I finished David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays Consider the Lobster last night, and am ready to pick up more of his work soon. In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been raving about this book for a while now, which you can read about here, here, and here.
The last essay in the collection is a memorable one. It’s called “Host,” and is about the conservative talk radio host John Ziegler who, at the time the essay was written, had a show at the Southern California radio station KFI. The essay describes the environment in which Ziegler works, the ways his show gets put together, the kind of person and talk show personality Ziegler is, the state of contemporary talk radio, and the state of conservativism in America. The essay does what a great essay should do — it tells a good story, combines personal narrative with larger social/political/cultural issues, and has something smart to say. One of the points (among many, many others) Wallace makes is that conservatives dominate the radio talk show world because they tend to have a simpler, more straightforward black and white view of the world which is easier to talk about and easier to understand and therefore makes better radio. Liberals are more inclined to be nuanced and about shades of grey, and that’s just not as exciting.
What makes the essay memorable, though, is the way this liberal nuance and shades-of-grey type of thought is represented in the essay itself. Instead of using footnotes, which all the other essays in the collection have in abundance, Wallace puts what might be footnote material in boxes that are scattered across the pages, with arrows that point from the word that would normally have a footnote next to it to the appropriate box. Sometimes there are arrows leading you from one box to another, and sometimes to another one after that. There isn’t a page in the essay that is laid out in the usual way, with one interrupted block of text; instead, each page has at least one inset box with accompanying arrow. Many of these boxes begin with labels such as “Editorial material” or “Rather less editorial than it might be” or “Informative + Editorial” or “Just the sort of paralytic dithering that makes the moral clarity of ‘we’re better than they are’ so appealing.”
So as you read, your eye gets drawn across the page in unusual ways, and as you work your way toward the end of a sentence, your progress is interrupted by this box and that box — by a clarification or an elaboration or an objection or a complication — and you find yourself in a jumble of ideas that is as exciting as it can be disorienting. What is all becomes, I think, is a representation of complicated thought, a picture of a mind working its way through a maze of ideas. It’s kind of the anti-talk radio. (I see, interestingly enough, that there is an audio version of this essay collection available, but it’s abridged, and I don’t know if it includes this essay. I do wonder how anyone would read it and what it would be like to listen to it.)
At first I found this layout distracting and I wasn’t sure I would like it, but as I got further in the essay, I got into the rhythm of moving back and forth from the main text to the boxes. What reading this essay requires is the ability to hold a bunch of stuff in your head at once, because if you read all the boxes that accompany each sentence, it can take a very long time to get from the beginning to the end of each one. Sometimes you have to read the equivalent of a page or so of boxed text to get to the end of one single sentence. This can be mentally taxing, but it’s also exciting. You could even say it’s stimulating — a word that happens to be very important for John Ziegler and his talk show world. Ziegler’s goal is to be as stimulating as possible, to get his listeners so riled up they won’t move away from their radios and may even be inspired to call in to the show. But while Ziegler wants to stimulate your emotions, particularly feelings of anger and outrage, Wallace would much rather stimulate your brain.
Writing an essay like this is dangerous — it’s easy to dismiss as gimicky and contrived. But I think it works. It’s clear that Wallace is appalled by much of what he sees in the talk radio world, but the essay doesn’t critique it directly. Instead, he lets the evidence speak for itself, and he lets the organization of the essay speak for itself too — and what it says is that careful, nuanced, layered thought is a very good thing.