Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace

Consider the Lobster

After having read and liked David Foster Wallace’s first compilation of nonfiction essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, I came to his second essay compilation Consider the Lobster with fairly high expectations.

Those expectations were mostly met. I enjoyed this book to a comparable degree as the first. I suppose I liked the first just a tad more. The title essay itself is one of the most insightful and laugh out loud funny things I’ve read in memory. Nothing in this second book quite reaches that level, but on the whole the writing here is also witty, intelligent, and a joy to read.

Big Red Son is Wallace’s account of the Adult Video News annual convention and porn awards (such as “Best Anal Themed Feature”). The paradoxical message of the piece—conveyed as persuasively and humorously as you’d expect from Wallace—is that once you cross a certain (very low) threshold, the more exposure you have to porn the less turned on you will be, and indeed the less turned on you will be capable of being even when you step away from it.

Certainly he makes the adult film industry sound like it’s populated by about the most grotesque, lame, unerotic characters you can imagine. The women are disproportionately blonde, are slathered with drag queen/street walker amounts and style of makeup, have novelty-size obviously artificial breasts, and in general have a depressing and vaguely inhuman sameness and phoniness to them.

It’s not that he has a moral disapproval of porn. Or maybe in a sense he does, but not in the way your typical religious prude does. He doesn’t object to porn because it is inappropriately titillating and encourages people to have sex, but precisely because it manages to render sex decidedly boring and unappealing and thereby deadens one’s sexual urges.

I think his point applies best to a situation where you’re compelled to experience more porn than you’re interested in, such as if you are a judge at these awards, or a journalist covering them. Because if you are instead a simple porn consumer, then you’re unlikely to get very far past your own personal porn threshold, since you’d simply stop consuming it once it’s not doing anything for you anymore.

I would imagine most guys (and the tiny number of women porn fans) don’t overdose on it the way he’s describing. For one thing, despite his claims about its deadly dull sameness, porn is almost endlessly variable. Especially with the extraordinary modern accessibility of porn online, once you have your fill of one type of porn, there are probably still a vast number of other types to try.

If you don’t like women with giant, artificial breasts, there are plenty of sites that specialize in all sizes of natural breasts, including flat chests. If you don’t like the phoniness of “pro” porn actors and actresses, there are vast numbers of more-or-less amateur clips people have uploaded to the Internet. There’s every imaginable fetish, and a few you probably could never have imagined. There’s the hardest of hardcore, and the softest of “erotica.” (The latter is the only kind of porn most women will admit to liking. But if you want to talk about something mind-numbingly dull, in my opinion this is it. Give me something with no pretensions to being anything other than raunchy and offensive any day.)

And if somehow even with all that variety you get bored with all porn in general, then don’t partake of it for a week, a month, a year or whatever it takes. It’s really pretty simple.

Not that I don’t see what he’s getting at. When I think of how much porn I’ve consumed in my life compared to how much I in principle could have (given that an almost unlimited quantity and variety of porn is now available 24 hours every day), it’s really pretty low. And my experience with other “sex industry” things—strip clubs, prostitution, whatever—is miniscule compared even to my porn consumption. And it’s because it can get pretty boring once you’ve experienced a decent amount of it.

But in moderation, and when I’m in the right mood for it, I’m cool with porn and I’m glad it’s available (and indeed very available even if you limit yourself only to the free stuff).

Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think, one of the shorter pieces in the book, is a review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time. I’d never heard of this book, never read anything by Updike, and read only a little about Updike, so I certainly don’t have an informed opinion about this review.

Evidently the book was supposed to have been a bold departure for Updike, as it’s set in the future with science fiction elements. Wallace’s take is that Updike is a very flawed, self-indulgent writer who creates insufferably self-indulgent protagonists who are all very similar to each other and to Updike himself, that Toward the End of Time is not a departure at all from his earlier work, that it contains all the worst aspects of what one has come to expect from Updike, and that indeed it is the worst of all of his books that Wallace has read.

Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed, an even shorter piece, was apparently intended as a talk, though I don’t know if it was ever delivered as such. Wallace is disappointed that students studying Kafka so often miss that he’s genuinely laugh out loud funny. (I agree. I think he’s a riot, though I’m not all that confident I’d pick the same bits as Wallace as my favorites.) He says that to some extent you can explain what it is that makes Kafka’s writings funny, but that that risks—as explaining humor routinely does—defeating the purpose in that it’s hard to laugh at something you’re approaching analytically.

Authority and American Usage, a review of a book on English language usage, is one of the longest and most philosophical essays in the book, and to me one of the most interesting. It’s way too long with way too much going on in it to summarize here, but at least I can note a few topics that come up.

When I was in college I took a course on the English language, and I learned that dictionaries were basically descriptive, that is, their purpose is to record how people use a given language. Subsequent to that, I often used this in teaching philosophy. In trying to get a discussion going about how to understand key philosophical concepts such as “truth,” “belief,” “knowledge,” “God,” etc., impatient students would commonly respond, “Just look it up in the dictionary!” I would explain that that would only tell us how the word is commonly used, regardless of whether that is ambiguous, uselessly duplicates another perfectly good word, or has other flaws. Philosophy aims for a deeper, more consistent, more justified sort of linguistic analysis; dictionaries are merely descriptive.

But Wallace argues that really dictionaries (and related books such as books on grammar, etc.) aren’t purely descriptive. He takes the side of the prescriptivists in that regard, though I’d say his position is a more nuanced combination of descriptivism and prescriptivism.

Descriptivism, he says, is not only false, but obviously false. For it would require cataloguing every use of every English word in history. If instead we—as we must—pick and choose which uses to endorse by putting them in our dictionary, then we are implicitly acknowledging the truth of prescriptivism.

I don’t know about that. Let’s say “cat” has been used a few billion times in history, but I as a lexicographer can only realistically examine a hundred or so of those uses. And let’s say in pretty much all those cases it’s intended to have the same meaning, other than obvious metaphors, typos, etc. If I concluded that that unanimous or nearly unanimous meaning was the one that belonged in my dictionary, how is that not descriptivism? Why would I instead have to make sure all of the billions of other uses also were intended that same way?

I mean, I see why taking all of them into account would be necessary for certainty, but why is descriptivism committed to that standard? That ideal would be a kind of deductive descriptivism, with only an inductive descriptivism being achievable in the real world, but fallible inductive descriptivism is still descriptivism.

But that argument aside—and I may well be missing his point—I can see that definitions, spelling, grammar, etc. probably are best understood as a combination of descriptive and prescriptive.

I would think when you’re putting together a dictionary you’re looking at many factors. It may start with simply determining what uses are most common, but it needn’t end there.

Let’s say as best we can determine 75% of people spell a certain word “fragilly” and 25% of people spell it “fragily.” OK, those are the raw numbers, but what if the breakdown is different if instead of asking how people spell it, we ask how people think it ought to be spelled? (Maybe some people would acknowledge the way they spelled it on a given occasion was wrong—maybe carelessness, maybe a bad habit from having learned it wrong as a kid, maybe intentionally spelled wrong for some literary purpose, etc.)

Or perhaps the people who spell it one way are disproportionately considered authoritative about such matters, while the people who spell it the other way are disproportionately not considered authoritative about such matters, such that someone who otherwise has no opinion about how it should be spelled would tend to go with the authorities if informed of this spelling difference and who spelled it how.

Authority in that case would be circular, but not necessarily viciously circular. A lot of norms are based on perceived (and thereby self-fulfilling) authority like that.

You could also look at things like how it relates to other words. Maybe similarly formed words with similar histories invariably use double letters.

There may also be pragmatic considerations that favor one over the other, though it’s probably easier to come up with examples for things like grammar than spelling.

That’s just off the top of my head. So it seems like there are plenty of descriptive and prescriptive factors to consider.

Then again, I’d say most if not all of the prescriptive factors are really descriptive at a certain level. Just like “Most people believe torture is wrong” is a descriptive claim (whereas “Torture is wrong” would be a prescriptive claim), “Most people believe ‘fragilly’ is correctly spelled and ‘fragily’ incorrectly spelled” is descriptive too.

But anyway, enough on that. This is strangely interesting stuff to me, and I enjoyed what Wallace has to say about it.

He notes that while in an important sense Ebonics is no better or worse than any other form of English, social reality (in certain circles anyway) rewards some forms of English and punishes others, so in a pragmatic sense Ebonics can indeed be worse than other forms of the language. He recounts attempting to explain this to African American students, and occasionally getting hostile responses (including one instance where evidently he had to go through considerable hullaballoo when a student lodged a formal complaint against him).

I’ve long been interested in politically correct English, troubled by the coercion often behind it, by the obfuscating use of euphemisms it sometimes involves, and by its tendency to shift focus from substance to symbols and symptoms. He has plenty to say on this topic, not all precisely what I would say if I sat down to really systematically put my many thoughts about this matter down on paper, but certainly more consistent than inconsistent with what I believe.

This is a very rich essay and I could easily say much more about the topics it raises, but I’ll move on.

The View from Mrs. Thompson’s is Wallace’s account of 9/11 and its aftermath as he and his neighbors in small-to-medium-town Bloomington, Illinois experienced it. It is a fine, thoughtful essay.

Among the points he makes is that once some symbolic practice reaches a threshold where virtually everyone is doing it (his example here being almost everyone displaying a flag after 9/11), the few who are not doing it are perceived as making a statement by omission whether they intend it or not.

That brings to mind two things. One has to do with the aforementioned politically correct speech. I remember a long time ago making the point that in certain circles—academia being the most obvious—if you do not express yourself in a politically correct manner with strict linguistic gender neutrality and such you will be perceived as taking a right wing political stand (and despised for it by many). Whereas in the beginning it was the opposite: If you communicated that way you were making a left wing statement. So once politically correct language crossed the threshold to become the norm, if you wanted to not be perceived as necessarily taking a political stand at all you were better off using the politically correct lingo. Whatever is out of step is presumed to be chosen intentionally as a statement against the conventional.

The second thing is as I read this point I immediately thought of the Seinfeld episode where non-conformist Kramer refuses to wear the AIDS ribbon on an AIDS walk (and is punished for it much as a non-flag flyer might be in the post-9/11 Midwest, or an academic might be for saying “mailman” instead of “mail carrier”).

How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart is Wallace’s very disappointed review of Tracy Austin’s autobiography.

Wallace was an accomplished tennis player in his youth, and is very knowledgeable about the sport and its people. I remember Tracy Austin, but mostly I just remember the name and that for I think a fairly short time she was one of the top female tennis players in the world. So prior to reading this I had no real sense of her or why her story might be worth reading.

But according to Wallace, it’s a story that could be really fascinating if properly told. Evidently she had extraordinary potential, and for a tantalizingly brief period when she was young looked to be living up to that promise, but a series of injuries derailed her career.

He thinks it could be one of the most interesting athlete stories of his generation, raising issues of what it was like to experience the kind of obsessive childhood necessary to produce someone with that tennis ability that young, what it’s like to be on top so young and to almost immediately lose that status, how pushing oneself and being pushed can result in unwise overtraining which may be responsible for career-destroying injuries like hers, and much more.

But what we get instead, he says, is “breathtakingly insipid.” (He effectively backs up this assertion with plenty of quotations.) What had the potential to be a classic sports autobiography is instead a grotesque, ghostwritten, bland, formulaic, take-no-chances, cliché-fest. There’s not even any good gossip; she namedrops plenty but only to say how nice all these famous tennis people are.

Here’s a typical line from the essay: “On the one hand, there’s little sign in this narrator of anything like the frontal-lobe activity required for outright deception. On the other, Austin’s ignorance of her sport’s grittier realities seems literally incredible.” Wallace is not one to pull his punches.

Up, Simba, the longest piece in the book, and one I believe was also published as a standalone short book, is Wallace’s account of John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.

I have mixed feelings about this one. One thing I admire about it is Wallace’s willingness to honestly present his opinions and feelings about McCain, even when doing so risks making him seem uncool, or putting him out of step with his peers or readers.

Because really there’s a considerable amount of hero worship in this piece. Wallace understands that McCain is imperfect, and that his politics don’t match up all that well with Wallace’s own and hence that the policies enacted under a McCain presidency would likely not be as desirable as what we could expect from at least some of his competitors, but he’s so impressed with him as a man and as a leader that that kind of thing doesn’t matter as much to him as it would with another politician.

Some of what he admires is McCain’s willingness to say and do things that aren’t politically expedient, and his occasional “maverick” deviations from his party and his ideological brethren. But primarily it’s McCain’s standing up to torture and extended incarceration in Vietnam.

He tells McCain’s Vietnam story in considerable detail, with an attitude of “Come on, how can you not be in awe of this guy?”

And it is indeed a harrowing account, to put it mildly. (I wasn’t aware of the details before I read this; I knew only that McCain spent much of the war as a POW.) It’s mostly not waterboarding/electric-shocks-to-the-genitals-style torture, but it’s certainly brutal treatment, up to and including beatings severe enough to break bones.

At one point, McCain was reportedly told that he would shortly be freed (McCain was a big name prisoner due to his family, and the Vietnamese wanted to cash in on the PR value of showing leniency in his case by letting him go), and McCain’s response was basically, “That’s great. As long as everyone ahead of me in line is also let out by then.” (Evidently according to international law or custom, prisoners of war were supposed to be released in order of how long they’d been in custody.) The angered Vietnamese threw him back in his cell, with some accompanying additional rough treatment, and he was not released.

The worshipful Wallace responds with a kind of “How in the world can I criticize someone like this who has displayed more courage, heroism, and patriotism than a mere mortal like me could ever achieve in a hundred lifetimes?” attitude.

While I appreciate his candor, his willingness to pretty much admit that he’s fallen in love with McCain and cannot be fully objective about him, I do have some reactions.

One is that while I don’t know that I would have preferred he go to the opposite cynical extreme that you’d expect from a hip, mostly liberal, still fairly young intellectual, isn’t there some middle ground? His unabashed anti-cynicism when it comes to McCain sometimes crosses the line into naiveté in my opinion. It’s like his usually very sharp mind, and his ability to incisively, and at times mercilessly, size up people and situations have been suspended for this piece.

Wallace is succumbing here to a very common temptation that recurs almost every presidential election cycle. Routinely the press picks out one candidate—occasionally they’ll try out more than one at different stages of the campaign—to present as the refreshingly straight talking one, the one who represents a new cleaner form of politics that respects people’s intelligence, the one that Americans would choose if they really wanted what they claimed to want—an end to the typical politician bullshit of only uttering pap that’s been thoroughly market researched.

In 1980 it was John Anderson. Sometimes it’s long shot candidates from the past making a largely symbolic run who can speak frankly because they’re so unlikely to win anyway (e.g., George McGovern, Jerry Brown, Gary Hart—not in the years they got the nomination or nearly did, but when they ran many years later as elder statesmen types). Obama got a small amount of that kind of “He’s better because he’s not a conventional politician” admiration from the press, at least more than Hillary Clinton. Sometimes fringe candidates like Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul get a little bit of it.

McCain got quite a bit of that favoritism from the press the years he ran for president. You very much got the sense that much of the press, whatever they might think of his policy positions, liked him and felt like here was a guy who was more “real” than you usually see running for president.

I’m mildly to moderately skeptical of this phenomenon. I think the extent to which these press-favored candidates really are superior to the other candidates in terms of integrity and willingness to forego political expediency and such varies quite a bit and sometimes is probably entirely illusory. For the most part, refreshingly honest folks of very high character who care more about doing what’s right than winning elections simply don’t run for president, or they wallow down in the 1% neighborhood and are ignored for as long as they last.

But Wallace seems to fully buy into the myth when it comes to McCain. Maybe McCain is a little better than the average politician, but nothing I’ve seen of him leads me to think more than a smidgen of Wallace’s hero worship is justified.

As far as the severe treatment he received at the hands of the Vietnamese, I admit that I was drawn in by that section of the piece, but it still never took me to where it took Wallace.

For one, it didn’t cause me to overlook, or to downplay the significance of, my political differences with McCain. Are more tax cuts for the rich, a jingoistic foreign policy with more war, continued backlash against civil rights and civil liberties, and all the other things we can expect from a Republican presidency somehow made more palatable by the fact that the figure presiding over them displayed great patriotism earlier in his life, heroically standing up to torture and staying loyal to his fellow prisoners? No, they’d still be disastrous policies.

I also, in the back of my mind, kept open the possibility that Wallace’s account, or one could say the conventional account, of McCain’s experiences in Vietnam is inaccurate.

I recall reading years ago a piece by Alexander Cockburn saying that not everyone who was in a position to have evidence as to what really happened with McCain in Vietnam bought into the whole “hero” thing. There were some who claimed that he had in fact cooperated to at least some degree with his captors, to the detriment of other prisoners.

Now there’s a decent chance that Cockburn is dead wrong, that these whispers he’s passing along are about on the level of the politically motivated lies from Karl Rove’s “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.” In fact if you put a gun to my head, I’d say they’re more likely false than true.

But at the same time, I don’t rule out entirely the possibility that the McCain story has been whitewashed to make him into something more heroic than he really is, because I’m aware there’s a strong inclination to exaggerate and spin things so as to create pure heroes like that, especially when it comes to figures like religious martyrs and soldiers from one’s own country. From popular historians to mainstream journalists to children’s textbook authors, there’s a bias in favor of creating inspiring stories of larger than life figures who remain true to their cause despite the most extreme trials and tribulations, up to and including torture.

Has that happened with the McCain Vietnam stories? Maybe, maybe not. And just to be clear, I’m not saying there’s any significant chance that somehow it’s all been made up. My position would be that Wallace’s account is probably better than 50% likely to be largely accurate, but that there’s also a non-trivial possibility that McCain stood up to torture better than “only” 90% or 99% of people would have, and not to a superhuman degree where he never broke at all.

On the whole, I feel that Wallace’s admiration for McCain as a person and a soldier results in a diminution of his critical faculties when it comes to McCain the presidential candidate.

The title essay, Consider the Lobster, is one of the more effective pieces. It’s basically an argument in favor of animal rights, but it reads nothing like the kind of strident, angry rhetoric that has become the unfortunate stereotype of the animal rights movement (and leftist or social justice movements in general).

Maybe Wallace is being a little disingenuous here, trying to come across as less outraged or certain of his position than he really is, precisely because he knows that that can be threatening or insulting to readers who don’t already agree with him, and thus less rhetorically effective. I’m inclined to think he’s sincere though. A totally phony style doesn’t fit with the image I’ve come to have of him as a writer.

Anyway, Wallace in this piece is a kind of befuddled everyman. He attempts no kind of sophisticated philosophical argument to ground animal rights, nor does he make any appeal to vague spirituality, such as praising “indigenous” folks for how they live in harmony with nature and animals.

He does not treat animal rights as needing any kind of high falutin’ justification like that, as if it were some peculiar counterintuitive notion that needs a lot of such help in order to overcome its prima facie implausibility.

Instead, as I understand him, he comes to see the anti-animal rights or non-vegan position as the one that makes little sense in terms of our basic, least controversial moral convictions.

He doesn’t make his case with cows or pigs or animals that people might be better able to identify with, but moves all the way down the food chain to the simple lobster. He describes all he’s learned about how lobsters are caught, killed and cooked, and how their brains are wired (and thus how they probably experience pain). By the end of his investigating, he finds himself unable to explain to his satisfaction how it’s all justified, why he and everyone else shouldn’t swear off eating these and other creatures.

For Wallace, what it all boils down to (so to speak) is that we take a living thing and cause it excruciating pain by dropping it into boiling water, just so we can eat it, even though we’re perfectly capable of surviving without having to torture anything like that.

Why do we do this, when it seems blatantly contrary to the simple and presumably uncontroversial moral imperative not to pointlessly cause suffering? The arguments in favor of eating things like lobsters he finds surprisingly weak. It would seem that people fall back on them only as rationalizations for something they like doing and are used to doing. Most folks, it appears, really don’t want to have to think about the moral ramifications of how they eat, and so they tend to dismiss the subject with perfunctory arguments at most.

And again, it’s not like he’s dogmatic about it himself. If I had to paraphrase his position it would be something like: “The more I’ve looked into this matter the more it seems we’re behaving abominably toward animals like lobsters. But can that really be? If it is, how come so few people are outraged? How come it’s mostly people easily denigrated as being on the fringe? Is there something I’m not seeing here? Can someone talk me out of my drift toward veganism?”

He may well be right in the end. One thing I would say on the other side—and maybe this is just another lame rationalization from someone who likes eating meat and seafood—is that suffering is pretty much the lot of the vast majority of living things capable of suffering. Lobsters that are not boiled alive will instead experience something like being ripped apart piece by piece by a predator. (I guess. Actually I don’t know how most lobsters die.)

That doesn’t excuse all ill treatment of animals, such as the horrific conditions livestock experience at some so-called “factory farms.” But it does make me pause before accepting the argument that because animals generally must experience some suffering in order for us to be able to eat them, it is wrong to eat them. Because it’s not as if in the absence of our eating them they would live happily ever after and eventually die painlessly in bed. Most of them (I think) would just suffer differently from how they do when we treat them as food.

Unless you propose to somehow change nature’s propensity to be “red in tooth and claw,” I’m not sure it’s justified to single out the suffering caused by our not being vegans.

Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky is Wallace’s review of a multi-volume analysis of the writings of Dostoevsky. Wallace praises it as a thorough biography of Dostoevsky and the cultural context in which he wrote, and a painstakingly detailed explication of Dostoevsky’s works informed by that background material. It sounds as though Frank has done an extraordinarily good job.

The review also gives Wallace an opportunity to give his own take on Dostoevsky and his work. Clearly Dostoevsky is a favorite of his, as he is of mine. I very much enjoyed reading his observations. I have read most of Dostoevsky’s books multiple times and thought about him a lot, and I felt I could understand and for the most part agree with just about everything Wallace writes about him. Indeed, some of what he writes is quite close to things I’d independently thought of and expressed in conversation or in writing.

He notes that Dostoevsky is not only “great” in the way literature professors and such appreciate, but is terrifically entertaining just in terms of characters and storytelling in a way that ordinary readers should appreciate. The problem, though, is he’s been canonized and all his works declared classics, so people approach them as if they are foul-tasting medicine—good for them and worth consuming, but decidedly unpleasant.

One of the best things about Dostoevsky, he says, is how he’s not shy about presenting big ideas in a serious, passionate and non-ironic manner. Wallace laments that modern writers know that to write like that today would be to alienate educated, hip readers. After quoting some philosophical musings from a character from The Idiot, Wallace comments:

Can you imagine any of our major novelists allowing a character to say stuff like this (not, mind you, just as hypocritical bombast so that some ironic hero can stick a pin in it, but as part of a ten-page monologue by somebody trying to decide whether to commit suicide)? The reason you can’t is the reason he wouldn’t: such a novelist would be, by our lights, pretentious and overwrought and silly. The straight presentation of such a speech in a Serious Novel today would provoke not outrage or invective, but worse—one raised eyebrow and a very cool smile. Maybe, if the novelist was really major, a dry bit of mockery in The New Yorker. The novelist would be (and this is our age’s truest version of hell) laughed out of town.

I think this is true not just of novels, but of art in general. I have a similar reaction when I watch the extraordinary ending to Chaplin’s City Lights. I think about the many unfortunate people who would not allow themselves to appreciate the stunning beauty of that scene, because they’ve trained themselves to dismiss anything like that as laughably maudlin.

I wanted to also mention a footnote I got a kick out of. Wallace is puzzled why English translations of Dostoevsky seem to always use stilted language and clunky syntax. Are translators trying to preserve the flaws in the original? Unlikely. Anyway, here is the footnote:

What on earth does it mean to “fly at” somebody? It happens dozens of times in every [Dostoyevsky] novel. What, “fly at” them in order to beat them up? To yell at them? Why not say that, if you’re translating?

Speaking of footnotes, one of the signature elements of Wallace’s style is his liberal use of footnotes. Some of his footnotes in fact have their own footnotes. The last selection in this book—Host—takes this to a greater extreme than anything else I’ve seen of Wallace’s. I haven’t added them up, but there are clearly more total words in the footnotes than in the body of the essay. I’d guess about 70% of it is footnotes.

Surely some readers would be turned off by this, if for no other reason than its sheer unconventionality, rather like having to read a book whose left and right pages are reversed, or whose sentences all begin with lower case letters. You can end up distracted by the style and lose some of the substance.

I have to admit, though, I actually enjoy it. His tangential observations are consistently worthwhile. I find I instinctively react favorably when I see that a Wallace piece I’m about to read is particularly footnote-heavy.

Host is Wallace’s long (69 pages), detailed, quirky, funny, disturbing, behind-the-scenes depiction of talk radio in the person of John Ziegler.

I had never heard of Ziegler before I read this piece, but I gather he’s a midrange talk radio personality—not one of the handful that just about everyone’s heard of even if they don’t listen to talk radio, and not some local nobody trying to break into the business. He’s at the level that if you follow these things you’re likely familiar with him.

He’s a conservative, as almost all of them are. I don’t get the impression that he’s unusually bad as such people go. He seems sincere, he’s a hard worker, he’s probably reasonably intelligent, and he’s not totally doctrinaire where he has a hard right take on everything.

But even if he’s not unusually awful a human being relative to his profession, that’s not saying much. He’s still 95% bombast and 5% reasoned discourse. That’s just the nature of the business.

Really this piece isn’t an indictment of Ziegler as an individual so much as of the industry of right wing talk radio. If he wasn’t the way he is, then he wouldn’t be on the air; someone more suitably opinionated and blustery would be.

The talk radio phenomenon is a product of ignorant listeners wanting to hear their least justified opinions and biases affirmed, the willingness of advertisers to sponsor programming that appeals to the lowest elements of society, the political and business preferences of station owners and others who make the decisions of who gets on the air and who doesn’t, and whatever other market forces and such play a role. The result is ugly and damaging.

This is a finely written piece. It easily held my interest throughout. It has wit and intelligence. But due to the subject matter, there’s also a darkness to it.

The opening piece—on porn people—and this one are similar in a lot of ways. They both examine an area of society that’s very popular and sort of fringey at the same time. In both pieces Wallace wants you to know that the principles are odd in a humorous, sometimes ludicrous way, and also creepy. It’s just that I found the people more funny than creepy in the first piece, whereas in this last piece, the creepiness is what stayed with me after I closed the book.

But, aside from ending on a somewhat depressing note (due to the subject matter, not anything objectionable about Wallace’s writing), this book is a clear winner.

Having read these two collections of essays by Wallace, I feel like I know him in a way that happens with 10% or fewer of the writers I read. Although it can occasionally be obscured by his straining too hard to be clever or funny, there’s a very personal, open, revealing style to his writing. Every essay is permeated by his worldview and values. Unless he’s just really good at faking it, he seems to let you inside him, to see what the world looks like to him.

That makes me feel a connection to him that, again, I probably feel with 10% or fewer of the writers I read. And that makes me feel somehow diminished by or personally involved in his suicide.

Like, imagine you hear about the suicide of someone who is a peripheral figure in your life, not a very close friend or family member, but someone you have a certain fondness for and think highly of even if you don’t know him or her super well, someone you’ve always kind of assumed you’d be closer to in the future if the opportunity presented itself. I doubt you’d be devastated by that person’s suicide, but it would affect you.


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