Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays
By David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, 343 pp., $25.95
The best disguises are often those worn in plain view. David Foster Wallace seems to understand this notion, because roughly once a year, America's most intimidating young fiction writer picks up a pencil and goes undercover in the world of cub reporters to show us just how much journalists forget to include in their stories. In ''A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (1997), his first collection of such dispatches, he visited a state fair, dropped anchor with a geriatric cruise line, and attended a tennis match or two.
Whoever it was who first put Wallace up to this bit of hack work deserves a medal, for it turns out he is very, very good at it. In the world of slick magazine writing, where collusion is the norm and macho puffery pretty much out of control, Wallace consistently snags on the unpretty and the fake. He will never let his reader forget someone has attempted to tailor a lot of what we read, watch, and observe to get us to buy something. He attacks this truth like a hopped-up Doberman in this rabidly intelligent collection of essays, ''Consider the Lobster."
In the dozen or so years since his first ''article," the magazine world seems to have caught on to Wallace, for the tenor of his assignments reflects a wise but sadistic desire by editors to throw this highly sensitive, squeamish man at situations he is almost sure to loathe. Over the course of the book he wades acres of flesh at the Adult Video News annual award show, and weathers the most grisly week of the 2000 political campaign with John McCain. He stands in line at the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland, and spends a chunk of time with a conservative radio talk show host in California.
To read Wallace's rendition of these events is to experience the muchness of American life in the way that Tom Wolfe used to deliver it to us. Like the great avatar of new journalism, Wallace is a master of flipping a world inside out through its own lingo, of swallowing it whole and then destroying it from the inside on its own terms. However, there's a new tone in ''Consider the Lobster." Without simplifying, it's safe to say that these pieces are more aware of the effect they might have on the reader. They acknowledge what's at stake -- be it faith in the food supply or faith in a political system -- and tailor their delivery accordingly.
Thus the essays here do more pausing and pivoting, referring back to us readers in our chairs, checking our pulse to make sure we haven't been stunned into depression. After the definitions are laid down and the piece is framed, Wallace begins to amp up the speed. Then he cranks it up a little more. Pretty soon, we're rushing through this world we took for granted at full speed. The result is a prose of such clarity and lyrical heights that one is tempted to resort to drug metaphors to describe how it feels to keep up with it.
The danger of this approach to journalism, if it can be called that, is that it becomes a shtick, and this is to some extent true. But it's also beside the point. Watching Wallace play his outrage meter is a little like watching John McEnroe complain about a line call: It's not always the accuracy of the claim that keeps you caring, but the hysterics with which it's expressed.
In recent years, Wallace has owned up to the fact that he might occasionally blow things out of proportion -- that there is nothing that existentially devastating about cotton candy. He closes this gap entirely in ''Authority and American Usage," a review of Bryan Garner's ''A Dictionary of Modern American Usage," in which he owns up to being a ''SNOOT": a term his own egghead family came up with to signify the kind of guy who cares ''about the current status of double modals and ergative verbs," ''the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to hunt for mistakes in the very prose of [New York Times language columnist William] Safire's column."
The cultish status Wallace has achieved among the great unwashed for work like this ought to be a cheering factor to those who worry that the end of reading life is upon us, or that kids are just dumber these days. Wallace's essays are predicated on the belief that it's right and good to expect a straight deal from the world -- or even from a sports memoir -- and that integrity comes from identifying why you've been let down.
This is not to say Wallace believes that everyone should become a working critic, just that skeptical reception is the best defense in a world awash in fakery. As T. S. Eliot wrote in his classic essay ''Tradition and the Individual Talent": ''We might remind ourselves that criticism is as inevitable as breathing, and that we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it, for criticizing our own minds in their work of criticism." With this scabrous group of essential essays, David Foster Wallace shows how much we can profit from extending this attitude beyond books and to just about anything in American life, even to our Sunday lobster.
Critic John Freeman lives in New York.