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Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays By David Foster Wallace

Ten Essays About the Same Thing

Although David Foster Wallace has been lauded as one of the greatest fiction writers of his generation, the most interesting character he has ever created may in fact be himself. To be sure, his voluminous fiction -- which includes the 1079-page masterpiece Infinite Jest and scores of stories and novellas -- features many compelling individuals. However, Wallace is also a prolific essay writer, and his essays are indelibly stamped with his presence. When reading Wallace's essays, the main character is always: Wallace.

This means that how much you like Wallace's new essay collection Consider the Lobster probably depends on how much you like Wallace himself. These 10 essays, written between 1996 and 2004 for publications ranging from The Village Voice to The Atlantic Monthly to Gourmet magazine, cover an eclectic range of intriguing topics, such as the Adult Video News Awards (pornography's Oscars), right-wing talk radio, Dostoyevsky's career and its resonance in our times, and the morality of eating lobsters. Despite the eclecticism, most of them are linked back to one of two main themes: the degeneration of politics over the past decade and the lack of authenticity in America today. There's also a couple oddballs, namely a whipping of an unremarkable John Updike novel and a strange takedown of former tennis prodigy Tracy Austin.

Regardless of topic, though, Wallace so dominates these essays that your enjoyment of them is likely to depend more on how much you like his style rather than how interesting you find anything he's decided to write about.

Wallace's authorial voice is unmistakable -- it's roughly equivalent to having him in the room screaming into your ear in a spiraling staircase of words. This voice is enabled, largely, by Wallace's rabid love of details, which he crams his essays full of; the multitudes of details bring about breathless sentences that stretch on and on, desperately trying to tell you everything and somehow remaining comprehensible. Take this one from "Big Red Son", about the Adult Video News Awards, in which Wallace is interviewing porn director Max Hardcore in his entourage-packed Vegas suite:

"Then one of the starlets decides that she'd hungry, and Max insists on escorting her down to the Sahara's restaurant and wants everybody else to come along, which eventually results in the B-girls and crewman and yr. corresps. all standing there awkwardly at the maitre d's podium while Max personally conducts the starlet to her table and pulls out her chair and tucks a serviette into her cleavage and pulls out a platinum-plated money clip and announces in a voice audible to everyone in the restaurant and foyer that he 'wants to take care of the little girl's damages in advance' and shoves bills into the hanky-pocket of the maitre d's tuxedo and then leaves her there by herself and herds us all back out and into the elevator and jobs impatiently at the buttons for her suite's floor, almost jumping up and down with fury at the elevator's delay; and we're all rushed back up to the suite because it's occurred to Max that he wants to show your corresps. Something from this week's filming that he thinks will sum up his particular porn genius better than any amount of exposition could . . . and then, reseated, he starts flipping through a notebook to find something."

Such immoderacy is typical: Consider the Lobster contains four essays longer than 45 pages, and even at that length they are filled with dense footnotes packed with even more detail. The details may try your patience, but they tend to be interesting, including everything from how talk radio ratings are calculated to a description of New Criticism's Intentional Fallacy to how Dostoevsky's mock-execution changed his life.

Although such writing gives each essay a wide range, Wallace's sprawl means that most of the pieces in Consider the Lobster lack a strong narrative flow. Those who share Wallace's energy and enjoy reveling in his perceptive eye will like this, but those who prefer more typical, structured essays capped with sterling conclusions may be annoyed by the lack of cohesion.

In addition to having a singular voice, Wallace likes to literally bring himself into his essays, most often posing as an earnest, dreadfully bumbling journalist who's way out of his depth. When playing the fish-out-of-water scenario for laughs he's pitch-perfect, knowing just how much to mock himself, but also getting his point across. Take, for example, this back-and-forth with the Program Director of Los Angeles radio station KFI.

"Q: Is there some compact way to describe KFI's programming philosophy?"
A: 'What we call ourselves is 'More Stimulating Talk Radio.''
Q: Pretty much got that part already.
A: 'That is the slogan we try to express every minute on the air. Of being stimulating . . .'
Q: Can you explain this attitudinal component?
A: 'I think stimulating really sums it up. It's what we really try to do.'
Q: [Strangled frustration-noises.]"

Readers who are willing to go along with Wallace's peculiarities will find this collection both interesting and entertaining. Those less tolerant of Wallace's excess will probably still find some worthwhile material here, but it may be drowned out by wishes that an editor had been allowed to force Wallace into a more straightforward style. Like many books, it all depends on how much you like the lead character. It just so happens that in this book, the lead character and the author are one and the same.

Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays
By David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown
December 13, 2005
Hardcover/$25.95
ISBN: 0316156116
352pp