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Some supposedly good writing I’ll never read again

I’ve never read any of David Foster Wallace’s fiction, but I’ve read some of his essays and I dislike them rather a lot. I was reminded of this by reading an article about Wallace in The Exile which, unsurprisingly for an article from The Exile, was harshly critical. The article’s analysis of the hipster-protestantism of McSweeney’s is astute (and the description of Eggers as “a sneering, leathery vampire utterly dependent on the plasma of African children to survive” is the kind of vitriol that makes reading The Exile worthwhile), but the criticism of Wallace specifically really focuses on Infinite Jest, so I don’t know how accurate it is, and it doesn’t really help me in understanding what I dislike about Wallace’s non-fiction.

So I reread “Consider the Lobster,” and got as far as:

The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling.

Isn’t this kind of narcissistic? We’re not, really, considering the lobster at all – we’re considering how Wallace sees himself or wants to see himself, and he seems not to give any thought to the possibility of the reader approaching the question from any other angle, either. Wallace addresses this narcissism somewhat more directly in a commencement speech he gave:

Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way….

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do….

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible.

When I read this, I didn’t know what to make of Wallace’s presentation of this kind of basic empathy as revelatory, as something “hard” that “takes will and effort.” Isn’t this obvious, isn’t this what everyone does all of the time? Not, sadly, Wallace, I guess (and it is sad – as Wallace says, it makes him “pissed and miserable” all the time). But it explains, I think, a lot of what is so bad about his essays. Narcissism manifests itself in the style of Wallace’s prose, in the prissiness which desires to set up and control complex arrangements of language.

This narcissistic desire for control occurs, too, at a larger scale, because, despite the tone of much of  the essay, the last thing Wallace wants to do in it is make anyone uncomfortable, least of all Wallace himself, to unsettle anything in a way that would require thought rather than a well put-together phrase. A minor, but rather striking, example is the way in which, when Wallace gets to the rather crucial point about the distinctiveness of the lobsters nervous system, detail is suddenly not provided: “In order to save a lot of research-summarizing, I’ll simply assure you that the analogy between frogs and lobsters turns out not to hold,” is all we get, in an essay that is perfectly happy to open with three pointless and boring paragraphs dumping on us irrelevant information about the taxonomy, etymology, and biology of lobsters.

And again, at the end of the essay, Wallace puts a stop to anything that might be unsettling:

These last couple queries, though, while sincere, obviously involve much larger and more abstract questions about the connections (if any) between aesthetics and morality, and these questions lead straightaway into such deep and treacherous waters that it’s probably best to stop the public discussion right here. There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other.

To go beyond the simplistic sketches of philosophy that Wallace engages in in the article, to even broach “hard-core philosophy – metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics,” gets us into “deep and treacherous waters,” unsuitable for public discussion? There’s something really anti-intellectual here (made worse by the patronizing tone, which suggests to us that Wallace knows plenty of hard-core philosophy, enough to warn us off it), a fear of thinking in case, the moment it is examined, the way he sees himself will unravel.

My dislike of Wallace’s non-fiction has made me wary of reading his fiction, but now I’ve figured out what it is that I dislike about the non-fiction, I’m more inclined to look at the fiction. The narcissism which shuts down the non-fiction might well be an interesting place from which to start a fictional exploration.