Make No Mistake, This is Mostly a Good Thing

Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (2006) by David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

The book is an assortment of essays (10), which were written for different publications (e.g., Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Gourmet, etc.), the earliest published in 1992.

I know you’re wondering already—because my wife asked, and she never asks—about the title. It is the title of an essay that was written for Gourmet magazine in 2005, wherein DFW details his visit to the Maine Lobster Festival, an essay that eventually begins raising ethical and philosophical questions about animal cruelty and the relationship between morality and aesthetics.

Let that sink in for a moment and you’ll have a decent idea of the abilities of the author, who finds life and meaning everywhere through a simply stated but maddeningly demanding-to-practice formula: he pays attention. And this is generally regarded as his greatest, most transcendental skill. Past the surface, past the first meaning, deep into any given object that enters his comprehensive gaze, DFW perceives significance in it all. Cultural, relational, personal, emotional, spiritual, whatever—it’s all there.

The real joy and fortune for readers is his power to communicate. He applies the same attention he gives the world to his writing. And because of that, the voice and verve of each piece resonate. Something is built in even the shortest essay that compels you to continue as if you’re in a real conversation. DFW transfers the capacity to pay attention to the reader, which provokes the careful thinking about the topic at hand that accompanies all good writing.

The content of the collection ranges from John McCain’s candidacy campaign in 1999 to book reviews of a biography and dictionary of usage to the rise and impact of political radio to an elegant response to 9/11.

Editorially, I think it was a bad decision to begin the book with an essay about his reporting from the Adult Video News Awards, but I am admittedly a prude who lives in the South. Even still, I didn’t find much structurally or rhetorically appealing about the piece.

However, I routinely teach two of the essays from this collection: “A View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” DFW’s Midwestern coverage of 9/11, and “Consider the Lobster.” I also include passages from “Authority and American Usage,” the sixty page treatise on the importance of writing, which uses The Dictionary of Modern American Usage as its topical locus. (And this essay changed and constructed all sorts of conceptual approaches to and beliefs about composition for me.) All three pieces present the unlikely benefits of cynicism if it can be coupled with kindness, a kindness that manifests in really close attention. Maybe respect would be a better word, rather than kindness, and maybe skepticism, rather than cynicism, but when put together, they (whichever it is) equal the critical eye. DFW shows you how to respect something by demonstratively respecting the objects of his writing. A multitude can be learned here, but I’d like to point out more clearly two things:

1) To write about something well, we must look at it closely. And only considering something important enough to be looked at closely will enable us to write about it well. This is the respect. We must respect things to know them, which, if true, makes automatic respect a prerequisite to getting to know something (or someone), as if respect is the attractive impetus that calls young men to pay attention to young and pretty women. But it’s the idea that all young women are attractive, the operating under the assumption that all things demand respect already by virtue of their existence, their being a part of our world.

2) From the careful inspection of small and seemingly singular things comes really significant understandings of larger things. The first section of “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” is titled Synecdoche, which means that the part is used (or can be substituted) for the whole, like DNA. It reminds me of a Pirsig quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower.” Whatever you think of as ultimate truth can be found in any object of this world. We must only look at it close enough to see. And writing, for some of us, can serve as our microscope or window, or even as our eyes.


A Review of Chabon’s Debut Novel (& TMI Re Me).

There’s a Pulitzer in the house or garage of Michael Chabon, I imagine. Also, in my mind, little children scurry below the shelf on which the prize is precariously perched, no glass or protective measure for it, other than elevation. The award acknowledges his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

I was informed by the internet (thanks, internet) that the long piece of fiction I’ve been giving my time to is classified (thanks, Aristotle) as Young Adult. The classification has to do with the age of the story’s protagonist, the content/subject matter, perspective and word count. Currently in YA, John Green is the preeminent author, the one who is selling massive amounts of books that are not serialized—which contrasts Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth. On Twitter, Green, who apparently was in Pittsburgh at the time, cited Michael Chabon’s debut novel as the “first contemporary novel I [Green] ever loved.” I read this the day that I had heard another author praise it when he was talking about first novels.

I had seen The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay on a colleague’s desk. He has voiced his admiration for Chabon twice to me. These factors were enough for me to immediately begin Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon’s debut novel, which he published as a 25-year-old. The book was his master’s thesis, from his time at UC-Irvine’s MFA program.

So what does a 26-year-old expect to find in a debut novel that was published 25 years ago and was written by a person who was younger than 26? Whatever I expected, I found something different, as is usually the case.

The last debut novel written by someone younger than me—or really just a novel written by someone younger than I was when I read it—that I also really liked was written by the preternaturally talented David Foster Wallace. It was also a master’s thesis.

Mysteries gives a love triangle from the first person perspective. And the triangle has two boys and one girl as its angles. However, one of the boys is the vertex. Like, our main character is angle A, and our “triangle” is BAC, which—as you geometrically savvy readers can see—might do some harm to the tried and true metaphor of love triangles. At any rate, this is indeed a triangle, because our main character Art (angle A) falls in love with Arthur (Art; angle B) and Phlox (angle C). And Arthur and Phlox work together at a library. And yes, our main character struggles with the bisexuality.

Art works at a bookstore. It is the summer after he graduated from college. Meeting these two wonderful people confuses him and constructs an amazingly unforgettable summer.

Art’s father is a “gangster,” which is written in the first line of the book. Like a Disney movie, Art’s mother is dead. And Art doesn’t really understand what his father does. In fact, his father keeps him out of the-know purposefully. However, Cleveland—a character who embodies and is represented as larger-than-life—is friends with Arthur, and he learns of Art’s father, and he aspires to make a name for himself via the gangster vocation.

And this all leads to some bizarre scenes. The most moving scenes involve Art and Phlox or Art and Arthur, or all three of them. This is the first book I’ve read that had a young character’s struggle with sexual orientation as one of its main arcs. And I thought the added layer of confusion resonated true. I couldn’t imagine how it would have been told from a high schooler’s perspective. It’s a coming-of-age story that is representative of the cultural directive that everyone goes to college: like you cannot come of age until you are free, and you are not free until you finish college.

Chabon crafts wonderful bits of language for action, dialogue and description, but none of these things ever seem to add to a real life character. Yeah, as I typed that, I understood it sounds tough, and I don’t mean that. What I would like to tell you is that some of the plot in this book, which seems to illustrate a fictionally large and excessive real world—some of that plot interferes with the characters.

Also, Chabon is—already in his debut—demonstrating his mastery of storytelling, which must’ve come from his reading. He knows how novels work.

Honestly, it’s sort of disconcerting, because on every page I see wonderful language or lines of dialogue. These characters say some amazing things, and usually that’s enough, but I just didn’t feel like the love triangle plights were real. I mean, they were very smart, but they each did things that seemed to me very dumb—in the name of love or because it was just really mean and careless/selfish. Also, Cleveland’s aspirations led to hyperbolic scenes, especially the culminating event, which is rich with tongue-in-cheek bigness.

Art is remembering this summer, from an indeterminately distanced future. The last line is, “No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated.” Chabon’s wonderful writing will pull you through the narrative, but when I look back on the novel, I feel those aforementioned tinges. The end does however explain—or to a cynic, cover up—the criticism.

But also the ending makes total sense to me. I get it. It just didn’t feel the way I felt when I graduated from college, but I didn’t graduate in standard time—nor was I single.

So without reading myself into the book, I can happily encourage your reading of it. There are some totally human parts and some parts that are just beautifully crafted. And when those two come together, those parts are worth your time. Some follow:

“It’s the beginning of the summer and I’m standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless red row of monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zeppelin mooring at the art deco summit, where they keep the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties, I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink. I said, ‘I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.’”

“I’m an atom, I bounce all over the place, like a mercenary. No, not a mercenary, a free agent—a free atom—isn’t that something in chemistry?”

“Hopping the low white rail, I checked as always for the little tangle of graffiti I’d scrawled on it one laughing, runny-nosed night with Claire two winters before.”

Plato, Aristotle and Derrida Walk into a Bar

A Patrick Stewart-like voiceover erupts: “Plato believed that the soul can be communicated through words, that real truth may be accessed (and shared) in speech. How is truth in speech communicated? Well through the dialectic, of course—Plato’s preferred method of attaining and delivering truth, a consistent dialogue between two parties that attempts to get closer to truth as it speaks. But Plato had many students. His most confused and influential joins him at the bar.”

Aristotle (after a few drinks [Isocratinis and Plato Sours, mainly]), in his Rhetoric, slurs Plato’s word, writing that logic is the fundamental means of persuasion, but then retracts, explaining that rhetoric is situation-dependent. That is, a rhetorician’s opportunity to persuade is contextually conditional; persuasion depends on one’s audience. And in order to persuade, one must disguise oneself, covering the alcohol on the breath, appealing to whatever works, which usually is not logic because of a deficiency in the hearer. Plato’s soul must be covered by Aristotle’s concealing rhetoric.

Derrida, returning from the jukebox, asks both of them about their preoccupation with speech. “Indeed,” Derrida exclaims, “Why privilege speech over writing? Neither of your ideas would have descended to me [nor Tyler, who is writing us each and all into a form of existence presently] if it wasn’t for your writing! Furthermore, Plato, your dialogues are texts that pretend to be speech. Of course you see this; it’s just as Aristotle presciently professed: to persuade, one must assume his appeal according to context, according to audience. Your privileging of speech led you to conceal your writing in speech; you disguise your text, by hiding it in dialogue. Because you know—you know that real di-a-logue dies a-long with you.”

Plato, having sat silently smiling through Derrida’s diatribe, said, “Spare your invective, dear Derrida. Here let us take up your first question—that of speech being, as you say ‘privileged,’ over writing. It is prior to writing; it is the word of the soul. If you don’t believe me, write these words, which you find so precious, down on your napkin: ‘Why did I approach Plato with speech?”

“Oh Plato, you professor,” Derrida condescendingly shook his head, “A privileging of writing over speech is not the answer to its opposite. Your very notion is outdated; have you not read my work?”

Aristotle, assessing his audiences, knocks on the table to interrupt, then writes to Derrida and says to Plato he will demonstrate the power of language, in each of their mediums: he whistles for the bartender and slides a note across the bar, and after a few moments, the bartender delivers a drink to each of Aristotle’s friends. Aristotle asks for one more drink, for himself. After receiving it, Aristotle explains to both of them that the medium through which language travels isn’t ever as important as the work the language does; rather it is the power of the rhetoric and the practicality of the communication—what it can do right now is most important.

At this, Plato spit out his drink. “Have you been speaking with Isocrates the Sophist again?! You know, I heard what others had been saying, but I didn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe what they said.”

“A-ha! I got you now, Plato!” shouted Derrida.


Scorpionoia: House Pests and Love Nests

Or, Snakebites and Gigabytes / Scorpion Stings and Bad Dreams

A couple of nights ago, a scorpion stung me. It was through a shirt, and it really wasn’t that bad, which I can say now because I’m a couple of days removed, and there is nothing left of the event other than my memory of it.

So here/there it is/was: my newborn son resisting sleep; my wife doing the very thing he resisted; me reading. Because of his whininess (a paternally inherited faculty) I picked him up and took him to the rocker-recliner, so he could feel comfortably snug and I could read. After sitting down for a few moments, I decided that a pillow would suit both of our desires better than the terrible torture of pillowlessness. I placed the pillow on my lap, placed him on the pillow and suddenly felt a pain on my stomach. I looked down, expecting something other than what I saw, and flipped out a little bit (allegedly). I flicked the scorpion away and put my son on the bed—or, gave him to my wife who woke up from some sound she said she heard.

After gaining my composure—yes, I know: my son is two weeks old and he’s already witnessed his father being better at something than he is (and sure, in this case, the thing I was better at was being a baby)—I immediately located my phone and researched scorpion stings and scorpion species and treatment. You should really look up the symptoms of serious scorpion stings. They’re like sweating and itchiness and whatever else we all come down with upon the very sight of something even slightly arachnoid. The last two sentences are highly sibilant, which reminds me of something that I thought I’d get to later, but now is a good time: two nights prior to the scorpion attack, a snake was in the house. And this event forced the same reaction: I was on the phone trying to identify the snake and gathering ideas for snake-proofing, etc.

And this whole pest problem has occurred for the first time in our new house since bringing home the brand new baby, who—after every individual movement (or non-movement), sound (or silence), and behavior (or misbehavior)—has both my wife and I frantically googling as well. Here’s a taste of my recent search list: “newborn nasal congestion” ; “newborn farts” ; “grunting baby” ; “newborn breathing patterns” ; and then all these others about snakes and scorpions (including “snake poop”). Well there, I let it out. We all know that the single most revealing act that anyone can make in our wide-webbed world is to confess one’s google search history. And man, letting out that dirty (and smelly, smelly) laundry feels great.

But seriously, it’s a little bit funny (this feeling inside) to mechanically and habitually and instinctively and instantaneously get this urge to search for some info or answer online about something worrisome at hand. I could go deeply into personal details about my irrational paranoia concerning my son here, but I’ll reject the instinctive (and here a little self-involved) wallet-full-of-my-kids’-pics-ritual pull. It’s wild how reliant we are on the information overload. I’m doing all this reading on SIDS, and my wife’s grandmother explains how if her baby (my father-in-law) were crying, she’d just pick him up and put him in the bed—the bed that had her and her husband already in it (!), with the adult-sized, thick, suffocating blankets and comforters and pillows and whatever else the SIDS site said was a capital-n “No, No”! With all the information comes all this (perhaps warranted) worrying. This isn’t a new sentiment, but I’ve been worrying and web surfing so frequently that I’ve been reflectively considering the significance, wondering if anything is lost.

Others have written about the pervasive google habit, because of its portable availability on our phones, and whether our memories and brains are shrinking, but I don’t really care about that. The world is always shrinking and always growing; it must remain as the one abstraction that we comfortably allow to do two things at once, that we let be both/and, that we allow to remain a paradox—a paradox that we welcome and try not too hard to think about because its physical limitations infiltrate our conceptual undertakings and we realize that we’ll never be able to hold a consistent and well-rounded (just took you out to pun-ch!) and truthful idea/image of the world in our heads. Which, by golly, need be the impetus we all feel to write it (the world) down. Put your thought down on paper; externalize yourself and your ideas so that you can then (because we aren’t all F. Scott Fitzgerald) hold another, ostensibly opposing idea up to that one and both can be true at the same time. And then we’ll realize that either/or is useless, and the lines we draw between things can’t be straight and are probably circles (or infinity signs!), the borders we build must be porous, the bottles in which we place things are rapidly exploding like shaken colas, the cages that contain our conceptions are constructed by cretins, the words we assign can’t carry their weight, and on and on.

When considering writing this, I never expected to get to a point about paradox, but I guess, now that I am here (and my being here must demonstrate that the discussion is a p…x), I’ll attempt to concisely compose the apparent paradox at hand: I pride myself on knowledge and knowing, yet without hesitance I yield when it comes to something important. Maybe this isn’t paradox number 1, but I do think it’s true. Regrettably and revealingly, I am prideful. But again, I release that reaction if something seems dangerous or is out of my scope—as snakes and scorpions and (more so, proven every moment) babies are.

Please feel free to try your attempts at consolation or just respond or something. I mean, I have plenty of time after the attack because I contracted scorpionsomnia (there just must be more of them—and in our bedroom!).

The Character of the Confederacy

This may be timely or topical. The following is a semi-review–a collection of thoughts about a book:

A Confederacy of Dunces (pub. 1980) by John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969)

It’s difficult to discuss the novel without detailing its context: the author and his end. John Kennedy Toole committed suicide (coincidentally, the same as many of the authors whom I’ve been reading) by running a garden hose from his exhaust pipe to his car’s cabin on a rural road (coincidentally, the same way as a character early on in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I’m currently reading). Toole killed himself because—as the legend goes—he was depressed, doubly, by his Dunces failure to be published and his mother, for whom Toole’s feelings oscillated between adoration and abhorrence.

It’s also difficult to read the book as something other than largely autobiographical, though written by a mysterious author, of whom I know little else besides what I’ve already written.

I imagine this second difficulty originates from the way readers experience the struggle for the book’s literal and figurative space: between the HUGE Ignatius J. Reilly (the main character, our “hero”) and the language (as written by a real [and dead] author). Because of the struggle, and the fact that the best language actually comes from Ignatius’ mouth, these two things combine, thus authobiogra-feels.

ACoD is a picaresque novel, proven/supported by its main character’s social status, the characters’ language, and the plot. And I don’t know how I’ve gone this long without mentioning how severely funny this book is, largely (in so many ways) because of Ignatius. The book is full of pithy, perspicacious, cynical and enlightened statements from both his mouth and others’. The events in the book (i.e., plot) do move in some sort of order and are really funny (situations—like sitcoms) but the most humorous portions develop from the combination of the comic situation and the comic character—a truly titanic clown.

The thirty-year-old hyper-intellectual (or at least, hyper-studied) Ignatius, who thinks himself an anachronism and is totally discontented with contemporary society, must get a job. This serves as Toole’s excuse to put Reilly in a course (which includes searching for a job, working, sabotaging a company, searching again, etc.) that would be a lame plot, but having Ignatius makes the reading a real joy.

Ignatius spews his invective against each person, organization, and sect of society he confronts. The language and views are brilliant, new and fun(ny).

But I’m left wondering if it’s enough for a book. As long as I enjoyed the experience, can I review the novel favorably? I mean, I’d recommend the novel, but it isn’t necessarily “a good story.” So I am led to consider my favorite books, at which point I find that I do not read for plot. Books like Franny and Zooey, Infinite Jest, The Sound and the Fury, White Noise, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and The Great Gatsby are less about what happens than how these 3D characters see and experience their world (which is my world). So, sure, character > plot—which might as well be a platitude at this point. But I think I might have followed Ignatius J. Reilly (and Myrna Minkoff) for another 400 pp. Hell, I’d probably read his multivolume tome of a journal.

Maybe this is another way to get at or say that great books exist off the page. I mean, the book doesn’t really go anywhere (like, plot-wise) but the great Ignatius makes me view the world (and its inhabitants) differently, newly, really. So, “story” still exists somewhere between “plot” and “character” as the essence of art (I’d argue life), but it’s certainly closer to character, if the two are poles.

My brief thoughts on the book’s initial failure (which ostensibly led to Toole’s suicide): the book—and probably its author—is advanced. The copyright on the book is 1980, but the book was probably finished around 16 years before that. It’s tough for me to imagine diehard fans of Lassie and Bonanza and The Beverly Hillbillies and Red Skelton and Gomer and Gilligan and Gunsmoke, etc. to find this book anything other than perverse. In short, the world wasn’t ready. Had this book been written/published in 1970, we’d more than likely still have John Kennedy Toole with us—or at the very least, a few more dazzling works of his.

This Week’s Sentence 2

“I love your passion and drive, even if it is directed towards make-believe sports and war missions.”

This Week’s Sentence 1

In an attempt to keep up with some web-based writing, I’ve decided to choose a particularly powerful sentence every week, occasionally attempting to explain its appeal.

This is the first, from James Joyce’s “The Dead” (Dubliners):
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

The alliteration, repetition, and similar (in syntax and sound) phrasing contribute to the sentence’s poetic quality. The “their” lacks a clear antecedent in the sentence and in the story; in fact, I don’t believe it has an antecedent, but rather “their” refers to “the living and the dead.” This is the last sentence in the story, and it contains the entire story, as great sentences should.

The story is about the deadness in repetition. It’s hard to argue the deadness of this sentence, as it is alive with vibrant prose, but maybe the deadness can be argued by way of a suspect, perhaps inane, aspect in the sentence. I am not around snow often, but I’m sort of incredulous at the thought of this: “he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe.” I’ve never heard snow, nor (from what I understand about snow and cosmology) does snow fall through the universe; well it does, but in an unspecific way. Be it “falling faintly” or “faintly falling,” the sentence is only delaying the word “dead,” which doesn’t matter because it will come, eventually. And the “living” are included with the “dead,” and, indeed in the story, are “The Dead.”