geekchicohio’s #CBR5 review #3: Consider The Lobster by David Foster Wallace

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.
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.
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.”
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.

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 review #2: Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Casino Royale was Ian Fleming’s first novel featuring British secret agent James Bond. Though I enjoyed the book, it is very much a product of its time. Some of those artifacts were charming, but many more weren’t. Worse, though book is only 181 pages, pacing problems make it feel much longer. Continue reading

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 review #1 of Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes

Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy is a critical look at one of the most basic and taken for granted aspects of American society: the meritocracy. Second-nature to most of us, meritocracy is the idea that the best and the brightest among us should rise to the top. That pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps is possible, that the elite have earned their place, and that everyone has that opportunity. Ironically, this distinctly American ideal was first defined by an English writer who saw the “meritocracy” as the thing that would rise up to replace democracy once the latter had met with its inevitable failure.

Early in the book Hayes introduces us to the Manhattan based magnet school Hunter College High School. Hunter is lifted up by its administrators and alumni as a beacon of the meritocratic ideal. Entry to the school is gained through a single standardized test–the brightest get in. Period. Hunter is the perfect example of the level playing field of ‘equal opportunity.’ Any kid of any color from any borough can take the test and get in. The reality of ‘equal opportunity,’ though has produced stunningly unequal results: as the wealthy hire private tutors to prepare their kids for the Hunter entrance exam, Hunter administrators are (some privately, some publicly) watching the demographics of their school grow further and further from those of the city at large and are preparing for the rapidly approaching year where an incoming Hunter class contains no black or latino students.
Hayes then takes us on a tour through some of the most public failures of meritocracy. In Enron and Major League Baseball we see that it is very difficult to produce a system that rewards effort and doesn’t also reward cheating. In the Catholic Church and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina we see the folly in a ruling class that lives a life insulated from those it is meant to serve, or that is unable to understand the basics of the underprivileged’s lives (like that Katrina might have been difficult to escape for those on welfare because it made landfall at the end of the month, and there was no remaining room in folks’ budgets for an additional tank of gas).

The thesis of the book is essentially that pure meritocracy fails when it pays attention to equality of opportunity and ignores equality of outcomes. Within a generation (or less) those who benefit from meritocracy learn to game the system and hold onto their power. Then as inequality widens, these elites fall out of touch with the ‘common man.’ In American society, the idea of an elite ruling class socially distant from the vast majority of the population ought to be anathema; it is precisely the injustice of such an arrangement that drove our founding fathers to declare their independence.

Twilight of the Elites is one of the smartest books I’ve ever read. The case studies Hayes lays out are sharp and informative and the insight he adds, both himself and through the many interviews he conducted in writing the book, is even sharper. This book also marks the first time in my adult life I’ve found myself consulting a dictionary to ensure I’ve got the author’s meaning (expiate and plebiscite).

It’s certainly written from a progressive point of view, and I don’t know that anyone who thinks of themselves as leaning towards the right side of the aisle would enjoy it as much as I did, but it is challenging and persuasive all the same. For liberals it’s a must read.