I have been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace recently. It’s easy to read a lot of David Foster Wallace, in the sense that you just have to take on Infinite Jest, his most famous novel: at 1,100 pages, it’s a book massive enough to have merited a support group for people trying to read it this summer (with its own schedule), and by itself constitutes a lot of David Foster Wallace.
And reading Infinite Jest I am. But the decision to read it (to the schedule) was a last minute one – a pledge between me and a friend – made when I was already alternating between Wallace’s short story collection Oblivion and his non-fiction in Consider the Lobster.
The essays, articles and reviews in Consider the Lobster are often extremely long: Wallace records delivering one article to Rolling Stone, the magazine that commissioned it, and having his editor there point out that to run it at its full length would fill the entire issue’s text allowance and ‘might even cut into the percentage of the magazine reserved for advertisements’. This is because he digresses constantly and brilliantly. A review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage expands into a whole discussion of language snobbishness and its implications for social issues like (for example) race, and of prescriptive versus descriptive ways of considering and teaching grammar (a preoccupation evident in Infinite Jest). Another, of the autobiography of tennis player Tracy Austin (tennis being very ditto), becomes a critique of the whole genre of sports biographies, and then, with remarkable empathy and psychological acuteness and with a swiftness like prestidigitation, turns the failings of these books (i.e. being uniformly tedious) into an element of another discussion – about the sort of personality necessary to perform and compete athletically at practically super-human levels. Not all the pieces in Consider the Lobster are great, but in those that are (and there’s more than a few) Wallace’s mind expands topics to new, sweeping scope, while at the same time making them newly navigable.
I’d recommend it is what I’m saying.
Another article included in Lobster is ‘Host’, a 2005 profile of talk radio host John Ziegler. This is worth reading for several reasons.
One is a section that gives a fairly straight recounting of Ziegler’s life and career as extracted by Wallace from Ziegler himself. This is wonderful stuff: you-could-make-it-up-but-they’d-never-believe-it stuff. To give you an idea of the tragicomedy involved in this timeline: Ziegler is fired from a TV hosting job for telling an ‘incredibly tame’ joke (pre-trial) about O.J. Simpson’s guilt. A year or two later, while working on radio, Ziegler is persuaded to do a show about this firing, during which show he retells the joke – and, as a result, gets himself fired for it a second time. Later, at another radio job, Ziegler is fired for using the (actual) N-word when making an argument about how patronizing (the euphemistic phrase) ‘the N-word’ is. And then at another job Ziegler is again fired for telling the story of this firing (despite this time euphemistically avoiding the actual word).
Another reason is the design of the text, which separates digressions and editorial content (often marked ‘editorial content’) out into boxes (and then sometimes into further, nesting boxes) which are located in the text by means of outward arrows. (The idea that there is any way Wallace could keep the editorialising neatly confined to sidenotes is an obviously false one, which Wallace is too smart not to appreciate, and the attempt creates a tension which he both recognises and defuses when he starts giving the notes headings like ‘just clear-eyed dispassionate reason’.) This complicated layout, and the rest of the interior of Consider the Lobster, was designed by Marie Mundaca, and it’s worth going here to read her description of working on it (in concert with Wallace).
The full text of ‘Host’ is also on The Atlantic website, and they’ve managed these notes through the use of clickable links and pop-ups. So ‘Host’ gives a rare opportunity to see the same challenging text (challenging in terms of layout, I mean) thoughtfully designed for both the internet and for print.
In the 2005 non-fiction collection Consider the Lobster
Some more images:
Except, of course, there’s a third ‘Host’: the article originally appeared in the print edition of The Atlantic. So another print version, but this one in a hugely different format from a paperback collection, with much larger pages and the possibility of colour, so the result is very different (as you can tell from the only image I managed to track down):