH AND NOT (2012) reprints essays and squibs that were originally written for various newspapers, magazines, and journals; one of the texts appeared as the introduction to an anthology of essays, another was appended to a thesaurus. Both online and print sources are represented. Through the collection threads a list of words and definitions that Wallace kept on his desktop computer.

The vocabulary list troubles me more than anything else assembled in this volume. Someone who professed to care very much about Standard Written American Usage, Wallace abuses many words himself.

Wallace thinks that “art nouveau” refers to a “decorative style of early 20th c. using leaves and flowers in flowing sinuous lines, like on vases, columns, etc.” [34]. This is innocence and nonsense. Jugendstil was much different than that. Beardsley didn’t always use “leaves” and “flowers”!

Wallace thinks that “birl” means to “cause to spin rapidly with feet (as with logrolling)” [35]. But “birl” also means, intransitively, to “whirl”; for instance, you may say that hot dogs or sausages birl on spits.

Yes, Wallace is right to think that “distemper” might denote “a kind of paint-job using watered paint” [165], but it can also mean “to throw out of order” or “bad mood” and could denote a viral disease that affects dogs and cats.

Wallace thinks that an “ecdysiast” is a “striptease artist” [165], but this has only been the case since GYPSY. An “ecdysiast,” etymologically speaking, refers to something that molts or sheds its skin, such as certain birds, insects, and crustaceans.

Wallace doesn’t know that Grand Guignol was horror theatre before ever it was “cinema” [190].

Throughout, there are many such compositional errors.

Wallace had abysmal taste in literature. It is good to see STEPS on a list of “five direly underappreciated U.S. novels” since 1960, but it ought to be stated that this novel, which is attributed to Jerzy Kosinski, was collaboratively written. Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN: OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST has interesting content — the sort of content that one might expect to discover in a film directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky — but its prose style is a mere pastiche of Faulkner. I don’t know what to say about a person who thinks that Denis Johnson is a serious writer.

BOTH FLESH AND NOT is a disastrous embarrassment. Republishing these essays and squibs was not a good idea and besmirches the reputation of Wallace even more than D.T. Max’s horripilative biography does. Though he had many virtues, the ability to form strong sentences was not one of them. David Foster Wallace could not write a decent sentence to save his life.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part One: OBLIVION

A review of Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

When I was in graduate school, I was (mis-)taught literature by a man who had no ear for poetic language and absolutely no interest in eloquence. I learned that he held an undergraduate degree in Physics and wondered, as he chattered on loudly and incessantly, why this strange man chose to study and teach literature, a subject that obviously did not appeal to him very much. I think the same thing of David Foster Wallace, a writer who probably would have been happier as a mathematician (mathematics is a subject that Wallace studied at Amherst College).

A collection of fictions published in 2004, Oblivion reads very much as if a mathematician were trying his hand at literature after having surfeited himself with Thomas Pynchon and John Barth–not the best models to imitate or simulate, if you ask me.

The first fiction, “Mr. Squishy,” is by far the strongest. A consulting firm evaluates the responses of a focus group to a Ho-Hoesque chocolate confection. Wallace comes up with some delightful phraseologies: The product is a “domed cylinder of flourless maltilol-flavored sponge cake covered entirely in 2.4mm of a high-lecithin chocolate frosting,” the center of which is “packed with what amounted to a sucrotic whipped lard” [6]. The external frosting’s “exposure to the air caused it to assume traditional icing’s hard-yet-deliquescent marzipan character” [Ibid.]. Written in a bureaucratized, mechanical language — but this language, after all, is the dehumanized, anti-poetic language of corporate marketing firms, the object of Wallace’s satire — the text is a comparatively happy marriage of content and form.

Wallace gets himself into difficulty when he uses this same bureaucratic language in the next fiction, “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” which concerns a homicidal substitute teacher. I could see how a sterile, impersonal narrative could, by way of counterpoint, humanize the teacher, but the writing just left me cold. The title of the fiction simply reverses Stephen Dedalus’s statement inA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Wallace never composed a sentence as beautiful as Joyce’s. Indeed, Wallace never composed a beautiful sentence.

“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” takes its title from Richard Rorty’s misguided polemic against representationalism (the idea that language is capable of mirroring the essence of things). It concerns a son who accompanies his mother to a cosmetic-surgery procedure. The son, who is also the narrator, says: “[A]nyone observing the reality of life together since the second procedure would agree the reality is the other way around…” [183]. The narrator might or might not be one of the deluded representationalists against whom Rorty polemicized. For Rorty, “the reality of life” is not something that we are capable of talking about with any degree of insight. Unfortunately, this is the only point in the text at which the philosophical problem of representation arises.

The eponymous fiction, “Oblivion,” and the self-reflexive “The Suffering Channel” (which concerns a man whose excreta are considered works of art) are inelegantly and ineloquently written.

After laboring through such verbal dross, I can only conclude that David Foster Wallace was afraid of being read and thus attempted to bore his readers to a teary death. His noli me legere also applies to himself. It is impossible to escape the impression that he was afraid of reading and revising any of the festering sentences that he churned out. Because he never read his own sentences, he never knew how awkward they sounded. Infinite Jest was written hastily and unreflectively, without serious editing or revision. It is merely because of the boggling bigness of Infinite Jest that the book has surfaced in the consciousness of mainstream America at all (hipsterism is a vicissitude of mainstream America). We, the Americanized, are fascinated by bigness. To quote Erich Fromm: “The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers…”

Speech is irreversible; writing is reversible. If you accept this premise of my argument, must it not be said that responsible writers ought to ALWAYS recite and revise their own sentences? And does it EVER seem that Wallace did so?

The prose of Oblivion is blearily, drearily, eye-wateringly tedious. The hipsters will, of course, claim in advance that the grueling, hellish tedium of Wallace’s prose was carefully choreographed, that every infelicity was intentional, and thus obviate any possible criticism of their deity, a deity who, like all deities, has grown more powerful in death. That is, after all, precisely what they say of the Three Jonathans, the sacred triptych of hipsterdom: Foer, Franzen, and Lethem, the most lethal of them all.

One thing that even the hipsters cannot contest: David Foster Wallace did not write fictionally for his own pleasure. Unlike Kafka, he certainly did not write books that he ever wanted to read.

A valediction: The early death of David Foster Wallace is terrible and should be mourned. He was a coruscatingly intelligent man. My intention here is not to defame the dead. I recommend that the reader spend time with BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN and leave his other writings alone. As I suggested above, he probably didn’t want his prose to be read, anyway.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

My entire novel TABLE 41 is available on this Web page

My entire novel Table 41 is available on this Web page.

Here is a Table of Contents for Table 41.

Dedication and Acknowledgements

Table One

Table Two

Table Three

Table Four

Table Five

Table Six

Table Seven

Table Eight

Table Nine

Table Ten

Table Eleven

Table Twelve

Table Thirteen

Table Fourteen

Table Fifteen

Table Sixteen

Table Seventeen

Table Eighteen

Table Nineteen

Table Twenty

Table Twenty-One

Table Twenty-Two

Table Twenty-Three

Table Twenty-Four

Table Twenty-Five

Table Twenty-Six

Table Twenty-Seven

Table Twenty-Eight

Table Twenty-Nine

Table Thirty

Table Thirty-One

Table Thirty-Two

Table Thirty-Three

Table Thirty-Four

Table Thirty-Five

Table Thirty-Six

Table Thirty-Seven

Table Thirty-Eight

Table Thirty-Nine

Table Forty

Table Forty-One