As you read this, David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster sits on shelves of bookstores everywhere, unassuming. It is tucked, in all likelihood, between other collections of essays or nonfiction musings or books generally disadvantaged by no exciting, fictional tagline. On its cover is the image of a lobster with one claw outstretched, as if waving, knowing perhaps that the average bookstore-browser needs some extra incentive to pick up a collection of essays, some extra waving-lobster-like encouragement. Note to all bookstore-browsers: give in to the lobster – this one knows what he’s talking about.
I recently watched a Charlie Rose interview with the late (and much younger) DFW, in which they talked about film, education, DFW’s own experience with writing and being a professor. Having seen, and listened, to him speak only reinforces the feeling I got when I read Consider the Lobster: through his essays, DFW is having a conversation with you. It’s a frighteningly eloquent conversation, but it’s a conversation nonetheless. Reading Consider the Lobster was to picture him telling me, with his trademark bandana, about Updike’s latest book, about the Maine Lobster Festival, even about the US porn industry, if I could keep my puritanism from getting the better of me.
DFW writes with a voice that straddles the fence between erudition and colloquialism; he is at once your most intimidating professor and your student coffee date. And when the time calls, he admits, as any good writer (or professor, or coffee date) should, when he is out of his league. Culinary goings on and lobsters is one such league. 9/11 is another. In describing a television broadcast he watched on the morning of 9/11, he says, in a short sentence describing what I can only imagine all of us feel when thinking of what he refers to as The Horror: “I’m not sure what else to say.”
In general, the word essay summons something dry, academic. These are anything but. Come to think of it, I’d even go so far as to call the word a misnomer: these pieces, some almost unbelievable in their content but all compelling, read like fiction – with observatory notes, compliments of DFW, thrown in for good measure. If it wasn’t for the lobster, there’s a chance I wouldn’t have picked it up. Now, if only someone could come up with a more enticing cover for his 1079-page Infinite Jest.