“Consider the Lobster,” Considered

Have you ever met someone and thought, “Oh no, there’s no way I could be friends with that person,” but then you end up being best friends?1This is the story of me and my wife. We ran in different social circles in college, and although there was some overlap in the Venn Diagram of those circles, we didn’t hang out or talk. We seemed like we existed in different universes. And then we ended up working together at our college ministry where we learned that we work extremely well together, and we love spending time together. One thing lead to another and now we’ve been married for eight years and have three kids. We’re each other’s best friend, and we still talk about how crazy it is that we ended up together. Sometimes it just takes time to get to know someone, and it turns out that your first impression was totally wrong. Such was my experience in reading “Consider the Lobster“ by David Foster Wallace.

The gist of the piece is this: Wallace was assigned by the editor of Gourmet magazine to write a piece about the Maine Lobster Festival. Given the highfalutin readership of Gourmet, the story was supposed to provide a nice POV into the fun and wonder of a culinary festival in a quaint little New England town. In other words, it was supposed to be a puff piece.

But Wallace decided to take the assignment, flip it on its head, and turn it into a philosophical and ethical treatise on the morality of boiling lobsters alive, viz.: Is it OK to boil lobsters alive if they’d prefer to not be boiled alive? After describing the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker—an apparatus that can boil 100 lobsters at a time, he writes:

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 United States: 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 it all just a matter of personal choice?2David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster,” in Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present, eds. Lex Williford and Michael Martone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 531.

When I first read the piece for a college writing class assignment I absolutely hated it.3I’m pretty sure that the class where “Consider the Lobster” came up was WRIT 277: Nonfiction II with Professor Lee Griffith, who had a penchant for assigning experimental pieces that blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction (e.g, Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald and You and Me by Padgett Powell). Professor Griffith introduced me to some of the weirdest things I’ve ever read and really expanded my understanding of what writing could be. I grew up in Louisiana, where we eat pretty much anything, so I found his line of inquiry tedious. I thought his style was pedantic, and I could not understand for the life of me why he felt the need to put so much of the narrative into footnotes instead of working it into running text. Everything about it—the tone, the structure, the style—felt hyperbolic, obsessive, and unnecessary.

It was decidedly not my cup of tea.

After I graduated from college, I discovered a reprint of “Consider the Lobster” in one of my nonfiction anthologies and decided to give it another chance. During that second reading I realized that I had been an uncultivated noob when I first read Wallace and that pretty much every joke had gone over my head—starting with the fact that he thought it was a good idea to use a puff piece assignment as a vehicle for exploring a philosophical quandary.

I saw clearly how funny David Foster Wallace’s writing is—from his word choices to syntax, to the overall structure of the piece. He is adept a tackling heady subjects with equal measures of gravity and humor, and that is quite a feat. His sentences are tight and polished, with the perfect tone and cadence to carry you all the way to the closing sentence. I had encountered writing genius, but formerly I had not the taste, nor the ear, to fully appreciate it. For example, consider this extended passage in which he describes the sights, sounds, and smells at the Maine Lobster Festival:

Be apprised, though, that the Maine Lobster Festival’s democratization of lobster comes with all the massed inconvenience and aesthetic compromise of true democracy. See, for example, the prenominate Main Eating Tent, for which there is a constant Disneyland-grade queue, and which turns out to be a square quarter-mile of awning-shaded cafeteria lines and rows of long institutional tables at which friend and stranger alike sit cheek to jowl, cracking and chewing and dribbling. It’s hot, and the sagged roof traps the steam and the smells, which latter are strong and only partly food-related. It is also loud, and a good percentage of the total noise is masticatory. The suppers come in Styrofoam trays, and the soft drinks are iceless and flat, and the coffee is convenience-store coffee in more Styrofoam, and the utensils are plastic (there are none of the special long skinny forks for pushing out the tail meat, though a few savvy diners bring their own). Nor do they give you near enough napkins considering how messy lobster is to eat, especially when you’re squeezed onto benches alongside children of various ages and vastly different levels of fine-motor development—not to mention the people who’ve somehow smuggled in their own beer in enormous aisle-blocking coolers, or who all of a sudden produce their own plastic tablecloths and try to spread them over large portions of tables to try to reserve them (the tables) for their own little groups. And so on. Any one example is no more than a petty inconvenience, of course, but the MLF turns out to be full of irksome little downers like this—see, for instance, the Main Stage’s headliner shows, where it turns out that you have to pay twenty dollars extra for a folding chair if you want to sit down; or the North Tent’s mad scramble for the Nyquil-cup-sized samples of finalists’ entries handed out after the cooking competition; or the much-touted Maine Sea Goddess pageant finals, which turn out to be excruciatingly long and to consist mainly of endless thanks and tributes to local sponsors. Let’s not even talk about the grossly inadequate Port-A-San facilities or the fact that there’s no place to wash your hands before or after eating. What the Maine Lobster Festival really is is a midlevel county fair with a culinary hook, and in this respect it’s not unlike Tidewater crab festivals, Midwest corn festivals, Texas chili festivals, etc., and shares with these venues the core paradox of all teeming commercial demotic events: it’s not for everyone. Nothing against the euphoric senior editor of Food & Wine, but I’d be surprised if she’d ever actually been here, in Harbor Park, watching people slap canal-zone mosquitoes as they eat deep-fried Twinkies and watch Professor Paddywhack, on six-foot stilts in a raincoat with plastic lobsters protruding from all directions on springs, terrify their children.4Wallace, “Consider the Lobster,” 528–529.

If that isn’t an incredible word picture, I don’t know what is.

I suppose the thing that I like the most about “Consider the Lobster” is that it shows a man’s gumption to tell a story on his own terms. Wallace’s editor probably didn’t expect what he turned in (or maybe his editor hired him precisely for the surprise). He essentially said, Well my assignment is supposed to be a feel-good piece, but the truth is that this whole business of boiling lobsters makes me feel a little weird, so howabout I write about that instead… It takes a lot of guts to write the story that you think needs to be written instead of the story you think you ought to write.

Fast forward to today and Wallace‘s style is one of my favorites. There are lots of other writers whose work I respect and admire, including Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, and C.S. Lewis, but Wallace takes the cake for me. They say “great artists borrow; great artists steal.” I’ve already borrowed a good bit from Wallace, and if I could steal a style, it would be his.

In the years since my reencounter with “Consider the Lobster,” I’ve read other things from Wallace, including some of his essays on tennis (“Roger Federer as religious experience” is quite good), “Tense Present” (basically a review about a dictionary that also describes linguistic infighting between different groups of language experts), along with his absolute doorstop of a novel, Infinite Jest, which outside of the Bible is the longest book that I have ever read.5There’s not really a nice and neat way to describe Infinite Jest, but it’s one of the books that’s influenced me the most. What I usually tell people is that it’s an wild story that involves a bougie tennis academy, Alcoholics Anonymous, and addictions of all kinds. Basically everyone in the story has an addiction to something, whether substances, entertainment, fame, or something else. It’s a story about human brokenness in high-resolution. The main thing it did for me is help me have more compassion for people with addictions, and it gave me a window into what life was like for my late brother who struggled with alcohol and drugs and ultimately died a homeless man. I wouldn’t have dreamed of picking up Infinite Jest had I not read “Consider the Lobster” first.

Across the board, Wallace is not necessarily an easy read, but he is rewarding. He describes things in such exquisite detail that it’s almost dizzying. He writes baroque sentences and then sends you to a footnote (or worse, an endnote) for more details. And then in the footnote he might include another elaborate sentence that nests a really funny joke. Or maybe just a random factoid. You never know. If you stick with it, you’ll learn a ton, laugh a lot, and find yourself thinking about what you read for a long time afterwards.

He’s not what most people would consider a beach read.6I’d totally bring a book of Wallace’s to the beach. 

But what I find the most compelling about Wallace’s writing in general is that it reveals a man who noticed the details and never failed to turn over every stone to tell a story. He cared about the minutiae because that’s what ultimately makes a story sing. His humor is often dry (and sometimes wry), but so is mine, so I appreciate it. And I also appreciate how he can move fluidly from using mathematical concepts to make philosophical observations to cracking a jock joke without the style feeling contrived. Wallace is wholly and unapologetically himself, and that is the mark of a writer who has truly found their voice.

I’m thankful for that nearly chance re-read of “Consider the Lobster” because it taught me (and reminded me of) a few important lessons regarding reading and writing:

  1. Sometimes the piece needs a second chance. Some pieces aren’t worth re-reading, but some pieces are. I’ve learned that sometimes my first impression doesn’t correlate with how good the piece is. When I first read “Consider the Lobster” I hadn’t read widely enough to see it for what it was. A few more college classes hammered things out, and I was able to see the piece afresh. Sometime I might not be in the right headspace to read a piece. If a work has stood the test of time, it’s a good idea to give it a second chance even if the first try didn’t hook you.
  2. One piece leads to another. If I like one piece from an author, there’s a good chance I’ll like others. Short pieces (about 15 pages or fewer) are a great way to test the waters without committing to a whole book.
  3. Let the piece speak for itself. I brought a lot of preconceived notions about what “good writing” was to my first reading of “Consider the Lobster”. That’s the wrong way to do it. Working from preconceived notions is not a good way to make friends.

I find it pretty incredible to look back more than ten years to that reading assignment and see how a second chance reading changed the trajectory of my literary appetite and opened up a whole new world of reading and writing. It’s funny how tastes and thinking can change for the better—if you take time to reconsider them.

  • 1
    This is the story of me and my wife. We ran in different social circles in college, and although there was some overlap in the Venn Diagram of those circles, we didn’t hang out or talk. We seemed like we existed in different universes. And then we ended up working together at our college ministry where we learned that we work extremely well together, and we love spending time together. One thing lead to another and now we’ve been married for eight years and have three kids. We’re each other’s best friend, and we still talk about how crazy it is that we ended up together.
  • 2
    David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster,” in Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present, eds. Lex Williford and Michael Martone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 531.
  • 3
    I’m pretty sure that the class where “Consider the Lobster” came up was WRIT 277: Nonfiction II with Professor Lee Griffith, who had a penchant for assigning experimental pieces that blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction (e.g, Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald and You and Me by Padgett Powell). Professor Griffith introduced me to some of the weirdest things I’ve ever read and really expanded my understanding of what writing could be.
  • 4
    Wallace, “Consider the Lobster,” 528–529.
  • 5
    There’s not really a nice and neat way to describe Infinite Jest, but it’s one of the books that’s influenced me the most. What I usually tell people is that it’s an wild story that involves a bougie tennis academy, Alcoholics Anonymous, and addictions of all kinds. Basically everyone in the story has an addiction to something, whether substances, entertainment, fame, or something else. It’s a story about human brokenness in high-resolution. The main thing it did for me is help me have more compassion for people with addictions, and it gave me a window into what life was like for my late brother who struggled with alcohol and drugs and ultimately died a homeless man. I wouldn’t have dreamed of picking up Infinite Jest had I not read “Consider the Lobster” first.
  • 6
    I’d totally bring a book of Wallace’s to the beach.
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