The whole David Foster Wallace thing

Last fall a small promo book containing only Wallace’s Gourmet article, “Consider the Lobster,” arrived at my door.

I read the piece when it appeared a year and a half ago, and remembered the more interesting aspects of it: Wallace’s descriptions of the Maine Lobster Festival, his historical look at lobster consumption, and his uncanny evocation of the way lobsters are boiled alive, and of the high, shrieking sound the pot makes as the lobster gives up the ghost.

On rereading, though, his verbal tics (which, to be fair, have been co-opted by many less original writers) started to grate. Within the course of three pages in that one essay, I circled the word “whole” — as in, “the whole X problem,” or “our whole Y tendency” — at least four times. I read the essay again and jotted down notes for a post about “whole” and the other hedging language that permeates Wallace’s prose. But, remembering my original admiration for “Consider the Lobster,” I decided I was being a curmudgeon.

The weekend’s NYTBR includes a portion of another essay — about the porn industry — from the same collection. And within this very brief excerpt, we have: “the whole cynical postmodern deal,” “the whole mainstream celebrity culture,” and “the whole thing sucks.”

Beyond “whole” — which, when employed so often, starts to seem not only rhetorically sloppy but argumentatively disingenuous — Wallace peppers his nonfiction with qualifiers like “sort of” and “pretty much,” and sincerity-infusers like “really.” I know everybody uses those words. I do. But he relies on them so much that they do more than clutter up his writing; they make it impossible to evaluate his analysis.

I understand that part of the point is that the point is hard to get to. And as a longtime (for more than a decade; now off-the-wagon and consumed with guilt) vegetarian of the fish-, egg-, and dairy-eating variety, you won’t see me finding fault with Wallace’s handwringing over the question whether it is ethical to boil another creature alive for one’s gastronomic enjoyment, and to hold annual festivals in honor of that activity. But all of the dodging and qualifying is so rote, and so distracting, that increasingly it’s all I notice. When I read his essays now, I’m constantly bracing for another “whole,” “really,” or “sort of.”

See, however: “Let’s get this out of the way first: If you don’t love David Foster Wallace with all of your heart, I will punch you in your face.”

* And, having finally slogged through Infinite Jest, feel qualified to say so.

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