So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the US: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice?
–David Foster Wallace, “Consider The Lobster”
There is a point near the end of David Foster Wallace’s essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” where DFW speculates that the platitudes and cliches that spout endlessly from the mouths of athletes do so because the athletes themselves actually experience reality in the simplistic manner these catchphrases attest. Perhaps Natural Athletic Talents are just that because, in the moment of trial, what goes through their heads is quite literally nothing at all. They tell us “You just gotta take it one ball at a time,” because that’s the true and exhaustive explanation of events as they see them.
It’s fair to assume that a major league scout or a coach selects a NAT because he understands that their specific outlook is devoid of distraction and singular of focus, and that this precision is exactly what is needed on the field. The truly great athletes, that is, the NATs, do what they do because they experience the doing simply and effortlessly and without question or distraction.
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN A GENIUS AND A NATURAL
From the representation of his work offered by the collection Consider The Lobster, it seems to me that magazine editors tapped David Foster Wallace again and again because his is a mind that functions in exactly the opposite way in which he describes the mind of a NAT. Looked at from the perspective of their likely original pitches many of these pieces possess a similarly mundane and thankless starting point. “Review this dictionary.” “Review this biography on Dostoevsky.” “Go to the Maine Lobster Festival.” “Go to the AVN Awards.”
DFW is not a NAT because he is incapable of simply doing what is asked of him in a way that is effortless and free of distraction. DFW may, however, be a genius because he can be distracted and can be willing to follow that distraction well past the original assignment. Many of the pieces in Consider The Lobster are the result of a man who, when given a simple path to follow, had a remarkable ability to turn a corner and start sprinting in a different direction. A direction that usually ended in profundity.
SHOWING INSTEAD OF SAYING
When tasked with reviewing a remarkable biography of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, DFW discovered in the writing of FMD a certain bravery and reality that he felt much of the writing of modernity lacks. Dostoevsky wrote believable 3-D characters who lived in complex, interesting, and engrossing plots. Unsatisfied with just these twin achievements in literature, FMD also wrote about the most important themes in human life: love, death, war, suffering et al.
Wallace was not content to simply explain the greatness of FDM, or even that of his biographer. (See already how far from our initial premise we’ve come?) He instead felt it important to contrast the fact that FMD wrote brilliantly and with importance while modern writers would be inclined to use sarcasm or ironic distance or even tricks of formatting to allow themselves to touch on such themes without having to, gasp, address them with honesty and sincerity. What DFW decides, instead, to do, is contrast the import of Dostoevsky with the inconsequence and insufferability that results when a writer tries to poke heavy themes with a stick from a distance. And he does this by touching these themes in just the way he’s decrying: “sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.”
CONSIDER CONSIDER THE LOBSTER
Ultimately it is the title essay that most aptly displays for the reader the greatness of David Foster Wallace. No less a publication than Gourmet Magazine commissioned our author to travel to the storied Maine Lobster Festival. The MLF has a storied existence, both in the pages of Food & Wine and in the B-roll of Red Lobster commercials. The affair itself, however, seems unfortunately a bit more like something from the latter.
After learning from natives that they don’t really attend and seeing for himself that the place is crass and disgusting and commercialized and bloated, DFW simply begins to run out of story. With more column inches to fill than he has so far, but likely fewer to fill than he would ultimately require, DFW turns his corner. The piece devolves into a brutal and stomach-churning examination of the creature at the very heart of the matter. Is it all right that we boil these creatures alive? They seem not to like it.
You need not care much for the lobster, but you will be forced to consider him. Homarus americanus. All evidence seems to lead us irreconcilable to the fact that the lobster feels pain despite the fact that it would be much more expedient and convenient if it did not.
Likewise, all evidence seems to lead us to the fact that an expedient completion of a simple assignment was beyond the reach of David Foster Wallace, and we are much the better for it.