Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

David Foster Wallace, _Consider the Lobster and Other Essays_

SPEAKING OF BACK catalogue, I really ought to read Broom of the System and Girl with Curious Hair, having now caught up on DFW's other work to date by reading Consider the Lobster, which I enjoyed tremendously.

DFW is awfully fond of referring to things by their initials, so I'll follow his practice as a sort of homage.

As elsewhere in his work, DFW is preoccupied in this essay collection with our anxious search for the good, the beautiful, and the true in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, anxious because (a) a great deal of serious philosophical inquiry from at least Nietzsche onwards has powerfully undermined the assumptions and arguments that upheld our civilization's working notions of the good, the beautiful, and the true and because (b) in our consumer culture, spurious, ultimately treacherous false versions of TGTB&TT are constantly displayed before our greedy eyes in the form of flashy commodities that will end by simply disappointing and cheating us, creating cravings we can never satisfy.

But the search, though anxious, goes on, because we need the TGTB&TT.  So DFW keeps asking, can we do right?  We want to do right, don't we?  There must be a way!  I say more power to him, and as long as he keeps posing these questions, I'll keep wanting to hear what he has to say.  DFW's tribute to Joseph Frank's multi-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky insists that Dostoevsky (or, as DFW calls him, FMD) deserves our attention, respect, and admiration precisely because these questions mattered to him.  To my mind, DFW deserves that attention, respect, and admiration as well, for the same reason.  Whether writing of the porn industry, September 11, John McCain, or talk radio, DFW never lets the big questions get too far out of sight, even while recording the most minute journalistic details.

One big surprise: DFW is a SNOOT, that is, a member of  Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance, or possibly Syntax Nudniks Of Our Time, that is, "a really extreme usage fanatic."  In "Authority and American Usage," DFW comes out as someone who is heart-attack serious about misplaced modifiers, "less" when you should say "fewer," "dialogue" as a verb, and so on.  (Not about "hopefully," though, an intriguing departure.)

This surprised me because DFW's prose is so chewily colloquial, so much like an insanely knowledgeable guy on too much coffee inserting subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses, so full of "-ish" and "-wise" nonce modifiers and "pretty much" and loose-fit relative clauses (even in the book on the mathematician Cantor), that I never would have guessed he is an old schooler with a ruler when it comes to usage.  But he is!

And his mother is.  Which makes one recall Hal Incandenza's mother in Infinite Jest, also a SNOOT (Mrs. Incandenza is the SNOOT, not Infinite Jest -- I'm picking up here on DFW's helpful habit of using parenthetical identifications to clear up ambiguities).  I hope Mrs. Incandenza has no other link to DFW's mom, because Mrs. Incandenza is...well...awful, really, I would say.  Gertrude and all that.  

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