War of the words

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

David Foster Wallace <em>Abacus, 352pp, £10.99</em>


David Foster Wallace doesn't know when to stop. Whether reporting from a porn awards ceremony, or John McCain's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1999, he digresses more than he gresses. Interminable anecdotes jostle with impossibly minute descriptions of trivia, and vast footnotes rain littler footnotes until your eyes hurt. The style is familiar from his essayistic fiction, notably the creatively exhausting novel Infinite Jest. His new book collects magazine articles that were first published, according to the copyright page, in "edited, heavily edited, or (in at least one instance) bowdlerised form". Having suffered as Shakespeare did, our author now gives us the restored versions of his maximalist journalism.

It is not clear that DFW is his own best editor. The article on McCain is prefaced by a dismaying whine about how Rolling Stone, which commissioned the piece at a tiny fraction of the Melvillean length at which DFW delivered it, cut it beyond all recognition. Well, what did he expect? Among the article's yawning longueurs are an obsessive cataloguing of models of journalists' mobile phones and an account of DFW riffing to some tech guys on the unoriginal subject of the soullessness of hotels (to which they respond with understandable boredom).

Such stuff could indeed have been cut to leave the article's excellent kernel, a close analysis of the moment when McCain's contest with George W Bush turned negative. The social hypersensitivity that afflicts DFW's fictional narrators, always trying to second-guess ever-receding levels of conversational nuance, is a superb tool for plumbing the murky motivations of politicians. Watching human beings in a manner reminiscent of Craig Raine's Martian, DFW spins numerous possible worlds out of apparently the simplest interactions, never stopping at the first interpretation. This makes the volume's final piece, "Host", a narrative of internal politics at a conservative talk-radio station, a brilliant exercise in deadpan satire.

But the flipside of DFW's indefatigable curiosity is a vast condescension. In a footnote, he name-checks a book by Derrida, then decides that he can't be bothered to explain its relevance, continuing: "but you'd probably be better off just trusting me". If he has just thought of something, he assumes his readers will not ever have considered it. The title piece, a report from the Maine Lobster Fair, begs us to stop for a moment and wonder along with him whether boiling lobsters alive is really a nice thing to do. His prose preens with jejune references to quantum physics, and he uses the word "neural" as a synonym for "mental", feigning an unwarranted scientific precision.

The book's grandest statement is an article on language entitled "Authority and American Usage", wherein we learn that DFW is a "snoot" - his term for "an extreme usage fanatic", a kind of upmarket Lynne Truss. (It is always tempting to out-snoot a snoot, and so I suggest that some gentle soul take DFW aside and explain to him what "begging the question" actually means.) The essay begins as a well-reasoned argument against the descriptivist tendency in linguistics, according to which people cannot use language wrongly, only differently. DFW rightly observes that questions of language use are always political, and that to say children need not be taught to speak and write standard English properly does them no favours in the real world.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, the essay climaxes in a cliched rant against what DFW terms "politically correct English". Phrases such as "differently abled" or "economically disadvantaged" upset him so much that he performs a rhetorical handbrake turn and starts arguing that, in such cases, language cannot have any useful political effect. He ridicules "the bizarre conviction that America ceases to be elitist or unfair simply because Americans stop using certain vocabulary that is historically associated with elitism and unfairness", even though such a conviction is held only by imaginary people. What some call PC is what others might call basic decency. Someone who thinks there are no grounds at all for being sensitive to the implications of language used about others would presumably have no problem calling people niggers or kikes.

Like many people, DFW has been hoodwinked by the clever, long-running campaign of conservative propaganda against "PC". "Were I, for instance, a political conservative who opposed using taxation as a means of redistributing national wealth," he opines, "I would be delighted to watch PC progressives spend their time and energy arguing over whether a poor person should be described as 'low-income' or 'economically disadvantaged' or 'pre-prosperous' rather than constructing effective public arguments for redistributive legislation or higher marginal tax rates." Yet what he misses is that his "political conservative" has already biased the debate in a much more slyly efficient manner - with forms of the compact rhetorical weapon that, in my new book, I call "unspeak".

Consider phrases such as "tax relief", which implies that tax is a pain or an ailment from whose suffering we wish to be delivered, or "tax burden", implying that contributing to society is an onerous weight that should be lifted from us.What DFW cannot see is that everyone in the political arena uses pointedly loaded language as a means of persuasion, but only liberals attract hysterical denunciations of "political correctness" when they do so.

In most of his essays, DFW displays a wild fecundity of intellect, erring if anything on the side of observing too much. Here, however, he spectacularly misses the point.

Steven Poole's Unspeak is published next month by Little, Brown

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