Colin McKay Miller's Reviews > Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace
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Oct 21, 09

bookshelves: nonfiction, short-stories-novellas, book-club-picks
Recommended for: Fans of footnotes and long essays
Read in October, 2009

Written between 1996 and 2005, David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster contains ten essays on various topics, but with the short pieces being vastly better than the long, I gave up on three of them. In addition, I don’t like footnotes—how am I supposed to read them? Do I jump to the bottom then come back up to where I was? Or do I just read them all at the end of the page?—so with those two strikes against him, I suppose it’s fair to ask why I bothered reading David Foster Wallace in the first place (as he’s famed for both length and tangents—his most famous work, Infinite Jest, is over a thousand pages long with a hundred pages worth of endnotes).

The answer: When he’s on, Foster has a knack for being both highly intelligent and incredibly relatable, even if you’re unfamiliar with the subject matter. That’s hard to pull off, but he does just that with a sharp sense of humor to boot. This is best displayed in his essay on John Updike, where Foster notes, by page count, Updike’s inability to write about anything except sex and death. His comments on the author writing about his impeding death are especially intriguing considering Foster committed suicide a few years after this book was published. Another essay details how American students don’t get that Kafka is funny, but to be fair, humor is often the last aspect to come in learning a foreign language, so I’m not surprised Kafka’s humor was lost in translation. Other strong essays include a piece on 9/11 from a small Illinois town, a piece on how sports memoirs suck but how Foster can’t stop reading them anyway (trying to figure out what makes athletes what they are) and the title essay on the Maine Lobster Festival. This “Consider the Lobster” essay is amusing for the fact that it focuses far more on the way we choose our morality—say boiling a lobster when there might be pain involved—than the festival itself, yet it still got published in Gourmet magazine.

Inevitably though, there’s just too much in Consider the Lobster I don’t care for. I skipped the initial essay on the porno awards (placed first because sex sells); I got a fifth of the way through a lengthy essay on the war between liberal and conservative dictionaries before cutting out without remorse; and within a few pages of the final essay on a conservative radio show I was sick of Foster’s replacement for footnotes: arrows pointing to little text boxes that end up pointing to more little text boxes. The essay on John McCain’s 2000 Presidential run was good—interesting because Foster liked McCain personally, but not his right-wing politics, noting the desire of people to still want to believe in leaders despite the inherent shadiness and salesmanship of it all—but it still didn’t need to be 80 pages long (hence why a sliver of it made it into the Rolling Stone issue for which it was originally written). However, I would have liked to hear Foster’s opinion on who/what McCain was in his 2008 presidential run, and if his perspective would have shifted in light of Barack Obama’s campaign, but then he would have gone on too long and used too many footnotes and I’d probably complain about that, too, so two stars. Barely.
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message 1: by Nicholas (new)

Nicholas Karpuk The only person I tolerate footnotes from is Terry Pratchett, because they're consistently funny. Everyone else needs to just add it in parenthesis or just drop it.

Colin McKay Miller The most credit I give to a footnote is that it's tolerable. Most of the time, I think that if it was secondary enough to be cut out from the main text, it can probably just be gone completely.

Also, it seems most everyone else likes Foster more than me, but I am intrigued that there's no real consensus as to what the best essays from this book are.

Lina Baker I made the mistake of buying this book on my nook. Footnotes on an e-reader? Wretched. At any rate though, I feel your struggle with this one--any BETTER ones of DFW you can recommend?

Colin McKay Miller Can't say I can. I hear the love for Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (essays), and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (short stories), but I've not bothered to try again.

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