Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. Back Bay Books 343 pp. $14.99.
I am writing this on April 12, 2011, three days before The Pale King‘s official release. Of course the book is already available. Online there is even more: so much DFW-related data that keeping up with it is seriously affecting my work performance. It’s ironic, in a sort of Alanis Morissettian way, that Wallace’s work, which was so often about the “seething static of every particular thing and experience,” is itself a generator of such massive amounts of literary static. His fame creates more of the same problem his work attempted to address.
One wishes there were a page meter out there—at what point will the writing about The Pale King out-paginate the actual 547 pages of The Pale King that we have bound and ready for us to read? At what point will The Pale King inevitably become Pale Fire?
Consider the Lobster (2005) was the first book by Wallace that I bought in hardcover. It had taken me that long to get on board. I discovered Wallace, like everyone, in college, but I walked the perimeter of his work warily. He was intoned with such unshaven, sweaty energy, and the big novel he was already famous for (this was the late ’90s) was so obviously huge and ridiculous that I demurred. But in my senior year I pilfered a professor’s hardback copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again and was shaken. It triggered the clichéd-yet-genuine feeling one always gets from great writing: I had no idea one could write like this. I bought my own copy a year later and it remains one of my prized books, pulled down from the shelf perennially when I just want to feel good. It’s remarkable to remember that much of Supposedly was written concurrent with IJ. They partake of the same type of linguistic energy; the voice in those books is consistently pleasurable, Wallace in his deepest groove. (In the future, those two books will be viewed as his Amazing Streak of Genius, akin to Faulkner publishing The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August between 1929 and 1932, or Roth publishing his late American trilogy between 1997 and 2000.)
I subsequently became hyper-vigilant about tracking down Wallace’s nonfiction. I remember when his essay on usage came out in Harper’s, and I read it at my desk at work, enraptured, for 90 minutes, refusing phone calls or filing requests. (I worked in a media relations office, and I was located in the middle of its large central room. My only job was to answer the phone and file.) I remember how Harper’s printed it as a lengthy excerpt in the middle of the issue, differently papered. It was one of those visceral, Proustianly perfect reading experiences. I did the same procedure a few years later when his essay “Host” came out in the Atlantic Monthly. I read it at my job in a television newsroom. Reading the magazine and ignoring the journalistic mayhem surrounding me neatly captured the strange value I found in Wallace’s nonfiction. The way it took a roiling contemporary phenomenon—in the case of “Host,” the heady mixture of intimacy and rage present in talk radio—and made it humanely funny, complexly clarified, rigorously observed. The mode he employed was dense but elastic, overburdened with the world’s details but still somehow exuberant. I stalked his byline like a jilted lover.
So when Consider the Lobster came out, I was expecting the second coming, a true statement of nonfiction scope and ambition. But, as a book, it’s kind of lumpy. It contains some of the best nonfiction writing that he’s done—the essays on usage, McCain, and talk radio—while not having the pioneer glee that is evident within Supposedly. The chronology of the essays’ initial publication is also interesting: the Updike takedown was old enough to be published in Supposedly. The reviews of Tracy Austin and Dostoevsky, while interesting, seemed more appropriate for the vast edition of uncollected nonfiction that I still think we should get one day. The book felt more forcibly collected than his first.
What’s also interesting is how his approach shifts in this book, which you can see most clearly in the title essay. He essentially splits with his former, zany, cartooning, cataloging self; the relentlessness of his roving eye turns away from people and toward a more abstract human morality. The work becomes slightly less fun, slightly more serious. And this didactic urge came to dominate his late nonfiction. It’s probably no accident that the next piece of Wallace-related nonfiction I read at work was his commencement speech, probably the most didactic genre. And the question that arose when reading Consider the Lobster was: just where is this guy going?
This past year, aside from Freedom, the book that seemed to get the most attention was Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields’s fragmented, allusive, mortared-together book-length essay on what he calls the Lyric Essay—how it feeds our current hunger for reality and performs what the outmoded realistic novel can no longer. It’s an interesting, flawed book with its 618 sections, many of them gleefully pilfered from the work of others and cited at the end only under pressure from lawyers. The result is a sort of high-grade, post-graduate toilet reading. It’s amusing, but it’s not really coherent, as a manifesto, and it repeats its main themes and positions so often it’s like the book has Alzheimer’s. Of course the obsolescence of a coherent, shaped, unified point seems to be one of the book’s points.
But what’s most striking about Shields’s book is how it’s just the latest salvo in the ongoing campaign to legitimize what is currently called Creative Nonfiction. The most poignant explanation as to why the book exists, what it is ultimately trying to effectuate (and something that only Salon critic Laura Miller pointed out), comes 2/3 of the way through the book in a letter Shields has written to what appears to be an academic colleague. In it he says, “I find that the kind of work to which I’m most drawn is often condescended to here,” the here meaning an academic conference. There is a long line of creative nonfiction practitioners who have steadily attempted to defend their work against academic condescension and in particular have argued on behalf of an academic legitimacy for the “genre,” if that’s what it is. This began back with Lee Gutkind, who was dubbed the “godfather of creative nonfiction,” and who has since taken the mantle upon himself. Gutkind has not only written reams and reams of creative nonfiction, he also has edited the genre-defining literary magazine Creative Nonfiction, as well as several anthologies of and about creative nonfiction. This fight for legitimacy continues with John D’Agata, author of Halls of Fame and, also just last year, About a Mountain. But D’Agata has also published two almost IJ-sized anthologies of essays—The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay—both of which explicitly attempt to establish a new prominence for the essay, lay claim to extant examples, and back-map through time to illustrate how such an artistic sensibility was ever prominent, ever worthy of our respect, and subsequently worthy of departmental budget lines. (It’s interesting how creative nonfiction is defended as the “future savior of literature” while also being the “form older than all other forms,” a neat trick.) So Shields is simply the latest iteration of the practitioner-defendant of what was first called Creative Nonfiction and is now even more absurdly called the Lyric Essay.
And just what is creative nonfiction? If there was ever a botched name for a genre it was this. “Nonfiction” as a name is just too amorphous; it could contain anything. And “essay” reeks of the schoolroom; it’s dusty with chalk and the collective hatred of teachers. So in many ways the genre-namers just needed something that sounded different, that didn’t connote bad memories. I contend that what actually defines creative nonfiction more than anything else is that it is not journalism. That is, it partakes of art and doesn’t traffic in mere information or in merely informing the reader. (D’Agata in The Lost Origins of the Essay: “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?”) It doesn’t just aspire to be literature; it pre-defines itself as literature, the way poetry and fiction now predefine themselves as literature. It doesn’t just sort itself for the bookstore clerk; it claims the mantle of cultural prestige. And this is a very important distinction in the academic realm, not the least of which is because the predominant way non-journalist writers currently feed themselves and secure health insurance is through teaching college English. Creative Writing—another nebulous case of naming—exists in a tendentious but settled, can’t-we-all-just-get-along-type of relationship with the slightly older, but much cockier Department of English, while the School of Journalism is in an entirely different building, often lives alongside what is broadly called Communications, and is (in the eyes of the generic creative writer I am caricaturing) one cap and gown away from a trade school. Poetry is art; journalism is barber college.
And this is the alliance that creative nonfiction is making—with literature over news, with ardor over craft. All of the hectoring on the part of the Gutkinds and D’Agatas of the world can be understood from this angle. They don’t just want to be taken seriously; they want to be taken seriously by the right kinds of people. And this is the most important of distinctions, because without it creative nonfiction quickly dissolves into the swirling brackish soup that nonfictional writing has always been, i.e., a little bit of everything: memoir, diary, reportage, review, criticism, impressionistic nature piece, scholarly article, etc. The problem with nonfiction has always been that there is no way to organize all of it, so one flips through the dictionary to find suitably elastic categorical name-plates, and one eventually ends up with the “lyric essay,” which to me sounds insufferably twee and cloying and desperate and hairless—the Michael Cera of literary genres.
But Shields does raise the bar in his gallant treatment of facts. Though he is merely recapitulating an overwhelming mood, he tries to give it a new beat. He says—I’ve picked this quotation almost at random, which befits the book’s aesthetic—”‘Fiction’/'nonfiction’ is an utterly useless distinction.” He is interested in not just blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction but disregarding it entirely, treating it as outmoded aesthetically, politically, and morally, a vestige of a naïve readership, like using leeches for medicinal benefit. He’s also interested in collage, particularly braiding within his work unattributed samples from previous writers, creating a kind of top-shelf sampling of literature. What he wants to do is rip bits of content (facts, quotations) free of their original context and redeploy them in the context of his choosing, if he provides context at all. (And the context in Reality Hunger is provided mostly by the lawyers.)
One aspect of the massive publicity that Reality Hunger received, which always puzzled me, was its near-orgasmic blurbs that covered the dust jacket so that the cover really was its praise, the already-approved applause of its own ideas. Why didn’t anyone publicly question the provenance of these blurbs? Are these blurbs actually for Reality Hunger? And are we really supposed to take them seriously, coming from a book that wants to delegitimize the power of quotations ? Is Shields winking at us with this book of quotations fronted by more quotations? He might be in on the joke, but the book itself comes across as thoroughly cynical and manipulative—manipulative on an almost cellular level—because someone (the book’s publisher?) has used the blurbs (surely the most worthless of literary genres) with attempted legitimacy. The book tries to lie and tell the truth simultaneously. We are supposed to take these blurbs seriously while having quotations of all sorts mangled within the interior of the book. It’s either a great postmodern joke, or a stiff middle finger to the reader, or both.
But what does all this have to do with Wallace’s nonfiction?
Part of me believes that it is his nonfiction that will be predominantly read in the years ahead. Oh, everyone will talk a big game about Infinite Jest, but the primary means though which readers will actually encounter Wallace’s actual language will be through his nonfiction. In part, this is just because IJ is still a gigantic undertaking to read, but also it’s because his nonfiction is just so much more welcoming than much of his fiction, especially his post-IJ work, which is constricted and self-conscious and often constipated, where the noticing seems to embalm and overwhelm the stories.
One thing that distinguishes Wallace’s nonfiction from his fiction is how comparatively ahistorical it is vis-à-vis genre. That’s not to say that Wallace is ahistorical in his writing or isn’t self aware of predecessors, but in his fiction he is often paralyzingly aware of who has come before and how his work should respond to them; it’s fiction on the academic-scholarship model, referencing your predecessors and then politely demolishing them. See the early novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” from Girl With Curious Hair, which is a clear response to John Barth’s seminal, and heavily academically influential, Lost in the Funhouse. Or think of “Adult World” (I and II) or “Octet” from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. He even deploys himself faux-memoirishly in The Pale King, a standard postmodern move that’s basically a cliché at this point. And this type of self-consciousness embeds in every story a distrust of story. He cannot jump out of the crevasse of postmodern self-awareness regarding the falsity of fiction-making. He has seen his own devices and conventions and he cannot not think of them. He cannot unlearn his sophistication.
But in his nonfiction, Wallace just got on with it, or he got on with it as much as was possible for him. Though he would dramatize the fact that he was not a reporter, that he was often a sort of highly educated fish out of water (an amateur!), his nonfiction is less self-destructive than his fiction. And more academically, he was not overtly working within the avant-garde literary tradition. He was freed from some of those historical constraints, and I would argue that these constraints are a big deal when you are a) brought up by academics, b) work in academia, and c) pride yourself on being in the avant-garde.
Wallace to DeLillo, quoted in “The Unfinished,” D.T. Max’s article in the New Yorker:
I do not know why the comparative ease and pleasure of writing nonfiction always confirms my intuition that fiction is really What I’m Supposed to Do, but it does, and now I’m back here flogging away (in all senses of the word) and feeding my own wastebasket.
The nonfiction was easier for him to write and easier for us to read. That doesn’t mean it’s better, but it does point to how it seemed to be an arena of play slightly less burdened by the history of the art form. In a way, Wallace could be a little less self-aware of his place in the artistic firmament when he wrote nonfiction, and I think that comparative lack of self-consciousness is one explanation for why it’s so good.
And it’s a lesson I think for everyone who writes and reads contemporary nonfiction, and especially those emboldened by the statements of a Shields or a D’Agata, and/or those obsessed with carving out a corner of the cafeteria for this kind of writing. With artistic/academic legitimacy, you get lots of things. You get respect—or a certain form of institutional respect. But you also create a burden for yourself. You privilege a work as art but in doing so you steal its native camouflage, its ability to sneak up on its reader and surprise her with its hidden artifice. You professionalize the artwork, you name it into a corner, and that paradoxically makes it less free and obligates it to behave professionally. Suddenly you begin to worry about conference condescension.
But there is a final, different type of professionalism Wallace exhibits. In his excellence Wallace provides a model for how one might deal with our current data level. And that model is at odds with what might be called the D’Agata or Shields model. Where Shields urges an exciting meddling with fact, which is a kind of admittance of defeat, Wallace urges a stricter form of attention. In his late, didactic, political mode, he plays the moral responsibility card. Here is a long quotation from his introduction to the 2007 edition of the Best American Essays:
And I know that many of these virtues have to do with the ways in which the pieces handle and respond to the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective that constitutes Total Noise. This claim might itself look slippery, because of course any published essay is a burst of information and context that is by definition part of 2007′s overall roar of info and context. But it is possible for something to be both a quantum of information and a vector of meaning. . . . Several of this year’s most valuable essays are informative in both senses: they are at once informational and instructive. That is, they serve as models and guides for how large or complex sets of facts can be sifted, culled, and arranged in meaningful ways—ways that yield and illuminate truth instead of just adding more noise to the overall roar.
Here is an overt premise. There is just no way that the 2004′s reelection could have taken place—not to mention extraordinary renditions, legalized torture, FISA-flouting, or the passage of the Military Commissions Act—if we had been paying attention and handling information in a competent grown-up way. “We” meaning as a polity and culture. . . . It’s amazing to me that no one much talks about this—about the fact that whatever our founders and framers thought of as a literate, informed citizenry can no longer exist, at least not without a whole new modern degree of subcontracting and dependence packed into what we mean by “informed.”
In the context of our Total Noise, a piece like Mark Danner’s “Iraq: . . . Imagination” exemplifies a special subgenre I’ve come to think of as the service essay, with “service” here referring to both professionalism and virtue. In what is loosely framed as a group book review, Danner has processed and arranged an immense quantity of fact, opinion, confirmation, testimony, and on-site experience in order to offer an explanation of the Iraq debacle that is clear without being simplistic, comprehensive without being overwhelming, and critical without being shrill. . . .
There are several other such service essays among this year’s proffered Best. . . what renders them most valuable to me is a special kind of integrity in their handling of fact. An absence of dogmatic cant. Not that service essayists don’t have opinions or make arguments. But you never sense, from this year’s Best, that facts are being specially cherry-picked or arranged in order to advance a pre-set agenda. They are utterly different from the party-line pundits and propagandists who now are in such vogue, for whom writing is not thinking or service but like the silky courtier’s manipulation of an enfeebled king.
. . . In which scenarios we, like diminished kings or rigidly insecure presidents, are reduced to being overwhelmed by info and interpretation, or else paralyzed by cynicism and anomie. . . .
What’s interesting here is how clearly he presents, at an angle, the crux of The Pale King (or at least what I’ve come to understand of The Pale King from my online reading and cursory mugging of the book). Notice the recurrent king motifs—he also uses the phrases “skull-sized kingdoms” and “imperially alone” in his commencement speech. It’s amazing to realize how pregnant he was with his theme. But it’s not just the notion of boredom but the notion of paying attention, the adult obligation to pay attention and to sift the mountain of available fact. It’s almost like he’s saying that it’s the price of becoming, and duty of being, an adult. Notice, too, the idea of the essay being a service essay, which echoes The Pale King where the IRS “wigglers” refer to themselves as in the Service, that is, in the business of selflessly, civically paying attention to detail–of accounting for all those facts.
The other predominant contemporary vision for nonfiction—Shields’s vision—mirrors our current chaos but does so too closely, so that a loose artifice becomes part of the problem; confusion piles upon confusion without constructing any kind of shelter from it. These jazzy, data mash-ups are tempting, but as Wallace says of talk show host John Ziegler, aren’t these temptations better left unfed?
Wallace is not a simpleton, but in his late nonfiction he had not given up the ideal that sense might be made from the flux, and that’s why his essays are ultimately so moving: because they dramatize this heroic attempt.
Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. His first novel, a series of linked stories called The Portable Son, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books this fall.
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