Even when I’m not reading him, I hear him. If I’m somewhere that seems peculiar for reasons I can’t immediately pinpoint, like the oilfields of North Dakota or a nightclub or a Home Depot, my first impulse is to wonder, “What would David Foster Wallace think of this place?”
I’m no Wallace expert. I’ve never read any of his fiction and only a handful of his essays. But the few essays I have read I revisit often. Every semester, the first essay I teach to my college writing class is “Consider the Lobster,” in which Wallace reports on the 2003 Maine Lobster Festival and what it was like to “spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster.”
I find it odd that I keep re-reading and teaching this essay considering how uncomfortable it makes me. Wallace intimidates me with his breathless insights and pointed observations. Just look at the first sentence: “The enormous, pungent, and extremely well-marketed Maine Lobster Festival is held every late July in the state’s midcoast region, meaning the western side of Penobscot Bay, the nerve stem of Maine’s Lobster industry.” Before I have time to chew over the connotations of “enormous,” “pungent,” and “extremely well-marketed,” I’m bombarded with specifics about the festival’s whereabouts. I can’t keep up with the frantic pace of his prose or his mind.
My years of teaching “Consider the Lobster” have left my crinkled photocopy stained with marginalia graffiti of random observations (“Assumes knowledge! Audience! Condescending?”; “Playing w/ what we know/don’t know”; “snarky tone”) and questions (“Who are his readers?”; “Is he as curious and unknowing as he’s letting on?”). These erratic notes exhaust me, and eventually render me so passive that I simply lean back and let Wallace’s voice wash over me.
In early fall 2016, I heard about a lobster festival in Brooklyn. It was around this time that I first became concerned that my adoration and deference to Wallace might be a problem. I bought a ticket to the festival. I figured going to a lobster festival and reporting on my experience might help clarify his influence on me and give me insight into why I keep coming back to his essay. But I didn’t want to go alone.
His face fixed in a gentle grin, my buddy Dahsan reminds me of the actor Vince Vaughn, who’s six-foot-five, which happens to be how tall Dahsan says he is “on a good day.” He’s opinionated and makes a conscious choice to be happy. He’s the kind of guy who insists on paying for everyone’s bar tab at the end of the night. Whenever I’m with him, which for the last five months was almost every day since we shared a 242 square-foot studio apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I’m confronted with the reality that compared to him I’m less gracious, less generous, and less patient.
Dahsan talks incessantly. He asks questions about things I’ve never even thought about. He has opinions on topics that many wouldn’t think warrant a discussion. Most of my time is spent listening to him explain why the 2010 Denver Nuggets could have won the NBA title if only a few more calls had gone their way, or why Kill Bill is actually the best Quentin Tarantino movie (and how egregious it is that I’ve never seen it), or why Dahsan prefers Tom Cruise to Tom Hanks.
“Tom Hanks is too likable,” Dahsan says. “Like, he’s a nice guy. Tom Cruise is a fucking alien, and that’s what I like about him. Like, he’s a weird dude. He puts in the work to get it done. The guy dressed up as a UPS man for four months or four weeks or some shit just to play an assassin. You want to know why? To see what it’s like to go unnoticed as an assassin would. It doesn’t even make sense! What a weird jump! And that’s why I love him, dude. It’s the same thing with anything, stuff that’s interesting is stuff that’s complex.”
Last July, Dahsan moved in with me because he needed a place to crash for a few months before he moved back home to Colorado. My apartment is small, but it’s a livable space for one person, with a kitchenette in one corner and enough room for a full-size futon and a desk. With Dahsan, we were squeezed. He slept less than five feet away from me on a creaky cot that had been collecting dust in the hall outside my apartment.
I forbade Dahsan from paying me rent, but he insisted. We finally made a deal—in lieu of rent, he could purchase something for both of us that just so happened to equal half of one month’s rent. Dahsan bought a 40-inch TV and a PlayStation 4. For the last three months that we lived together we spent pretty much every night from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. sitting on the futon playing video games.
Dahsan doesn’t care much for lobster, but when I asked him to come to the lobster festival, he agreed. As a courtesy, I halfheartedly tried to talk him out of it. The event might not be that fun, I warned. The food might be gamey.
“Don’t worry,” Dahsan said. “I’ll walk with you in the rain.”
Walking in, Dahsan and I felt like we’d arrived early for a high school dance. The fest was being held in an unremarkable concert venue in Williamsburg, with a long bar lining the left wall and a few rows of faux leather booths near the stage. “Unremarkable” is probably an unfair descriptor; if the venue was packed wall-to-wall with people ordering drinks and dancing then it’d be just like any other concert hall in the city. But there were maybe a dozen people in attendance, a far cry from the 80,000 who went to the infamous 2003 Maine Lobster Festival.
After a few minutes, when a server brought our lobster, I realized Dahsan and I had been duped. Our tickets cost $30 each, and I’d assumed we’d at least be getting an actual lobster for that price (at the Maine Lobster Festival, Wallace got a 1 1/4-pound lobster, a “4-ounce cup of melted butter, a bag of chips, and a soft roll w/ butter-pat for around $12.00.”). What we got instead was whipped lobster salad in one of those cheap hot dog buns that’s maybe four or five inches long and is so soft that it leaves a dent after you poke it with your finger. The meal also came with a small serving of crispy french fries seasoned with something like Old Bay, two soggy, wrinkled corncob halves, and a small plastic cup of dime-sized dill pickle slices.
“Was this worth $30?” Dahsan asked. “Hell no!” Throughout the evening his review of the meal kept coming. “I feel like we ate something that was in a can. It felt like tunafish from a can. You know what they did, right? They put it all in a vat and made a cole slaw in an Oscar Mayer bun. They give you 2/5 of a can. How long do you think it took to prepare this? One minute?”
During his rant, Dahsan wasn’t so much disappointed as giddy about how misguided this event was. Unable to contain his curiosity, he peppered me with questions in staccato bursts: “Why’s lobster considered such a delicacy? Isn’t it easy as fuck to catch a lobster?”
In response to Dahsan’s questions I paraphrased from a section early in Wallace’s essay where he explains that while lobster is now treasured, “until sometime in the 1800s … lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized … some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats.” Lobsters weren’t valued in part because there were so many of them. “ ‘Unbelievable abundance’ is how one source describes the situation,” Wallace writes, “including accounts of Plymouth pilgrims wading out and capturing all they wanted by hand, and of early Boston’s seashore being littered with lobsters after hard storms.”
“I don’t even know if I want to eat lobster!” Dahsan exclaimed. “What does a lobster eat? It’s a legitimate question. They live on the bottom of the ocean eating all kinds of shit. They eat human shit!” Dahsan was actually sort of correct. Wallace tells us that lobsters are a “species of benthic carnivore … both hunters and scavengers … garbagemen of the sea, eaters of dead stuff, although they’ll also eat some live shellfish, certain kinds of injured fish, and sometimes each other.”
Wallace doesn’t exactly give the Maine Lobster Festival a ringing endorsement. He laments the many “irksome little downers” such as soda that’s “iceless and flat,” coffee that’s “convenience-store coffee in yet more Styrofoam” and the way he’s “squeezed onto benches alongside children of various ages and vastly different levels of fine-motor-development.” About a third of the way through his essay, though, Wallace reveals a much more sinister “downer”—he discovers the “World’s Largest Lobster Cooker,” where more than 100 lobsters can be boiled alive at once.
While everyone else appears to be enjoying themselves at the festival, Wallace is stunned and horrified when he sees “the fresh-caught lobsters pile over one another, wave their hobbled claws impotently, huddle in the rear corners, or scrabble frantically back from the glass as you approach.” He likens the scene to a “Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.” Curious if we, the readers, might also be disturbed, Wallace asks us point-blank, “So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”
After dismantling the myriad ways we rationalize eating lobster (e.g. we cite their lack of a cerebral cortex as a sign that they can’t feel the pain of being boiled alive, to which Wallace says, “a lot of the neurology in this … claim is still either false or fuzzy”), Wallace ends his essay with questions: “Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy)?” To those who choose not to fall down this moral and ethical rabbit hole, Wallace asks, “Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it?”
Dahsan and I were spared wrestling with anything close to an ethical dilemma that evening. There were no live lobsters in sight, and what appeared on our plate looked and tasted closer to cole slaw than something that had once been alive. But, thanks to Dahsan, we left with plenty of tangential questions. “How do you say what’s better than what? A steak versus a burger. Isn’t a burger more work to make? You have to grind it up.”
After the festival in Brooklyn, I went back and read Wallace’s essay again. In the past, the lines that most stood out to me were those that explicitly discussed the horrors of the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker. But with this reading, a new sentence grabbed me. Before forcing the reader to confront the ethics of boiling lobsters alive, he writes:
“A detail so obvious that most recipes don’t even bother to mention it is that each lobster is supposed to be alive when you put it in the kettle.”
I cringe whenever I read this sentence. But this time I was struck by how the horrors of this observation also excited and inspired me. It gave me insight into Wallace’s thinking and writing process. He actually stops to think about what a recipe doesn’t mention. He’s adamant that every crevice of even the most mundane detail might hide something consequential.
When the writers in my class are working on their own essays, I ask them to adapt the method of a writer we’ve read. Many adapt Wallace—they want to ask a research question that pushes them to revel in the strangeness and contradictions of their topic. None of them writes an essay exactly like “Consider the Lobster.” But, with Wallace on the mind, they trust that interrogating their gut response will lead them somewhere productive, even if it’s somewhere they couldn’t have imagined when they started writing.
In truth, I actually want the writers in my class to wonder, “What would David Foster Wallace think?” when they write, because asking that question is a way of becoming intimately attuned to your immediate responses and filtering them through a hyper-focused, easily perturbed, fiercely curious lens. It’s an approach that pushes you to see the world in ways you might have missed.
As Dahsan delighted in his new passion for everything lobster-related, the rock band, which had a funky, sleepy sound that reminded me of Steve Miller Band, played to its sparse audience. She’s like a true sunrise, crooned the band’s lead singer.
I was embarrassed to be there—embarrassed for the promoters of this event, embarrassed for the band impelling people to dance (“Now we do encourage dancing at our shows,” the singer said. “It’s not a party unless you make it one”), embarrassed by my negativity. It was hard for me to find anything redeeming. But as I slouched in my seat, Dahsan perked up when he noticed a small child near the stage. Next to the boy was an older man. They were both dancing.
“I like that he’s a white grandfather and it’s not a white grandson,” said Dahsan, whose mom is white and father was black. “Interracial couples are kind of my thing.” Soon, the child’s dad joined, and for a moment Dahsan said nothing as we watched the three of them dance arrhythmically.
Three months after the lobster festival, on Christmas Eve, Dahsan moved out and flew home to Colorado. The kitchen where his cot had once been was now bare. I didn’t know how I would fill the space; it felt empty, and vast. When he lived with me, my world became smaller and so did his. We both routinely cancelled plans with people to just hang out and play video games. On the night he packed up his things, we spoke candidly while the Playstation hummed softly. It was time to move on. But that realization didn’t make it any easier for me.
When I began preparing my syllabus for the upcoming semester, I briefly thought about striking Wallace’s essay from the reading list. I’d been teaching it for a few years now, and perhaps my syllabus, too, needed a change.
But then I thought about losing the first lively week of class when my writers would try to dissect that fraught, scrambled, eccentric essay. I thought about them losing Wallace’s breathless voice. And I thought about a moment a few weeks before Dahsan moved home, when he agreed to go with me to a holiday market in midtown Manhattan one night after work to help me finish my Christmas shopping, and how that evening it started to rain. Each droplet hit hard, like a pellet, a thwack on my skin. Figuring a cold, rainy night would ruin our experience at an outdoor market, I suggested we just stay at the apartment instead and watch a movie. So we ordered in Vietnamese food—we both got banh mi and Dahsan got upset when I refused to trade one of my dumplings for some of his calimari. As we ate, it occurred to me that I had never asked Dahsan if he would have still gone to the holiday market even though it was raining. I’d just assumed it wouldn’t be fun.
“Yeah I would have gone,” Dahsan said after I asked.
“I don’t really mind the rain.”
Hal Sundt teaches writing at Columbia University, where he received his MFA in nonfiction writing. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Classical, and Away. He is working on a book about failure.