James Sowerby

“Consider the Lobster” by the late David Foster Wallace is a 7-page field notes article published in Gourmet Magazine in 2004. It is one of my favorite essays ever written. In it, Wallace takes us to “the enormous, pungent, and extremely well-marketed Maine Lobster Festival.” He tells us about the hundreds of attendees that, every year, pack themselves to gorge on every single type of conceivable culinary preparation of the Nephropidae. Not only this, but he also delves deep into the known studies about lobster psychology, lobster anatomy, and lobster biology. Yet somehow, almost accidentally, he consults complicated questions about life, death, and morality using this bizarre yet very American summer festival. All wrapped around the tent that covers the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker. It is, in my opinion, one of the best pro-vegetarianism pieces to ever see print. The most compelling issue is that I don’t think Wallace ever realized it was.

The first half of the article uses a vivid, engaging narrative to put us in this sweaty, savory, cheap festival. It then feeds us run-of-the-mill encyclopedic facts about the lobster. It tells us about how once it was considered the rat of the sea, dissonating with the luxury food we see in it today. Short, relatable stories are dotted among the paragraphs that resonate with the common-American reader, mentioning Twinkies, sunglasses, Styrofoam trays, and short-sleeved, overweight, sunburnt local tourists. Or, for example, he alludes to the 50-minute cab ride from the airport with the 70 something-year-old cabbie, who he cites to “drive[s] in what can only be called a very deliberate way.” An expression I had never heard or thought of but carries a fitting description of behavior I believe we all have observed. His inviting prose obliges anyone who starts to read to also grace the weight of the back cover. 

It is almost without warning that Wallace drops his first crumb of existentialism into the cook and travel magazine pages. By the halfway point of the amicable article, he prompts the reader to think, “is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”. This question precisely distrusts the fact that such an event is decorated with happy, mindless emotions. One littered with feel-good, thought-numbing experiences and packed with all the paraphernalia to incite nostalgia when looking at it in retrospect. A festival that literally revolves around the boiling alive of a freshly captured, sentient being. Thousands of them, to be precise. It is then where most readers are in too deep to escape. The focus is turned to complex questions around the nature of pain, its relationship with anatomy and morality, and the euphemisms that are too commonly used to ignore any type of moral awakening in the contemporary American kitchen. At this point, Wallace has a point for the passionate commensals who are urged to abandon the reading, disremember the questions, and continue turning the pages in search of their next delectable delicacy. He reels them in by reminding them that “isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet?”.

The article waters down into question-filled paragraphs where Wallace seems to voice the confusion of the whole ordeal. He doesn’t subject the reader to moralist claims like meat-eaters being torturers. In fact, Wallace himself admits he is not a vegetarian. Yet, the effectiveness of Wallace’s line of questioning comes from the momentum built up by the reader’s fresh images of Lobsters trying to escape boiling pots in what now seems to be an anachronic, barbaric slaughter festival at the tip of the American Northeast. It drives home what might have been Wallace’s bottom line (even though I doubt there was one): avoid taking things for granted. Be it places, lifestyles, thoughts, traditions, or life itself. It is also a message not too far from another of his works. In “This Is Water,” he begins the commencement speech with a short story: 

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?'”

I believe Wallace does not pretend to be the older fish who will answer what water is. Yet, I do think he enjoys begging, at least indirectly, these sorts of questions. Maybe it is for this reason that I admire Wallace’s work so profoundly. He can drag us out from existence, help us avoid those existential questions that mainly arrive in the lonely, past-11 PM nights, where the only light that seems to shine through our life is the Night Shift enabled LED screen that has become our primary source of comfort. He places us into his own worlds. Worlds that many times resemble ours. Yet, suddenly, he will then pose the same questions he has just helped us run away from. We will go from walking around the cacophony of those main avenues that collect all the attractions of the Lobster Festival. Where our sweat glands will start to dampen, and the smell of salt and sea and life can maybe begin to induce some mild yet enjoyable dizziness on us. And then, he will interrupt the illusion and make us abandon the sweet summer breeze and accompany him into a corridor of doubt. He tricks us, but we aren’t mad. Instead, for some reason, these questions seem to be tamer, filled with the joy of story, narrative, and the human experience. 

I enjoy sincerity–which ought not to be confused with truth. Promises of salvation, of conclusive answers, of obviousness are dangerous. They are easy, and they comfort us from the confusing existence we are confronted with every morning. Sincerity embraces confusion and tries to distill it into something more human.-maybe more beautiful. In what I may have already overpraised and overthought beyond the author’s wishes, Wallace offered some of the most enjoyable sincerity I have ever read. He showed us a common proceeding in human life. We live, enjoy the morning coffee, admire soft breezes, and go to events traditional to us. Hell, we might attend a whatever festival at some point in our lives. These quotidian, maybe even mundane occurrences– without us really realizing how or why – get turned into doubt, which then invades silent walks along crowded alleys. 

David Foster Wallace, along with authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges, achieve the purpose of writing. They make our world better by creating others parallel to it. They, like us, are filled with doubts and questions. In their narratives, they abstain from, and if anything, disdain from certainty. They answer questions and give us clarity through confusion and beauty. Their works transcend the words that they wield as weapons and gift us with the profound, ‘chest-placed’ hope that doubt is okay. If anything, doubt is necessary. “Consider the Lobster” not only gave me this feeling, but it also made me happier to be here, to be alive. It reminded me that a human instinct is to make simplicity tend to the complexity, which is beautiful. Then, I think we should watch out and continue to wonder about the Maine Lobster Festivals around us.