Lobsters, John McCain, and 50-cent words

Can a serious essayist also traffic in style and glitz? David Foster Wallace finds a way.

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Consider the Lobster considers the lobster for 19 of its 343 pages. The book's discussion of a language usage guide, by contrast, gets 61 pages; an essay on talk radio uses 68.

A chapter on John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign (improbably titled "Up, Simba") clocks in at 78.

This analysis isn't a criticism of David Foster Wallace's book, which is oddly fascinating. It's meant as a service for readers. There's a lot here, most of it serious, much of it interesting, some of it strange. But a cozy tour of buoys and drawn butter, it's not.

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Wallace is unique, a writer who combines dense academic theory with a reporter's observations and a soaring, guitar-riff style. He's Mick Jagger, if Mick Jagger were a semiotician. Or he's ex-Fed chief Alan Greenspan wearing bling.

Thus on page 61 he's holding forth on "exformation," an aspect of communications theory with which he is obviously too familiar. One hundred pages later he's calling a group of political journalists "the Twelve Monkeys", and describing their Cellular Waltz, the idle way they walk in circles while talking on mobile phones.

He uses "prolegomenous" perfectly (look it up; I had to), and then writes: "Because I am a long-time rabid fan of tennis in general and Tracy Austin in particular, I've rarely looked forward to reading a sports memoir the way I looked forward to Ms. Austin's 'Beyond Center Court: My Story.' "

Five-syllable adjectives, combined with has-been celebrities. Next thing you know he'll be host of a show called "Parsing With the Stars."

David Foster Wallace is the Roy E. Disney endowed professor of creative writing and professor of English at Pomona College, Claremont, Calif. He's a second-generation academic who was a regionally ranked tennis player when young.

The novel "Infinite Jest," published in 1996, is Wallace's best-known work. "Consider the Lobster" is a collection of magazine and newspaper pieces he's written over the past nine years.

It's full of footnotes - Wallace loves footnotes - and forewards written in contrasting fonts, and at one point even boxes with arrows that point out where the thought in the box amplifies the text.

All this takes the normal forward vector of reading and converts it into a sort of 3-D experience. (Don't worry - it's easier to follow than a typical page of "Parade" magazine.) It's sure distinctive, though. What other author do you know who adds explanatory comments to the copyright page?

Besides those mentioned above, subjects here include John Updike, 9/11, Dostoevsky, and (be warned) a pornography awards show. Throughout, he deals a lot with communication: how do we ever know about other people or things; what they're feeling; what that means to us; and what, if anything, to do about it.

In the book's title essay, for example, Wallace is intensely interested in how we should behave in response to what we know or don't know about whether lobsters feel pain when . . . well, you know.

This subject was less interesting to some of the readers of Gourmet magazine, where the essay was first published - letters to the editor on the subject, not reprinted here, at times were vitriolic. (Apparently not all the Gourmet demographic was looking for an ethics seminar in addition to recipes for lamb shank lasagna.)

In "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," Wallace, an athlete himself, limns pro athletes as grace made concrete, but wonders why they "usually turn out to be stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination."

In "Up Simba" - to me, the best piece here - Wallace chews over John McCain's political appeal, and what's genuine in politics, and what isn't, and why McCain's harrowing experience as a Vietnam POW affects same. (Yes, yes, that fateful South Carolina primary was six years ago - but any article that describes bored and torpid TV techs as looking like "lizards whose tank isn't hot enough" is one for the ages.)

Wallace does not like irony. He does like serious issues, seriously discussed. These appear gradually, however, and reaching them is great fun, as the reader swoops and swirls and doubles back and races down the final reaches of Wallace's prose.

It's as if Wallace had been, not a tennis star, but a snowboarder. A snowboarder with a PhD.

Peter Grier is a Monitor staff writer.

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