Theodore Wuest’s Book Review

Notes from the Beautiful Machine

By Theodore Wuest

Words have suddenly begun to fly across the screen, rapidly approaching margin-lines and my vapid assertions. I am rapidly approaching that dreaded moment for any writer, rapidly approaching the confrontation of an unsavory topic. This topic, specifically, is a better writer than I. This topic, namely, is David Foster Wallace.

Many in the audience of this article are aware of Wallace, his distinctive voice, his cultural significance, the modernity and relative clarity of his prose. It was prose that seemed to shape the literary landscape of the 90s and 00s. But beyond his fiction, which was rather limited in quantity,lobster Wallace was a dynamic journalist. Between publishing novels and teaching, Wallace produced an array of fascinating almost-long-form essays for major publications, many of which are printed here in Consider the Lobster. In these essays, he goes many steps past reporting and enters the uneasy halls of philosophy. In one, he explores both the enigma of John McCain in his brief stint of success during the 2000 presidential campaign and the intricate social satellite around the man, the campaign press corps. In another, he reviews the latest usage dictionary, moving on to illuminate the “seamy underbelly” of the lexicographical profession and the bloodless but passionate war between descriptivists and prescriptivists on which depends the future of the English language. He praises and criticizes good writing—Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, John Updike—and bad writing—Tracy Austin ghosted by Christine Brennan, John Updike. And in the title essay, he takes a weekend trip to Maine Lobster Festival and ends up debating the morality of boiling lobsters.

Wallace is a talented rhetorician. A competent writer communicates with words what they think, and does so clearly. A good writer is one who constantly uses those words for more than their denotations. Wallace, without exception, is able to clearly communicate his ideas, however complex they may turn out to be. Wallace, with few exceptions, is able to imbue his writing with that previously described elevating dose of thought, whether in the form of emotional weight or, more often, a biting, developed sense of humor.

Wallace’s humor is elegant. It seems effortless how it flows through the text, without any of the flaws that make most comedy vaguely repulsive. There is no parody, caricature, vulgarity (essay on pornography very excepted), no elaborate or contrived setup for stale jokes. His humor is natural in that it stems directly from his crystalline perception, from the intricate machinations that drive his thoughts. His humor acquires its power not from falsehood, but from truth.

I seem to be gushing a bit. I do not intend to do this. Wit does not permeate his writing, as the preceding paragraph may seem to suggest. It comes in quick flashes, in cameos inset into his argument or his storytelling. And the most fascinating parts of Consider the Lobster are in the dry spells between jokes. They’re fascinating, chiefly, because they’re not “dry”; they’re damp, occasionally soaked with Wallace’s personality. Throughout his rhetoric, his arguments elegantly punctuated with wit, we become uneasily close to the writer himself. Reading his essays, I noticed his insecurities, his detachment from and attraction to other people, his extreme self-consciousness. A better reader might even recognize traits premonitory of his 2008 suicide. And while it is possible that the emotional texture is simply a pathetic device, an attempt of the author to connect with the reader, that is not its effect. Clear-cut arguments and witty observations suddenly become nauseatingly personal, and it’s distracting. They become less about their subjects and more about their author.

Furthermore, detracting from Wallace’s otherwise impeccable style is his slavish devotion to the use of the footnote. It is a constant presence in almost all of his essays. And while footnotes in themselves are not bad,[1] excessive annotation is disruptive. Wallace will occasionally write full-page footnotes, under headings like “CONTAINS EDITORIAL ELEMENTS”, which, while expanding the scope of the argument, remove any sense of coherency. Especially bad in this regard was the last essay, on talk radio, in which Wallace eschewed the footnote for lines drawn to text boxes, boxes which sometimes contained more lines drawn to sub-text boxes. Or are they meta-text boxes? The mere existence of that question elicits skepticism as to their value. Often, I wondered why Wallace didn’t just incorporate his ideas into the structure of his essay.

There it is. I’ve done it. I’ve reached that unsavory moment, the moment where I’m required to judge David Foster Wallace. Because what right have I? When he is regarded as the writer, maybe the mind, of his time? When he, by the virtue of his humor, has managed to make me chuckle in an empty, silent room? Perhaps as reconciliation, I offer this: yes, when we see the “seamy underbelly” of Wallace’s personality, his arguments are less effective. But that personality can add another dimension, an emotional dimension, to our perception of his arguments. What they lose as essays, they gain as art.


[1] And can, in fact, serve as a channel for the writer’s sharp wit in a manner that would be otherwise inappropriate.

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