The essay “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” appears near the end of David Foster Wallace’s new collection, Consider the Lobster. In it, Wallace is writing about someone (Joseph Frank) writing about someone (Fyodor Dostoevsky) writing about Important Questions. He (Wallace) also writes about himself (and his literary peers) not writing about Important Questions, ramming his point home by interspersing throughout the essay said IQs, uncommented-upon and tucked safely inside asterisks, in uneasy juxtaposition with long, digressive footnotes and words like “goopy” and “icky.”
It’s a typical Wallace performance, at once highly entertaining and highly unsatisfying. He’s like the overly enthusiastic high school teacher trying to wow his kids with the idea that literature (or whatever else he’s obsessed with) can be fun. He starts with something putatively dry—Dostoevsky, say, or grammar—or something putatively irrelevant—has-been tennis star Tracy Austin’s ghostwritten memoir—or something genuinely obscure—the neuroanatomy of lobsters. He quickly establishes authority with vocabulary like “prolegomenous” (word number three of the Dostoevsky essay) and Latin abbreviations like “q.v.” Then, like a salesman closing the deal, he delivers charming setup lines like this one: “Did you know that US lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?”
The catch is that the deal he’s closing has nothing to do with any forthcoming intellectual insight. In this respect, the reader is the bull and DFW the guy with the red cape. Rather, the deal is simply for the reader to keep reading. The payoff, in other words, is the performance.
Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown, 352 pages)
San Francisco Chronicle, December 2005