I've never read Wallace, mostly because his best known work ("Infinite Jest") is so long. But I tend to like writers that digress and use footnotes for asides, so I thought maybe this collection of ten essays would give me enough of a taste to know if I should check out his other stuff. Ranging in length from 7 to 80 pages, the essays all appeared previously (albeit often truncated) in various magazines such as Harper's, The Atlantic, Gourmet, Rolling Stone, Premier, etc. They can be roughly categorized into three categories: brief review, personal piece, and long in-depth topical examination.
The brief reviews generally tend to take an item and use it as a staging area for discussing something more interesting than the given subject. For example, in "Certainly the End of Something or Other", Wallace uses his review of John Updike's novel Toward the End of Time to highlight the general narcissism and shallowness of writers such as Updike, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer. His 20-page review of Joseph Frank's biography of Dostoevsky is largely dedicated to making a larger point about literary criticism, and his 25-page review of tennis player Tracy Austin's autobiography is similarly dedicated to identifying the fundamental problem of sports memoirs. I have to admit that the essential point of the shortest piece, "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness", eluded me.
The two more personal pieces are strikingly different, but in each one gets a vivid impression of Wallace working through his own feelings. In, "The View From Mrs. Thompson's", he uses 13 pages to recount his own September 11 experience in Bloomington, Indiana. As one reads of the mysterious sprouting of flags, Wallace's hunt for a flag of his own, and his spending the day watching the footage with old ladies who've never been to New York, his mounting alienation from his neighbors is fascinating. The titular story is ostensibly a standard travel piece on a Maine lobster festival, but rapidly evolves into a thoughtful meditation (with scientific research) on the ethics of preparing and eating lobster.
The four in-depth essays are the real stars of the book, in each Wallace gets deep into his material and wallows in it with intellectual vigor and above all, wit. In the 50-page "Big Red Son", he covers the porn Oscars and emerges with scenes and quotes so surreal they must be true. Over the course of the 50-page "Authority and American Usage", he takes a topic close to his heart as a writing instructor and provides a layman's overview of the Prescriptivist vs. Descriptivist "usage wars". The underbelly of political campaigning is exposed in the 80-page "Up Simba", detailing his week on the John McCain's 2000 campaign trail -- the ultimate lesson is that if you want the most astute and nuanced political analysis, turn to the camera and sound techs, not the journos. Finally, the 70-page "Host" takes us into the world of talk radio, via a profile of an LA radio personality. All of these long pieces are wonderful (albeit in very different ways), as they allow Wallace's intellect the space to range free and elaborate.
Ultimately, it's not hard to see why Wallace is a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" award-winner. His combination of smarts, thoughtfulness, self-awareness, wit, and ability to write killer prose simply can't be ignored. One does have to raise an eyebrow at his overuse of footnotes, however. While I'm a big fan of footnotes (yes, even in fiction), I find Wallace's use of footnotes within footnotes rather tiresome (not to mention tough on the eyes). In many instances, it seems like the material could have been handled much more elegantly within the text, or within a parenthetical. This is especially true of "Host", which is very nearly ruined by the attempt to use boxed text and arrows to replace footnotes. There's no textual reason for the method, and the experiment doesn't work at all, only serving to highlight the unnecessary divisions of information and reducing their navigability.
Although a few of the pieces failed to totally captivate me, and the overfootnoting grated (especially in it's final iteration), this is still a highly entertaining and enlightening book. Chuck Klosterman's essays are like potato chips -- yummy, hard to stop at just one, and not super filling. Wallace's are generally a full nutritious meal at your favorite restaurant.