A Supposedly Fun Thing I Keep On Doing
Since the epoch-dulling 1990s I have been a consummate lover of the books of David Foster Wallace, that moony satirist who is a cross between Sterne and Swift and Pynchon and that linguistically threatening dinosaur, the thesaurus. Ever in search of the mordant irony that defines the homeland, his fish-out-of-water causticism can be laugh out loud funny while at the same time bringing dark cultural tears. His newest, Consider the Lobster, is hardly an exception. Though less potent and a slight bit more uneven than his prior collection of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, in CTL he is still able to pack a belletristic wallop, causing me to run giggling for the dictionary--or at least www.oed.com.
His topics are the usual rangy, motley farrago: from the porn Oscars to John Updike to the Maine Lobster Festival to the pre- versus descriptive schools of grammar, this is one book from which there is much to learn about many things, from hardcore to sentence structure. It is sometimes tough going, especially the constant nagging interruptions of his footnotes (or in the case of "Host," the schematic-like text asides in a complex array of nestled boxes trailed by arrows) but it is surely worth the hassle.
One quibble, and this has little to do with DFW but rather my own perception and sense memory, is that his particular voice, so closely associated (in my own mind certainly) with the now-vanished bleakness of the politically correct, unscandalous-scandal driven, aren't-we-all-so-in-touch-with-our-inner-selves techboom 1990s seems out of place when addressing, say, 9-11 (which he does from the vantage of Bloomington, Indiana in the essay "A View from Mrs. Thomson's," the weakest in the book). Again, this is no fault of the author; rather, its one of the great failings of nostalgia: it dates. Let me be the last to say something along the lines that since 9-11 our country has been corrupted on all levels, but most deeply (and least comprehensibly) damaging is that our innocence has been shattered. DFW's voice--a principal distraction for me in the halls of my conservatory--speaks with Clinton-era dissonance, making me feel that overwhelming notion of aging: that one has endured not just a different era but a better, brighter, more optimistic one. It pains me to hear his voice addressing such things; it would pain me equally to hear Winne the Pooh directly addressing the Spanish Civil war or Encyclopedia Brown discussing torture at the Hanoi Hilton. (Michael Chabon brilliantly takes Sherlock Holmes into the Second World War in his novella The Final Solution for a distressingly sad objective correlative. Ditto William Hoffman and John Corigliano, whose embroilment of Almaviva, Figaro and Rosina in the bloodiness of the French Revolution in their opera The Ghosts of Versailles makes me shiver and cry.) I hold hope that blissful naivete will come back into fashion in our lifetimes, but that hope daily slips.