Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Consider the Lobster

Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays
By David Foster Wallace

I like sports. I like almost everything about sports. I like the human drama, the potential for greatness (or tragedy) the story-lines and the athleticism. I like taking about sports, speculating about sports and listening to others talk about sports. And while I have my favorites (hockey, baseball and, these days, rugby) I've been known to sit down and enjoy virtually any sport on television. I'm not too discriminating. I like sports.

But there is one thing about sports I hate. I hate the media insistence on speaking with these athletes after a win or a loss. It'll go something like this:

Booth Announcer: Let's go down to Bob Sportscaster who's outside the locker room with Chet Superstar.

Bob Sportscaster: Thank you Booth. Chet, you guys put a win up on the board tonight. What was the team's strategy going into tonight's game.

Chet Superstar: Well Bob, we were just out there trying to make something happen, give it 110% and just play our game. We got a couple of lucky bounces that went our way and you've got to hand it to the boys in the locker room, we never gave up out there and we are just happy to come out of here with the win tonight.

You don't say.

There is nothing more pointless than listening to a professional athlete spew off a string of exhausted cliches. And sportscasters make entire careers out of sticking microphones in athlete's faces. Families eat, houses are bought, retirements are planned based on these useless and tedious repetitions. There is something repulsive about this idea.

I've always wondered whether there is a group of sports fans out there, slightly slow on the uptake, who are sitting in their armchairs thinking to themselves: "I wonder how Albert Pujols felt when he hit that game winning home run. I can't wait for the post-game interview. Maybe he was only giving 98% at the time."


In Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace tackles this phenomenon deftly in an essay entitled How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart. Wallace reviews Austin's own book Beyond Center Court which Wallace characterizes as being "breathtakingly insipid." He peels back the layers of vapid text in an attempt to get to the root of the issue, namely that athletes seem to be extremely boring people, almost to the point of emotionless.

But whereas I see and understand the inanity of speaking to athletes about their professions, Wallace takes in a step further and opines that an athlete's emotionless demeanor in the face of massive public scrutiny and their seemingly uninspired quotes are a quality in itself. Athletes develop an ability to not think. To shut down and concentrate on the task at hand and not get distracted by the very real pressure of performing in from of million. They can actively not think.

But I digress.

What Wallace does, that I could never, ever do, is present a clear and thorough examination of a subject, far beyond that of your typical writer. Like any truly great writer, he sees things and thinks of things that others simply don't see or think about. He approaches subjects from angles other writers are simply unaware of. Whether it is the adult video industry (Big Red Son), the dictionary wars (Authority and American Usage), the darker side of right wing talk radio (Host) or whether lobsters really do feel pain when they are boiled alive (Consider the Lobster), Wallace brings a distinct brand of nuance, insight and comedy that is a refreshing break from most other writers.

The centerpiece of this collection is a masterful account of Wallace's time spent covering the John McCain campaign for Rolling Stone during the 2000 Republican primaries (Up, Simba). Rather than your typical political piece (It doesn't seem like Wallace ever talked to McCain directly), he chronicles the daily grind of the tech staff, the interns, the assistants. He exhaustively documents the travel, the badly catered meals, the endless boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts all wrapped in a package of co-ax cables and opportunities to smoke. All of this over the backdrop of the Chris Duren Affair, a rather conveniently placed episode that occurred during the South Carolina primary.

His essay is akin to eavesdropping on the servants, cooks and the jesters at a king's court. We learn that even the lowest, unpaid intern has a very real investment in the campaign and everyone from McCain down to the boom mike operators for his town hall meetings (THM) understand the implications of each potential political move during the campaign. It is a very real assessment on leadership and what it means to lead.

And this is why Consider the Lobster is not for everyone. Wallace's brand of humor and insight might strike readers as beside the point, overly academic or even obtuse. But Wallace is an unapologetic observer of people and doesn't seem inclined to give his subjects a free pass, so to speak. There are no softballs here. No ally-oops or empty-net goals. Consider the Lobster is every bit as insightful as Tom Brady's post-game interview is not.


Cat said...

Hmm, sounds like an interesting kind of novel. You never know, I may actually check it out. Thanks for the review!

Chiba Chiba Y'all said...

I didnt even know this book existed. love his essays. You have to check out his graduation speech to i believe north carolina? google dfc commencement speech. Pretty sure esquire has a copy of it...

Ryan said...

I just read the commencement speech. A lot was lifted from the essays in this book, but damn was that uplifting in a soul crushing sort of way. Incidentally, I just discovered tat Wallace committed suicide in 2008. That seems to add a certain weight to these essays for me.

Chiba Chiba Y'all said...

Absolutely. When he offed himself i was crushed. Kurt cobainian in that you could see it coming what with hindsight and all, but at the time all too blinded by the brillance to think he was mortal.

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