Monday, November 21, 2011

Extracurricular #2

Hello, reading world! M. and I are working on (read: arguing about) our interpretations of “Midnight’s Children”, and in the meantime I am going to leave you lovely people with a review of one all my all-time favorite nonfiction books.

What is the opposite of a guilty pleasure? Not an innocent pleasure, surely. An innocent pleasure is something that would bring you happiness, amusement, contentment, without causing any damage. Something harmless. That is not what I am talking about. What I am talking about is what I would like to think of as constructive hero-worship.
I don’t mean to sound self-righteous. I do have guilty pleasures, in number. Criminal Minds, for instance. Oxford shirts. Those frozen pirogues that come in a box that you can boil in the microwave. I could go on an on, but what I’m writing about today is something totally different. Today I am coming clean to you about my hero-worship, my admiration of and devotion to the unparallel intellect of the late David Foster Wallace.
The book of his that I have been reading most recently (which is to say, the book of his that has been floating around somewhere in my bed for those night when sleep can not and will not come) is Consider the Lobster. This book, like the earlier and brutally genius A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is a collection of essays, from literary reviews to travel pieces to bizarre little snippets of days in Mr. Wallace’s remarkable life.
Of the essays in this book, (of which there are ten), I am going to focus mainly on my (selfishly-chosen) favorites: “Bid Red Son”, “Authority and American Usage”, and the titular essay.
“Big Red Son” is notable for several reasons: 1. DFW wrote it acknowledging his opinions and experiences as ‘yr. correspondents’, and rendered the piece has though it were the deliberations and opinions of two people- the effect of this is fascinating. 2. It is written in such an anthological way- a way that includes the thoughts of author as a sort of set of field notes, reactions to the factual practices of a culture that is totally foreign to him- leaves the reader processing things very slowly (in a way I would imagine the first explorer in Australia would have reacted to an ostrich. It’s clearly there; I just have no idea what to make of it). I walked away from that reading with a tremendous amount of knowledge about the porn industry, its dress, its jargon, its practices, its members- much more than I ever wanted to know. It was not until after I had closed the book, though, that the idea of making a moral judgment about it even crossed my mind.
“Authority and American Usage” is a lengthy essay that, on its surface, is a review of another book I own and love, Mr. Bryan A. Gardner’s Modern American Usage. Although he talks a great deal about the merits of that book, the essay is more than just a review. It is, at sixty-one pages (including end-notes) in my edition, a fairly in-depth look at the stuffy, neurotic, bookish subculture to which both I and my associate here belong. DFW refers to them as S.N.O.O.T., an acronym coined by his own family who themselves are unsure of what it is supposed to stand for. In short, a S.N.O.O.T. is “somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it.” Mr. Wallace writes that "In ways that certain of us are uncomfortable with, SNOOT's attitudes about contemporary usage resemble religious/political conservatives' attitudes about contemporary culture. We combine a missionary zeal and a near-neural faith in our beliefs' importance with a curmudgeonly hell-in-a-handbasket despair at the way English is routinely defiled by supposedly literate adults....-a fellow SNOOT I know likes to say that listening to most people's public English feels like someone using a Stradivarius to pound in nails. We are the Few, the Proud, the More or Less Constantly Appalled at Everyone Else." This is a perfect example of what I once heard called DFW’s “aw-shucks genius”- the ability to combine his staggering intellect with his humble, earnest sensibility.
In regards to “Consider the Lobster”, Mr. Wallace is not making an obtuse, pithy joke. He is being totally straightforward in his titular essay- asking his reader to really think about what it means to cook and eat a lobster, what is lobster is, and the culture surrounding lobster consumption. Do to this, he takes his reader to the “enormous, pungent, and extremely well-marketed” Maine Lobster Festival, not so far afield from when your humble reviewer makes her home base. The most faintly perceptible traces of the same consuming despair at being part of a large crowd doing something mindless and gluttonous that drove “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” is present here, in a dazzlingly well-researched way. He is not preachy here, nor does he shy away from the most gruesome part of what is the frankly a rather gruesome endeavor of cooking and eating lobsters on a massive scale. Details of the lobster fishing, selling, and preparation processes are not spared, but there is no sense of indignance or feeling of moral superiority by the author. There are only the observations of Mr. Wallace, in his aw-shucks voice and his unfailing eye.

I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you. A happy happy Thanksgiving to all of you here, and hello! to our readers abroad. We’ll talk to you soon.


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