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Sunday, June 10, 2007

After eighteen months of anticipation, I found Consider the Lobster to be entirely anti-climatic, if not exactly a disappointment. It's just that these essays are old. They were old in 2005 when the book came out and they're old now—and the book's still not out in paperback for another month. John McCain's 2000 primary bid? A book review of Updike's Towards the End of Time from 1997? Was anyone anywhere crying out for this material to be anthologized?

If you like David Foster Wallace, as I do,1 these aren't bad essays—they're really not—but frankly at this point the 1990s are a half-remembered dream. Doesn't DFW have anything relevant to say about George Bush's America, or about anything that's happened since 2001?

For the sake of a link, though, here's the original version of "Authority and American Usage" from Harper's, a long treatise on language (even longer in the book) that's a pretty good read, if often quite wrong. For instance:

It probably isn't the whole explanation, but, as with the voguish hypocrisy of PCE [Politically Correct English], the obscurity and pretension of Academic English can be attributed in part to a disruption in the delicate rhetorical balance between language as a vector of meaning and language as a vector of the writer's own resume. In other words, it is when a scholar's vanity/insecurity leads him to write primarily to communicate and reinforce his own status as an Intellectual that his English is deformed by pleonasm and pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer's erudition) and by opaque abstraction (whose function is to keep anybody from pinning the writer down to a definite assertion that can maybe be refuted or shown to be silly). The latter characteristic, a level of obscurity that often makes it just about impossible to figure out what an AE sentence is really saying, so closely resembles political and corporate doublespeak ("revenue enhancement," "downsizing," pre-owned," "proactive resource-allocation restructuring") that it's tempting to think AE's real purpose is concealment and its real motivation fear.
This is plainly true of some (okay, potentially many) academics writers, but not of the genre as a whole—and not true (say) of Duke's own Fredric Jameson, whom DFW singles out by name for attack in the book version.

And, needless to say, even Wallace must know that he of all writers really can't get away with criticizing obscurantist language.

Or take this:
Childhood is full of such situations. This is one reason why SNOOTlets tend to have a very hard social time of it in school. A SNOOTlet is a little kid who's wildly, precociously fluent in SWE (he is often, recall, the offspring of SNOOTs). Just about every class has a SNOOTlet, so I know you've seen them — these are the sorts of six- to twelve-year-olds who use whom correctly and whose response to striking out in T-ball is to cry out "How incalculably dreadful!" etc. The elementary-school SNOOTlet is one of the earliest identifiable species of academic Geekoid and is duly despised by his peers and praised by his teachers. These teachers usually don't see the incredible amounts of punishment the SNOOTlet is receiving from his classmates, or if they do see it they blame the classmates and shake their heads sadly at the vicious and arbitrary cruelty of which children are capable.

But the other children's punishment of the SNOOTIet is not arbitrary at all. There are important things at stake. Little kids in school are learning about Group-inclusion and -exclusion and about the respective rewards and penalties of same and about the use of dialect and syntax and slang as signals of affinity and inclusion. [35] They're learning about Discourse Communities. Kids learn this stuff not in English or Social Studies but on the playground and at lunch and on the bus. When his peers are giving the SNOOTlet monstrous quadruple Wedgies or holding him down and taking turns spitting on him, there's serious learning going on ... for everyone except the little SNOOT, who in fact is being punished for precisely his failure to learn. What neither he nor his teacher realizes is that the SNOOTlet is deficient in Language Arts. He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammar, cannot use slang or vulgarity; and it's these abilities that are really required for "peer rapport," which is just a fancy Elementary-Ed term for being accepted by the most important Group in the little kid's life.
There's something to this, too, of course—yes, sometimes social misfits bring their ostracization upon themselves!—but this gleeful valorization of bullies from a onetime victim strikes me as actually deeply sad. And once I noticed it I found echoes of it everywhere in Consider the Lobster: the tagalong wails of the geek still desperately trying to prove that he fits in, that he really is cool after all.

This was a much more harsh-sounding review than I intended to write. Really, the book is okay, even good—it just feels much very out of its time, and suffers for it. The Adult Video News essay that starts off the book in particular is notably good, and used to be online, though it unfortunately seems to have been taken off. The title essay, on the other hand, is still up, and is also good, if lobsters are indeed something you feel like considering.

1 Sometimes.