Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Capsule: Once more w/feeling

Originally written for Londonist, but as I never heard back from them...

Consider The Lobster And Other Essays
(Abacus, £10.99)

He is, to all intents and purposes – and certainly the purpose that brings you and me together at this address in hyperspace today – a genius.

Consider the evidence: a recipient of one of the MacArthur Foundation’s ‘genius’ grants[1], given to selected individuals “to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society”[2]; the casual and correct use of vocabulary such as prolegomenous[3], geekoid[4] and transpersonal[5]; writing a novel, Infinite Jest, of 1,079 pages, of which 96 are endnotes and errata in my doorstep of an edition[6]; the deployment of footnotes, which sometimes can encompass an entire page[7]; and, of course, the ability to write with precision, fluency and insight on topics ranging from the neurological receptors that might allow lobsters to feel pain when being boiled, to the economics of talk radio, while passing through contemporary ‘wars’ within the “seamy underbelly” of American grammar, why Kafka is funny, why Updike isn’t and with an unexpected diversion into the Adult Video News Awards.

Plus, like all geniuses, he has the ability to influence, both consciously and un-. In the case at hand, your interlocutor here, who normally doesn’t write like this[8], and has composed this leaden-footed tribute as a form of half-baked testimony as to how difficult it actually is to pull this stuff off.[9]

And yet despite these extravagant gifts and abilities, David Foster Wallace remains an acquired taste, which his second collection of non-fiction essays Consider The Lobster, will do little to shift. A tragedy for sure, for when talent this hyperbolically good is around you want the world to share it: viz, four examples of his ability to do:

Filigree comedy of observation: “there are so many different well-formed ways to say the same basic thing, from e.g. ‘I was attacked by a bear!’ to ‘Goddamn bear tried to kill me!’ to ‘That ursine juggernaut did essay to sup upon my person!’ and so on.”[10]

Incisive liberal-hearted political critique buried in seemingly innocuous footnotes: “To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy, for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit… It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer without you.”[11]

Sheer technical virtuosity in using language: “As is so often SOP with the truth, there’s a cruel paradox involved. It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it – and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.”[12]

Exuberant descriptions of an informationally-overloaded hyperreality: “Now moving w/ laden plate to a table near us is a man in a full-body leopardskin suit whose way acknowledging people he knows is to point at them rather than wave at them. On his arm is a B-girl in a bodystocking made of what appears to be a densely woven net. Two Astral Ocean Cinema contract starlets have on identical copper-colored beaded gowns with myriad lengthwise slits in the skirts parts’ fronts and backs and sides, so that as they walk to their table their upper halves look normal and their lower halves seem to be passing through an infinity of bead curtains. Obviously, the whole scene is overwhelming.”[13]

To like him, you’ll need a taste for Americana, Pop rather than Cosmic, the one that is commercial and giddily self-aware; the desire to be breathlessly dazzled by the leaps and daring and at times slightly unhinged nature of his prose; a trust that the apparent academic backwaters he’s paddling you up will eventually mean that you a-shore somewhere worthwhile; and a belief that footnotes and in-text interpolations are definitively a good thing.

But all of this brilliance should not obscure what he has most of in spades: heart. His humanism, and celebration of humanity, appears most readily in the non-corny, down-home reflections of ‘The Obvious’ event of 2001 while in his native Illinois, but also in his summing up w/r/t Senator John McCain’s quixotic US presidential campaign in 2000, which Foster Wallace was sent to cover for Rolling Stone[14]: “But if you… have come to a point where you’ve started fearing your own cynicism almost as much as you fear your own credulity and the salesmen who feed it, you may find your thoughts returning again and again to a certain dark and box-sized cell in a certain Hilton half a world and three careers away… whether he’s truly ‘for real’ now depends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours.”[15]

Foster Wallace’s linguistic pyrotechnics don’t just bring heat: they illuminate and provide warmth too. And how many geniuses can do that?

[1] Admittedly, the Foundation isn’t so bold as to actually call the fellowships it gives ‘Genius Grants’, as fun as that might be.

[2], accessed on 22 December 2005. Other individuals selected for such largesse* include William Gaddis (I know!), Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon (who is, of course, regularly cited both as the major influence on DFW, as well as the writer to whom DFW is closest in style to/will inherit the crown of etc) and Marcel Ophuls (well, you didn’t think that making harrowing four-hour documentaries called Le Chagrin et la pitié was in someway economically rewarding did you?).

* In this case, it turns out to be a relative term. Grants in the year that DFW was given his fellowship ranged between $190,000 and $375,000, DFW’s clocking in at $230,000, “on which basis Wallace would classify as only a ‘low to mid-range’ genius.” Catty web-critic found at, accessed on 22 December 2005.

[3] P 255 of current edition of volume under discussion.

[4] Ibid, p 102.

[5] Ibid, p 88.

[6] And no, I haven’t finished reading it yet. It’s been started on four separate occasions and each time I’ve got further in – last time page reached was 109. It’s my own personal Everest.

† I have successfully finished reading some of his other books. Its just IJ I have a somewhat flaky relationship with.

[7] No, really, I mean a whole page, excluding header and page number, but including pretty much everything else verso and/or recto. Check op cit, p 33 of current volume under review; FN which actually begins on the preceding page.

[8] Really I don’t. I mean, who can? It’s a tremendous amount of effort, even to attempt to pastiche badly. Which latter I can at least successfully claim to have achieved.

[9] Apologies to those readers with even a nano-second’s familiarity with DFW. Trust me, this is hurting me as much to write as it is for you to read.

[10] Op cit, p 96. “Essay to sup”! Try and use that in the fight that you might have outside your local boozer this weekend (time now immaterial, as one presumes you’ll be able to find one [fight, that is] whatever time you leave it).

[11] Ibid, p 240.

[12] Ibid, p 155.

[13] Ibid, p 41.

[14] His first draft of the piece, Up, Simba, would have used every single editorial page (and a few of the advertising ones) in the magazine if it had been run uncut. Block, we could assume, is not necessarily a problem DFW is afflicted with.

[15] Ibid, p 233-4.


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