David Foster Wallace Consider The Lobster And Other Essays

We started the week expecting to publish one David Foster Wallace post. Then, because of the 50th birthday celebration, it turned into two. And now three. We spent some time tracking down free DFW stories and essays available on the web, and they're all now listed in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices. But we didn't want them to escape your attention. So here they are -- 23 pieces published by David Foster Wallace between 1989 and 2011, mostly in major U.S. publications like The New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. Enjoy, and don't miss our other collections of free writings by Philip K. Dick and Neil Gaiman.

  • "9/11: The View From the Midwest" (Rolling Stone, October 25, 2001)
  • "All That" (New Yorker, December 14, 2009)
  • "An Interval" (New Yorker, January 30, 1995)
  • "Asset" (New Yorker, January 30, 1995)
  • "Backbone" An Excerpt from The Pale King (New Yorker, March 7, 2011)
  • "Big Red Son" from Consider the Lobster & Other Essays
  • "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" (The Paris Review, Fall 1997)
  • "Consider the Lobster" (Gourmet, August 2004)
  • "David Lynch Keeps His Head" (Premiere, 1996)
  • "Everything is Green" (Harpers, September 1989)
  • "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, June 22, 1993)
  • "Federer as Religious Experience" (New York Times, August 20, 2006)
  • "Good People" (New Yorker, February 5, 2007)
  • "Host" (The Atlantic, April 2005)
  • "Incarnations of Burned Children" (Esquire, April 21, 2009)
  • "Laughing with Kafka" (Harper's, January 1998)
  • "Little Expressionless Animals" (The Paris Review, Spring 1988)
  • "On Life and Work" (Kenyon College Commencement address, 2005)
  • "Order and Flux in Northampton" Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV(Conjunctions, 1991)
  • "Rabbit Resurrected" (Harper's, August 1992)
  • "Several Birds" (New Yorker, June 17, 1994)
  • "Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise" (Harper's, January 1996)
  • "Tennis, trigonometry, tornadoes A Midwestern boyhood"  (Harper's, December 1991)
  • "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the wars over usage" (Harper's, April 2001)
  • "The Awakening of My Interest in Annular Systems" (Harper's, September 1993)
  • "The Compliance Branch" (Harper's, February 2008)
  • "The Depressed Person" (Harper's, January 1998)
  • "The String Theory" (Esquire, July 1996)
  • "The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub" (Rolling Stone, April 2000)
  • "Ticket to the Fair" (Harper's, July 1994)
  • "Wiggle Room" (New Yorker, March 9, 2009)

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You also wonder if television could really have squandered the ironic self-consciousness that was supposed to be Wallace's spiritual inheritance from the postmodernists. But there is not much point in denying Wallace his passion, his outraged sense that he has arrived much too late in history. For it is Wallace's nostalgia for a lost meaningfulness -- as distinct from meaning -- that gives his essays their particular urgency, their attractive mix of mordancy and humorous ruefulness.

This nostalgia explains, among other things, his attraction to the straight-talking senator from Arizona. Originally written for Rolling Stone, and reproduced in full here, his description of the week of the primaries during which McCain failed to survive Karl Rove's negative campaign is the strongest piece in this collection. Although Wallace never gets to meet his subject, he manages to show just how political spin-doctoring has evolved since 1972, when Timothy Crouse (in "The Boys on the Bus") and Hunter Thompson (in "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail") covered the clumsy attempts at it by the Nixon and McGovern campaign staffs. He is bracingly insightful, too, about the equally cynical process whereby representatives of major TV networks and the mainstream press "select" their news.

But so vast is Wallace's intellectual energy and ambition that he always wants to do more than what anyone else can reasonably achieve in a magazine article -- and he has some enviably indulgent editors. He wishes, as much in his nonfiction as in his fiction, "to antagonize," as he said in an interview in 1993, "the reader's sense that what she's experiencing as she reads is meditated through a human consciousness." Accordingly, Wallace appears as a character in his own reportage, and, though he may not like the comparison to a Great Male Narcissist, he reminds one most of the author of "Armies of the Night" as he strives for full self-disclosure.

He tells us, in eye-straining small print, how and why the McCain piece was commissioned and edited, and what the "dozen high-end journalists" who were with him looked like. This is the kind of ironic self-consciousness one would ordinarily be relieved to

see confined to "Friends" and "Seinfeld." Happily, Wallace's dazzling powers of description often redeem his bloggerlike tendency to run on. Here, for instance, is his description of a New York Times reporter on the McCain campaign: "A slim calm kindly lady of maybe 45 who wears dark tights, pointy boots, a black sweater that looks home-crocheted and a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one long request for clarification."

Clarification is also what Wallace seeks, though not of the political kind. It may seem odd that he doesn't mention McCain's voting record in the Senate -- the clearest indication of the candidate's politics, perhaps even of his sincerity or lack thereof -- in an article more than 15,000 words long. But then he wants, above all, to figure out "whether John McCain is a real leader or merely a very talented political salesman, an entrepreneur who's seen a new market niche and devised a way to fill it." He credits McCain's appeal among the young to the fact that they are "starved" for "just some minimal level of genuineness in the men who want to 'lead' and 'inspire' them." He himself thinks it a "huge deal" that McCain, a former fighter pilot who bailed out over Hanoi, rejected, on pain of torture, an offer of unconditional release from his Vietnamese captors.

Wallace keeps stressing this exemplary war record, which seems sufficient proof to him of McCain's moral authority, if not of his political judgment. And much of the essay really works out the tension between Wallace the postmodernist obsessed with "packaging and marketing and strategy and media and spin," and Wallace the moralist seeking evidence of a rooted and authentic self. It is as though Wallace cannot stop expecting McCain to somehow transcend the deceptions and distortions of the spin doctors and the media and remain true to himself: to the McCain who refused to leave prison in Vietnam, and whose moral character has survived an even longer confinement inside the Beltway.

Wallace is never sure if McCain is "truly 'for real.' " But such doubts, repeatedly expressed, merely reveal the larger cultural assumption Wallace is working with: that some fixed essence -- the real McCain -- lies beyond the wilderness of signifiers unleashed by the spin doctors and the media, and that somewhere out there this all-American hero still exists, untouched by the compromises and expediencies of everyday politicking, and busily realizing the countercultural ideal of "authenticity."

A conventional, rather masculinist notion of personal identity and selfhood also infiltrate Wallace's review of the tennis player Tracy Austin's autobiography. Here, he mistakes precociously and ruthlessly honed skill in a commercialized sport for "genius." As he doggedly examines why Austin's child-prodigy brilliance as a tennis player does not translate into emotional and intellectual profundity, it is hard not to be reminded of Robert Musil's epic "Man Without Qualities" (1943), in which the protagonist, Ulrich, is disturbed enough by the journalistic imputing of genius to sportsmen and racing horses to renounce his ambition for personal greatness.

Writing in the late 1920's, Musil recalled a recently superseded culture in which greatness "was exemplified by a person whose courage was moral courage, whose strength was the strength of a conviction, whose steadfastness was of heart and virtue, and who regarded speed as childish . . . and agility and verve as contrary to dignity."

Wallace does not have this sense of history, which was indispensable to a moralist like Musil -- or, indeed, Mencken, Wallace's precursor in the distinguished American tradition of boisterous iconoclasm. What he has instead is nostalgia, for a time when writers possessed moral courage and conviction, and it is no less affecting. Still, it doesn't seem to liberate him entirely from the prejudices and assumptions of his own historical moment -- and class. Something of the graduate-school seminar room still clings to his worldview. Trying to explain, for instance, why many American writers have "an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions," he concludes that the modernists "elevated aesthetics to the level of ethics" and writers thereafter have had to meet the "requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism and literary theory."

Literary theorists may long for, but have never actually possessed, such power and influence. If some American writers have a carefully hedged relation with actuality, or prefer an evasive irony over passionate engagement, this has at least something to do with their membership, in these days of generous publishing advances, fellowships and grants, in their country's most privileged classes. Wallace is clearly an exception. Certainly, few of his young peers have spoken as eloquently and feelingly as he has about the hard tasks of the moral imagination that contemporary American life imposes on them. Yet he often appears to belong too much to his own times -- the endless postmodern present -- to persuasively explain his quarrel with them.

'Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays,' by David Foster Wallace Pankaj Mishra's most recent book is "An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World." His new book, "Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond," will be published in June.

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