Thursday, January 22, 2015

On David Foster Wallace, From Which I Am Removing Myself

I am currently reading "Consider the Lobster," a compilation of essays by David Foster Wallace.
Strike that.
I am currently trying to slog my way through "Consider the Lobster," an over-wrought, verbose, vastly confusing compilation of essays by David Foster Wallace.
Holy shit.
I've been looking forward to reading this for a long time, so there's a certain disappointment that's rising. The problem is, I can't figure out if I'm disappointed in me (for not being able to easily "get" DFW) or in him (for making it so damn difficult) or in the hype that led me to a.) want to read it and b.) expect to so thoroughly enjoy it.
This is not the type of book you enjoy after a long, hard day, where you get into your comfy pants (i.e. nothing that requires buttons, zippers, snaps, or eye & hook closures…basically anything that stretches) and plop down on your sofa to get lost in witty prose that makes you think, makes you laugh, makes you cry. No, this book definitely is not that. This book requires full concentration, a good night's sleep, a high-backed chair, sturdy desk, bright desk lamp, and complete silence. I don't have time for that shit.
I like the way he thinks. I just don't like how he expresses it. It's like going from my living room to my bathroom via Hong Kong: unnecessary, long, and costly - in this case, the currency is time. There's a much more direct route, buddy. One that doesn't involve enough footnotes to publish an entirely new book (and footnotes for the footnotes, I shit you not), the necessity of reaching for my iPhone to google an unknown word five or six times a page, or obscure Latin phrases (again with the googling…enough with the googling).
It's too consuming to read DFW, I think. I must be a lazy reader, like I'm a lazy eater. Ribs drive me crazy, as do crab legs. All that work for a tiny bit of meat. I pretty much want to just spear it and stick it in my piehole. The same goes, I guess, for the prose I consume.
I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person, with a vocabulary larger than most. DFW, apparently, considers me about as intelligent as a spatula, with a vocabulary only slightly larger than my cat's. So that's part of the problem. I'm not so hot on being called stupid by what I'm reading.
The first essay in "Consider the Lobster" is on the porn industry. Not what I expected, but okay. I knew almost immediately that I was going to struggle. Not with the subject, but with the way DFW writes. When one starts thinking, "Will this sentence ever end?" halfway through said sentence, it's not going well. The footnotes started on page 3 and never stopped. There were three of them there, totaling 18 lines in 6 point type. Sheesh. About 40 pages in I started flipping through the book just to find out how much more I had to suffer. Ten more pages. TEN. I groaned and continued on, but only with the idea of, "I have to finish this damn thing just so I can move on." This is not a good thing for readers. I know that I don't like a book when I start flipping to find out how much longer I am to read in agony. The topic was interesting, and a lot of what he wrote was amusing...but there's a boatload that could've been cut, making the essay tighter and, dare I say, easier to read.
The second essay is on the novelist John Updike, which has no relevance for me as I've never read anything by Updike. Based on DFW's review, I never will. Okay, so I learned something there. As with the porn piece that preceded it, I was amused by the essay but struggled mightily just to get through it.
Next, we moved on to "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed." See? Even his titles are too damn weighty. Again, and I'm exposing my own ignorance here, I'm not well-versed enough with Kafka to fully understand DFW's ruminations. My bad. Some day, when I have time, a high-backed chair, sturdy desk, ample desk light and complete silence, I will tackle Kafka. In other words, I will never tackle Kafka. But at least DFW's essay showed me that I'd like Kafka a helluva lot more than Updike. This was also reasonably short and so I got through it without flipping.
Now, I'm in the middle of "Authority and American Usage," which is basically about grammar snobs. Perfect! I loves me some grammar discussions. Well, it would be perfect if DFW wasn't flogging it to death. Holy. Mother. Of. God. Just stop writing, dude. STOP WRITING. Say what you need to say and put the pen down. I estimate I'm maybe halfway through it, and I'd be enjoying it a lot more if I weren't simultaneously wondering where our dull spoons are located so I can gouge out my own eyes. I gave up on the page that is 4/5 footnotes. This is one footnote, number 32 in this particular essay, which has its own subhead, four paragraphs, and a bulleted list. Seriously? It's a damn footnote.
So I think a break from "Consider the Lobster" is in order. I will tackle it again, some day. I am determined to find out why David Foster Wallace is revered, beyond the trainwreck fascination that naturally accompanies an artist who takes his own life at a young age. I am determined to "get" David Foster Wallace. Although part of me thinks there is a whole series of college courses I'd need just to get the background to read his prose easily. (Or is maybe that his thing? One is not supposed to read DFW easily…the struggle is part of his art? Oh, that just makes me groan. Verbosity for the sake of being verbose. I can use 12,500 words to say what someone else could say in 500, and so I shall!) 
The footnote thing bothers the crap out of me. I know I'm going against the millions that adore DFW when I say this, but to's a sign of bad writing. If you can't weave this information into your prose so that it makes sense and doesn't disrupt your arc, your story, your thread, well, then you've got some issues. DFW's footnotes serve as extremely rude speedbumps throughout his writing. He's installed those speedbumps that are particularly steep. The ones you can't just slow down as you approach and mosey, his speedbumps are the ones that force you to come to a complete stop and gently - oh so gently - ease both sets of tires over before you can continue along your path. They are painful speedbumps, and I am growing to hate them with a white-hot passion normally reserved for misogynists and child molesters. Do I stop reading in the middle of your dang sentence to go check out the footnote, or can I wait until the end, which in DFW's case could be five minutes later? There was one sentence that had three footnotes alone attached to it. That's like three speedbumps in a span of 20 feet. Ain't nobody got time for that.
Moving on. I have a stack of books here. Any of them is bound to be more enjoyable than what I've sweated through the last week. Hemingway, anyone?


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