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Plumbing depths, from dinner to dictionaries


Consider The Lobster and Other Essays

David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown / 352 pages

Essays by David Foster Wallace would be recognizable without his name attached. His relentless curiosity, his earnestness, his generous spirit, his often goofy tone, his erudition (which seems strange coming after the word "goofy," but that is part of his uniqueness) and even his use of footnotes in magazines that otherwise eschew footnotes contribute to his recognizability.

Wallace's essays, short stories and novels are so familiar, it seems he has been around forever. The fact is, Wallace has barely achieved middle age (born in 1962) and did not become a well-known writer until 1996, when his thousand-page novel Infinite Jest bowled over reviewers and readers.

Consider the Lobster collects 10 essays published in the Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone and Harper's, as well as other magazines and newspapers.

The collection's title essay, from Gourmet magazine, reads at times like an encyclopedia article about a form of life lower than human but mighty interesting to contemplate, at times like a cookbook entry minus the recipes, and at times like a treatise on ethics. Always it is something that only Wallace would have written. Throughout the essay, he wonders whether lobsters feel pain when they are placed alive in boiling water for human consumption.

A quotation from the piece conveys Wallace's essay skills better than a hundred additional paragraphs in my voice:

"Given this article's venue [Gourmet] and my own lack of culinary sophistication, I'm curious about whether the reader can identify with any of these reactions and acknowledgments and discomforts. I'm also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is more like confused. For those Gourmet readers who enjoy well-prepared and well-presented meals involving beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, lobster, etc., Do you think much about the (possible) moral status and (probable) suffering of the animals involved? If you do, what ethical considerations have you worked out that permit you not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands, since of course refined enjoyment, rather than mere ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy?"

Okay, maybe the lobster passage is not quite representative of Wallace's essay style. But then again, what passage would qualify as representative? Wallace is so smart and clever that he can make almost any subject seem fresh. The other essays in this collection cover an adult movie awards ceremony, the writing career of John Updike, trying to teach the fiction of Franz Kafka, the state of American lexicography, the reaction to Sept. 11 in a small Illinois city, the tennis life of star player Tracy Austin, U.S. Sen. John McCain wrestling with political campaigning as the nation prepared to choose a president in 2000, a new biography of novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the world of a late-night radio talk-show host.

In the essay about lexicography, Wallace refers to its "seamy underbelly." After noting that some dictionaries are "notoriously liberal" and others "notoriously conservative," Wallace wonders of his readers, "Did you know that U.S. lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?" Well, no, but after reading his well-researched, well-written, wry but learned 60-page essay about the field, I now know something about that seamy underbelly. I am glad for that knowledge.

An essay about the adult film industry's ceremony at which the equivalent of the Academy Awards are presented would seem so simple to make interesting that any fool could proceed. However, an essay on that topic is difficult to do well, because of porn film star stereotypes and many readers' revulsion toward graphic cinematic sex. Wallace transcends the stereotypes (and maybe the revulsion) to show that adult film workers are laborers, somewhat more visible than the average Hollywood star.

Consider the Lobster carries a subtext, which is "Consider the Writer." It is difficult to know from the printed page how much of his quirkiness is organic and how much of it is studied. Whatever the answer, it is always welcome.

Steve Weinberg is a director of the National Book Critics Circle.

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