The Obituary Writer

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The Obituary Writer by Porter Shreve is in a word: Quirky. Gordon Hatch is the son of a supposedly famous newspaper reporter who had bylines on tons of articles following the Kennedy assassination.  However, Charlie Hatch died when Gordon when just a young boy, so everything he knows about his father comes directly from his mother.  After hearing so many wonderful things, it’s only natural for a son to dream about picking up where his father left off.

A year out of college, Gordon begins his quest by writing obituaries for a St. Louis newspaper. He is certain his inherited journalistic instincts will kick in and lead him to a story that will make him famous just like his father. Until then, he figures he’ll get his feet wet writing about the recently deceased.

Things start to get interesting when a woman named Alicia calls him repeatedly to write a feature about her dead husband. The problem is her husband is no one special. He’s just an ordinary guy who lead an average life. Still, Gordon’s “instinct” buzzes and he decides to follow the story. As he digs into the details, not only does he find an intriguing story, but he also falls in love with Alicia. Up to this point, Gordon seems to be a well-adjusted and normal guy, but once he starts pursuing this woman all his insecurities and faults come to light. For lack of a better description, he’s a little nutty.

While already a compelling read, Shreve does a fantastic job of infusing history into the storyline.  The Revolutions of 1989 serve as a backdrop as a well as an interesting reflection of Gordon’s life.  As major stories unfold, he misses one opportunity after another to make a name for himself in journalism.  The events of 1989 literally redefined Eastern Europe and changed the course of the Cold War, yet Gordon, insecure in his abilities fails to follow the story and create headlines.  Just as Eastern Europe collapses, so does he.

While his state of mind can be a little unnerving, that which leads him to his downfall is somewhat sympathetic. Gordon is a man so driven by what he believes is his destiny he never stops to wonder if it’s what he really wants. In that respect, the obituary writer is just as dead as the people he writes about.

c.b. 2011

Have You Ever Considered the Lobster?

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David Foster Wallace looks at the world with a unique perspective that combines curiosity with sarcasm and wit. In his collection of essays entitled Consider the Lobster, he explores everything from politics, grammar, and ethics with an incredibly sharp eye and an even sharper pen. All ten essays are phenomenal, but a few stand out because they literally make the pathways in my brain change direction.

Wallace is at his most hysterical in an essay entitled, “Authority and American Usage.” In this article, he decides to explore and debate the “dictionary wars.” Did you ever stop to wonder just who is the authority of the English language? Who decides how to properly use words and punctuation? The truth is, there is no official organization that sets the ground rules; there are just a bunch of “experts” that argue relentlessly through the reference books they write and publish. This sets the stage for Wallace to air his grievances with the system (or lack thereof). He delves into the question of what truly defines langauge and the “rules” attached to it. What follows is a fascinating foray into the sub-culture of SNOOTS (Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or Syntax Nudniks of Our Time),  the fine art of writing, how languages change over time, and why the rules exist in the first place. Even though Wallace himself is a SNOOT, he is infinitely curious on why he is such a stickler to the rules. In an effort to answer this question he investigates how language works both with and without the rules and how culture, class, and academia influence and in some cases “control” the accepted language rules. Most interestingly, he explores why most people don’t care about grammar. While the topic of grammar is usually considered quite boring, this is where Wallace is at his best. His wit and humor makes the bland study of words and punctuation entertaining, especially when his temper gets the best of him. Wallace doesn’t like to be wrong!

“The View from Mrs. Thompsons” is a tender, realistic, and touching account of 9/11. While a wholly individual memoir of the event, the emotive sense of the piece exemplifies what it was like to be an American on that day. No matter who you are where you were, Wallace has your words. At the same time, he puts out a challenge to view that day in a new light — there is more than one America out there and Wallace wonders which one we all see.

In “Up, Simba” Wallace functions as a reporter for Rolling Stone as he tags along with the John McCain campaign of 2000. The focus is on McCain’s political ideas, but Wallace also takes the time to explain the more technical aspects of campaigning. In particular, how the camera and sound guys work and how different media personnel relate (or not) to one another. Wallace is a keen observer of the mundane, everyday facets that surround him, which is part of what makes him a unique writer. Even the boring can be interesting if viewed through a certain lens. Aside from the technical crew, he also finds himself drawn to McCain’s honesty. He wonders if that honesty is real or created. Thus begins an investigation of how marketing ties into campaigns and how that might be why Young Voters avoid the polls and why people don’t trust politicians. Voters these days know the game as they are inundated with ads and manipulated every day by every industry on the planet including Capitol Hill. Even if a politician tells the truth, most people are so jaded they can’t really be sure it’s the honest truth. Is there even a such thing as the total truth these days? Now there’s something to ponder.

Lastly, in the title essay “Consider the Lobster,” Wallace visits a lobster festival in Maine. Where most people would soak in the local flavor and bask in tourist traps, Wallace walks in thinking of the lobster. Not as a meal, but as a sentient entity. As he stands in front of the largest lobster cooker in the world, his mind begins to ponder a deeply moral and ethical question: Do lobsters feel pain when they are being boiled alive? It seems like a simple question, but it leads to other issues regarding food production and consumption. He posits that there is a disconnct between people and the animals they eat. We don’t like to think about the animal where meat comes from or whether the lobster getting thrown into a boiling vat of water can consciously feel pain. Have we lost our compassion or are we simply kings of the food chain? With this unique perspective, Wallace offers a thought provoking take on the old adage “You are what you eat.”

Wallace likes to hang out in left field in everything he writes.  He often sparks debate, but he always fuels the fire of independent thought and consideration.  The lobster never had a better advocate.

c.b. 2011