Review: Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace

I remember when I first read Salman Rushdie. I checked Midnight’s Children out of the library along with a bunch of other books, and I thought that if every other book I had turned out to be lame, I would do my duty by literature and read Salman Rushdie who was bound to be boring but I was going to do my duty. By God. And all the other books I checked out turned out to be lame, so I read Midnight’s Children and hey! It turned out it was funny! Salman Rushdie is funny! I was disproportionately shocked and have since been more forgiving of Rushdie’s flaws than I would normally be.

Sort of the same thing happened with David Foster Wallace. I always kinda thought that David Foster Wallace was for pretentious joyless people. I voted to read Consider the Lobster for work book club, but only because the other choices were Crime and Punishment or Dead Souls, and I really, really, really didn’t want to read anything Russian. I had read stuff about how David Foster Wallace was such a show-off, with all his crazy long sentences and footnotes and nyeh nyeh I’m smarter than you. That’s what I was expecting.

But then, to my very great joy, the first essay in Consider the Lobster was all about porn. A porn convention! The porn Oscars! And it was written in a conversational, discursive, funny style that was quite the opposite of the pretentious and humorless style I was expecting. I wanted David Lobster to be alive after that (as with “rhoams” in my Patrick Ness post, I made that mistake by accident but I am choosing to leave it in) so that I could apologize to him. I love it when writers can convey so clearly and vividly a world that would never, ever, ever touch mine. Such a good essay.

If I can make a recommendation, I would suggest only reading one David Foster Wallace essay at a time. Give it a few weeks in between essays maybe. He’s a charming and enjoyable writer, but a little goes a long way. I was getting frustrated by the essay about the McCain campaign trail. I wanted to punch David Lobster in the face when I read his 9/11 essay, which annoyed me to death. By the time I got to the last essay, about talk radio, I was so, so over it. I wished David Lobster would be alive after that so I could tell him, “Dude, you are a smart and enjoyable writer but you are not smart or insightful enough to be as self-indulgent in your writing as you are.”

Basically, David Lobster is like how Rumer Godden describes marchpane: You very quickly have enough of it. I want you to like David Lobster Marchpane as much as I did in the first few essays of this book, so please take my advice and have him in small doses. I am excited to read A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (particularly the eponymous essay), but I will do so with more discretion than in this instance.

Now you know how to maximize your love for David Lobster Marchpane. You’re welcome.

34 thoughts on “Review: Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace

  1. But Dead Souls is funny too! *clutches Gogol to chest* Get the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation, and be prepared for part two to be in fragments, which is a bit frustrating. But part one is complete, and I spent most of it giggling! And I’m not a huge satire girl (see: Voltaire, my hatred of). You’ll have to get another big stack of lame books and sneak Dead Souls in there one of these days.

    • Oh but Eva, I just feel so certain that I’m going to hate it. I can’t stand reading books in translation, and Russian books in translation are the worst. Books in translation are always like “Upon my word, he said the most extraordinary things to me, so that I was quite astonished.” UGH. It’s unbearable.

    • I’m reading the tags. I HAVE A LOT OF THINGS TO SAY TO YOU JENNY. #1. Is the Russian novel thing why you haven’t read The Master and Margarita yet? I’m reading it AGAIN right now and it is good ALL OVER AGAIN except I wish I had the copy I gave you because it’s a better translation and it annotated. IT’S A NEW TRANSLATION AND IT’S ANNOTATEDDDDDDDD
      2. HE SAID YOUR BACKGROUND WAS LIKE IOWA? I will fax you a kick in the “sensitive bits” and you can forward that to his fax number anonymously
      3. Jeez, Salmon Rushie sure is a poop head

  2. You know, part of me thinks you are precisely right in your advice about David Lobster (I will never think of him any other way now; THANKS JENNY), and part of me thinks the first few essays were maybe just better essays? I definitely did enjoy the first one (I was surprised too) and I enjoyed the lobster one (but now that I think of it, that was after several days. Hm. Never mind, you are correct as usual, King Jenny.)

    • YOU ARE WELCOME. David Lobster is a better name anyway. David Lobster Marchpane is better yet. And I appreciate your acknowledgement of my correctness. What a glorious day for me when you tell me I am correct as usual!

  3. Nice review, Jenny! I have never read a book by David Foster Wallace. But after reading as essay by Zadie Smith about him, where she raved about him, I got this book. I haven’t read it yet though, because it looks a bit intimidating. Thanks for glowing about some of his essays in this book. I want to read them now. I read somewhere that there were speculations among readers that the character of Leonard in Jeffrey Eugenides’ ‘The Marriage Plot’ is based on David Foster Wallace. He seems to be an interesting person and he also seems to have a lot of fans among a certain kind of readers. I like the way his name has evolved in your post from David Foster Wallace to David Lobster Marchpane to David Lobster 🙂

    You don’t like reading Russian literature? Why? Hope you get to try some Russian books and like them. Maybe you can try Ivan Turgenev’s stories. They are wonderful. Or a collection of contemporary Russian stories called ‘Rasskazy : New Fiction from a New Russia’.

    • Oh! I read that Zadie Smith essay! Now I want to go back and read it again, now that I have somewhere to file the things she says about DFW.

      I don’t know why Russian literature and I don’t get along. I have never liked any Russian novel I’ve ever read in my life, except briefly Dr. Zhivago (now I’ve gone off it a bit), and Lolita if that counts. I would argue Lolita is totally altogether an American novel.

      • Hope you enjoy re-reading that Zadie Smith essay on DFW. The thing which stayed in my mind about that essay was that DFW had somehow brought in the concept of ‘recursion’ in his sentences and paragraphs. I know about recursion in computer programming – it is a beautiful ‘Aha’ concept – and so I wondered how DFW had managed to bring it into his prose. I want to find out.

        Hope you like the next Russian book that you read. I read bits and pieces of ‘Rasskazy’ and I liked it. I agree with you that ‘Lolita’ is more an American novel rather than a Russian one.

  4. I read The Broom of the System years ago. I think it was his first novel but I could be wrong on that. He’s a great writer and deserves all the credit he’s ever been given but I agree that sometimes, in a small paragraph or footnote somewhere, he sometimes sounds slightly pretentious. Now I feel bad saying that as he’s dead but it’s true from my stand point.

    However, I would totally read another of his books. But Infinite Jest is just way too much for me. Maybe this one. In small doses as you suggest.

    • Yeah, I’m not particularly drawn to his fiction. I’m willing to read more essays, but it would take someone telling me something amazing about his novels before I’d try one.

  5. I tried and failed to read Dead Souls a couple of years ago. It was like trying to ride a one-speed 19th century bike through frozen Russian molasses. But then, I did not read Eva’s recommended translation. If one knew nothing at all about them, just looking at the titles would make it a pretty clear choice: Dead Souls and Crime and Punishment next to the sprightly advice to “Consider the Lobster.” So what Russian writer was mean to you? I’ll go rough him up.

    • Indie Sister read Dead Souls earlier this year, or last year maybe, and loved it. But I still have a pending duty to read The Master and Margarita, which Indie Sister loved even more, and I’m going to get that taken care of before I move on to Dead Souls.

      No Russian writer was ever mean to me, but I am moved by your promise of retaliation. :p You can go punch Tolstoy if you want. I won’t object.

  6. This one sounds fun! (Though I really must tackle Dostoevsky)

    And yes, Salman Rushdie is/can be funny – my favourite is The Ground Beneath Her Feet – absolutely brilliant!

    • Yes! The Ground Beneath Her Feet is the best! It’s got the most together plot of any of the books I’ve read by him, and it’s also got the only female character I’ve ever seen Rushdie write who had any interiority.

  7. I have also stayed away from “David Lobster” for a lot of the reasons that you mentioned. His writing seems always to be described as long and wandery, and there is a perception by those who have read his work that he is a little pretentious and takes himself very seriously. But then I hear this about his porn essay, and wonder why I haven’t read him yet! I need to remember your comments and try to digest his work slowly, but I do want to read this book now! Great review, Jenny! I am so glad that gave your honest and candid thoughts about this one!

    • I hope you like him, if you try him! I’m loath to recommend something I haven’t read yet, but I think his essay about going on a cruise (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) would be a good starting place. He really can be so much fun, with long twisty sentences and wry little jokes.

  8. I haven’t read any David Foster Wallace or any essays, but this review has really sparked my interest. Is it weird to say the porn convention got me? I can imagine that being very funny. I had alwasy thought he was a bit pretentious too. Thanks for challenging my misconceptions. 🙂

    • You’re welcome. Thank my book club! I’m in two book clubs, and both of them have made me read some books I didn’t care for, and some books I surprised myself by enjoying thoroughly.

  9. I have read Infinite Jest, and although it’s too long by a lot, it’s surprisingly readable and sometimes downright fun. There’s a whole bit about video phones and how people made masks to wear when the video phone “rang,” and it makes me smile whenever I think of it, which is a lot lately since I finally have a computer with Skype ability. The problem is that when his characters are experiencing tedium, he makes sure the readers experience it too. This does not make for good reading.

    All that is to say that ever since reading Infinite Jest, I’ve been wanting to read his essays because I’ve become convinced that I’d love them. I will keep your advice to parse them out in mind. That doesn’t surprise me much because my main issue with Infinite Jest wasn’t that it’s no good but that there was too much of it.

    • Yeah, my main issue with the essays was the same thing. Too much of them. The essay he wrote on John McCain’s presidential campaign blew my mind — he wrote it for a magazine, but it was like half the book! I can only imagine being the editor at the magazine who got that article. That’s what I mean by self-indulgent — he just writes and writes and writes and doesn’t think about what he’s writing for. But he does write exceptionally well.

      (I’m holding off on Infinite Jest though. At least for now.)

  10. I agree about reading one essay at a time. They’re much funnier that way.

    You know, the other day on the book of faces I made a comment about walking a line between esoteric and pretentious. I think DFW walked this line all the time.

  11. I haven’t tried his work yet, but I would be expecting the same pretentious, smarter-than-thou drivel, too! I’m glad it turned out to be enjoyable in parts. I would most definitely try this one, but I appreciate the advice about leaving time in between.

  12. I’ve heard so much about him and I’ve even contemplated checking out Infinite Jest from the library but have always chickened out at the last minute.

    Maybe I should start with something lighter like this one. Just have to summon up the courage.

    I totally agree with you re Salman Rushdie. There are so many flaws to his writing, but his sly humor totally makes up for them. He sounds pretty intimidating but when I actually read his books, I found them very enjoyable and at times very moving.

  13. Those are serious choices for your book group – the Russians and David Lobster Marchpane; talk about a rock and a hard place. Loved your hilarious review and the renaming, which feels so right. I grew up with cousins who called Clint Eastwood Clunk Westmettle, and that felt very cozy too.

  14. Hello, I ‘m back. (I am at my parents house! Squeee). Anyway, just yesterday or the day before, I was searching in goodreads for “David Lobster” because I was drafting a post on books outside of my comfort zone and wanted this author to be on it. I love coincidences like this, don’t you? And now, I will likely always refer to him as David Lobster Marchpane. lovely.

    I think I had more I wanted to say when I first read this post but didn’t have time to type it up.

    happy 11-11-11

  15. Now I’m trying to figure out whether to read Wallace’s essay one a week or just ignore his work altogether. I did read the commencement speech he wrote and enjoyed it.

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