Politics, Despair, and Words

I’m reading David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster and I’m currently on his essay called “Up, Simba.” I’m either really dense or have not gotten to the part of the essay that makes sense of the title.

The essay is about John McCain’s bid for the Republican nomination in 2000. The premise is that Wallace, not a political journalist, is sent, nonetheless, on an expedition normally reserved for political journalists. The expectation is that he applies his incisive and hilarious eye for detail toward the political scene. This essay I think is very good, but it has further lowered my opinion of Wallace’s work (though overall my opinion of him is still very high), for several reasons, though I also want to touch on some of the real innovations of Wallace’s style generally, and what this essay provides.

Wallace claims that his coverage of McCain’s campaign is really coverage of the ultimate anti-candidate, and reading this piece is like entering a time warp. You see, as Wallace saw things back then, McCain was a fresh face who was genuine, and not only that, appealing to YOUNG voters. In essence, McCain was Obama before there was Obama. But now there is Obama, and ironically, he beat McCain, who, according to Wallace, first attempted to win by being an anti-candidate. Things are tricky though because Obama really isn’t an anti-candidate, but rather a “post partisan.” The difference might be important.

Anyway, Wallace begins by talking about McCain’s military service, and I think this is a necessary and proper thing to do in a piece like this: it simply shows respect for the sacrifice that we’ve all heard about so many times. Wallace’s telling of the story is pretty good because he really tries to capture how scary and incredible the whole thing was. I didn’t realize how many bones McCain had broken by his captors. Simply unreal.

Anyway, after this introduction where Wallace essentially “pays his respects,” things change a lot. First, I think Wallace kind of fails in his journalistic mission in that he doesn’t really cover anything about McCain’s campaign, rather the covers THE COVERAGE of McCain’s campaign, spending many pages cataloging press personalities and habits. Of course, this is hilariously funny in many places.

The humor, I believe, comes from the skill that Wallace can exercise most effectively, which is the ability to SOAK UP a way of talking. The first part of the article not dedicated to McCain’s war record is simply a LIST OF TERMS. An insider’s dictionary if you will that Wallace provides and then seamlessly makes use of in the rest of the article as if he was a long time member of McCain’s press corps. As he says, a “pencil” is a journalist, and after introducing that term, he NEVER AGAIN (at least I don’t think) says journalist. Everyone is a pencil and he expects his audience to remember this term and mentally deploy it as if Wallace were using “dog” or “cat.” In other words Wallace does a lot of work himself making sure his article can talk the talk and then he DEMANDS that his reader enter the subject matter with the same immersive and obsessive attitude. He asks a lot, and is rewarded for the confidence he implicitly places in his audience.

Not only does this make for great writing, but it exposes and reveals the quirky habits that make for hilarious observations. To put it another way, Wallace learns to speak a different language as a way of opening himself up to observations that others might (and in fact do) miss. Just as one learns more about China by learning Chinese, Wallace learns more about every facet of life by starting, always, with its language.

As a resulting of starting with the argot of what he’s covering, Wallace is able to fluidly pick up some enduring jokes. For example, he refers, as the McCain staffers do, to Bush as the “Shrub.” And though the lead bus in McCain’s caravan is the straight talk express, the next two buses are bullshit 1 and bullshit 2, which get abbreviated (another Wallace favorite) to to BS 1 and BS 2. The 12 really arrogant reporters for newspapers like the WSJ. etc. get named the twelve monkeys, and Wallace pokes fun at them throughout.

There are other great descriptions too. I’m kicking myself for not getting all of them because I have no excuse since you can bookmark on an iphone with the touch of the screen. Nonetheless, here are a few.

Describing Alison Mitchell

…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.

But through all this, Wallace says almost nothing that isn’t nihilistically cynical or useful about politics. He does mention that the networks try to focus on what they call “fighting words” which consist of attacks against the other candidate, but Wallace smartly points out that for some reason, no network considers it fighting words when McCain utters some literal fighting words like “we’ll put troops in other countries if they don’t control the outflow of drugs from their borders.” Boom. THOSE are fighting words, but according to our media, an institution that fails to cover politics with any passion because Wallace believes that the average American is just plain sick of politics. He also believes that our politicians are just big babies; large people wearing diapers. And his defeatism is bizarre because by his own lights, McCain is a true leader. In fact, by many criteria, one of the most amazing leaders America has had in recent years.

Back to crushing cynicism about the political process when Wallace titles a new section “who even cares who cares.”

All in all, my big criticism is that Wallace never sees the value in anything. I mean, I feel for the guy, because we all know he was very depressed and so its not surprising that he didn’t “look on the brightside,” but I mean, just looking at his work, its very flawed due to his inability to find redemption in anything. As Nietzsche would put it, his nihilism was passive and defeatist rather than ever becoming active or creative. He’s so cutting and incisive which makes him funny and easy to read, but now, and here’s the big point of the whole essay, reading him is so fun because, for all his sophistication, its a little like a trashy action movie. One just feels the rush of destroying, of cutting everyone and everything down. It’s how you feel when you’re with your best friends and you’re just making fun of one person after another. It’s really fun, and I think it may even be good in many ways, but you can’t keep it up forever and after a while you feel a little numb inside.


Other things I don’t want to dwell on but must be mentioned. Wallace describes things as if he knows nothing about the South. I wonder if he had ever been south of the Mason-Dixon line before this article. Some of his prejudice shows.

The characterization of the cell phone culture (remember, pretty new at this time) is also scary accurate and penetrating. Anyone who wants to do sociological research on the history of cell phone use MUST read this article.



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