Sincerity Poisoning

An essay about finally reading "Consider the Lobster"

Image: A worn copy of Consider the Lobster And Other Essays on a scarred wooden table. Credit: Kat Eschner


I didn't really know who David Foster Wallace was until a couple of years ago. I think maybe I read something of his back in high school, but then again it might have been written by Thomas Pynchon. Really, it’s kind of amazing that adolescent Kat escaped awareness of his literary reputation. After all, I was a fetishistically bookish young person and I grew up during his heyday in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first. 

My ignorance lasted all the way until 2016. When I was working on my first story about animal rights, a friend mentioned "Consider the Lobster," Wallace’s ethnography of the 2003 Maine Lobster Festival. I opened the essay, which was published in the now-defunct Gourmet, in a tab that ultimately went unread and filed the story, which was about dogs. In time, I included a copy of Consider the Lobster and Other Essays in an Amazon order, alongside a style guide and just after ordering a double sleeping bag.

It showed up. I didn't read it. It sat around, migrating from desk to night table to bookshelf and then to the pile of mulch under my desk. I didn't read it some more. 

Then in late 2017 or early 2018, trying to knock myself out of a period of mental fog, I read several of its essays in about two days. I read "Up, Simba," which is about John McCain's 2000 presidential run as told from the perspective of the grizzled journalists on the press bus. I read "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," which is ostensibly about a disappointing tennis memoir but is actually about the highest price of talent–self-knowledge.

But before I got to the one piece he wrote that I genuinely wanted to engage with—the goal of the purchase—I decided not to read any more David Foster Wallace for a while. If you had visited my apartment and dug around for my copy of Lobster, you would have found the dogear on the first page of the eponymous essay.

Understand, I don't care very much about John McCain and the meaning of American heroism or Tracy Austin and the way she could either be a prodigy or know what it means to be a prodigy but not both. They're interesting things, and sometimes as I was reading these essays I underlined something or made a note in the margins, but I didn’t care very much at all. 

I do care about how we live with animals. And I care about myself. Both of these things go some way towards explaining why I didn’t make time to read “Consider the Lobster.” 


Image: The same copy of Consider the Lobster lies amidst detritus under my desk, including a mismatched pair of flipflops. Credit: Kat Eschner


I personally don’t think David Foster Wallace was the greatest writer of his generation, a superlative granted him after his death by suicide that has been debated ever since. He was, however, a very influential writer of his generation. When I finally read Wallace I could see that influence in my own style. I don’t write as well as him, but I do write sort of like he did.

If writers were livestock, our names would appear in the same herdbook. This shared heritage ranges forwards and backwards in time, from writers who were influenced by Wallace or who influenced him, from my teenaged self’s writing mentor to me. He (the mentor, who was a teacher at my high school) recommended Gaiman, Pynchon, Richler, Hesse, Palahniuk. I read Updike and Steinbeck, Franzen, Nabokov, Fitzgerald.

Like most young people, I read the books that older people who I trusted told me were good and attempted to also find them good. So when I finally came to Wallace, a rapport had already been established. Somehow we were connected by what we read and how we wrote. It makes me uneasy.

He could be shitty to women. In this, he has never been alone on my bookshelf. I read other writers, especially male writers, who fucked their students or abused their partners. Many of them are good with words, innovative with forms, funny in one way or another. Why wouldn’t they be? Their work had the space to flourish, often at the cost of others.

The difference with Wallace lies in the fact that I first encountered him as an adult, after I learned to be much, much more wary of the canon. I have work, now, too—work I need to protect. “Consider the Lobster” is obviously connected to that work, and that’s why I didn’t want to read it. 

In the year or so between making that dogear and finally reading the essay, I read a lot of things about David Foster Wallace that made me leery of giving him more mental real estate. I read about him stalking an ex-partner. I read about him sleeping with students. I read about the shitty female characters he crafted in books I’ll likely never read.

An anecdote, in which I am 17: I’m sitting with the mentor previously mentioned (See? You knew where this was going. Both fiction and non-fiction have trained you well) on the Seawall at Stanley Park by Siwash Rock. My feet are bleeding, a consequence of an ill-advised walk on barnacle-covered rocks. “I would really like to kiss you,” he says. “You can say no.” 

That night, as we sit facing each other in a diner, he will say to the waitress, “My wife was just looking at your shoes,” and we will make eye contact that I cannot forget, although not for lack of trying. In this moment, he will think all that has happened was right and so will I. 

I cannot draw a direct connection between this predictable little tale and David Foster Wallace, but I know it’s there. I can smell it. A canon full of hideous men (or white people, or straight people) is inherently permissive: you can do hideous things, it says, and still possess greatness. It follows that these things are okay, and any negative feelings that may arise from them are misguided.

When I read Wallace I feel like I’m reading a warmly written letter from a colleague. His particular skills and writerly quirks—call it the New Sincerity, as critics did—invite this interpretation. But when I take a step back, he’s never writing to me.

Such is the case with so many of our shared influences whose actions lead me to question the degree to which they actually saw women as people. What can I take from their words, and what must I guard against? What have I already metabolized? This is a problem of reading that I have always lived with, usually unthinkingly. 


Image: Consider the Lobster nests among other books and magazines on my bookshelf. Credit: Kat Eschner


I finally read “Consider the Lobster” at the end of January 2019, and then I wrote the first draft of this essay, showed it to a few people and put it in a drawer. It is now December 5, 2019. 

A man goes to a lobster festival and asks, “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”

We will never know for certain whether other beings feel what we’d call pain, he says, and any scientific insight is just a proxy for true, one hundred percent, first-person subjective understanding.

“Still, after all the abstract intellection, there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot,” he writes. “Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience.”

Either you think lobsters feel pain, or you think they are having a purely physiological response that has nothing to do with what humans would call pain. In either case, if you have elected to attend the Maine Lobster Festival, you eat them. 

Of course, most of the time people in the West don’t see food animals live or die. It all happens somewhere else. The bigger question Wallace poses is about what this might mean, and why we might want to think about it. Most of the time, it’s convenient to ignore this ethical problem—a convenience furnished by the hidden labor of people and animals in our food system. 

It was convenient for Wallace to refrain from publically struggling with his treatment of women the way he struggles with the consumption of lobster. I’ve certainly done things that are convenient: after all, Consider the Lobster reached me via an Amazon order. I bought it and then I didn’t read it, because I knew doing so would force me to contemplate a time when I, too, was a convenience. 

The pain caused to other beings in a life is often not as clearly expressed as the frantic scramblings of dying lobsters. A consolation of sorts: I have no doubt that the lobsters, if it was convenient for them, would boil us alive too.

I don’t know if lobsters feel pain the same way I don’t know if David Foster Wallace felt pain. Any distinction between these two knowledges is just a matter of degrees; I am taxonomically closer to Wallace than to a lobster. It’s still no replacement for true, one hundred percent, first-person subjective understanding.

There’s something truly disgusting here, and it’s probably in the details. Wallace had a knack for details, right down to the clanking lid—although if you want to know all the gory, predictable truths “Consider the Lobster” has to offer, you will have to read it for yourself. It’s good. I recommend it. 


Share

This essay was written by Kat Eschner and edited by Josh Roiland, Tracey Lindeman, Rachel Feltman and others.

Questions? Comments? Compliments? Complaints? Contact me at my email or on Twitter. If you enjoy this newsletter and would like to tip me, I am on Ko-fi.

All images in CREATURE FEATURE are used under Creative Commons licensing. Efforts have been made to ensure that photographs of living animals or natural scenes have been taken ethically, in responsible pet ownership conditions, at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums or under safe, non-damaging conditions in the wild. If you see an issue with any image we share, please notify me.

RIP Lil Bub, starcatte extraordinaire

Kat Eschner's newsletter about animal-human relationships, Vol. 4 Iss. 4

This week’s issue of CREATURE FEATURE is brought to you by Cardassian voles. (I’ve been doing a lot of knitting to finish Christmas gifts and have thus also been rewatching a lot of my favorite TV.)

I *love* Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I like the queer representation, the general diversity, the characterization—all of it. (Choosing between Picard, Sisko and Janeway in a game of fuck/marry/kill, I’d definitely marry Sisko.) Another of the things I love is the sheer amount of banal space weirdness, something that’s encapsulated pretty well in the Cardassian vole.

The voles are basically space rats left over by the last people who occupied the space station, the Cardassians. They’re not a *huge* problem, but they’re irritating. Unlike the Tribbles, for instance, they don’t devour essential supplies, and unlike *many other* Star Trek pests, they don’t mess up the ship so much as to potentially destroy it or kill people. They’re just gross and inconvenient and irritating to everybody from Chief of Operations Miles O’Brien to Quark, the Ferengi bar owner.

They’re also some of the fakest-looking, grossest practical effects aliens I’ve ever seen. They’re hilarious. Just LOOK AT THIS CLIP. Long live the horrifying Cardassian vole.

A stunned Cardassian vole. (Screenshot from Memory Alpha)


Extra credit

Newsy stuff I read this week

Longer/thinkier stuff


Swans eat tadpoles. A swan will slurp up entire schools of larval amphibians, process them and shit them out, and sometimes then it will sit in the shit or walk through it, and here we are. Anyone who claims that a swan is a majestic and noble creature has never seen a swan up close or smelled its bacterial purge.

—Amelia Gray, “The Swan As a Metaphor for Love


Please read me

My most recent work

  1. Our french fry supply is safe for now, but its future is uncertain

  2. #COP25 may be the most important climate change meeting ever—and the US is barely there


Questions? Comments? Compliments? Complaints? Contact me at my email or on Twitter. If you enjoy this newsletter and would like to tip me, I am on Ko-fi.

All images in CREATURE FEATURE are used under Creative Commons licensing. Efforts have been made to ensure that photographs of living animals or natural scenes have been taken ethically, in responsible pet ownership conditions, at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums or under safe, non-damaging conditions in the wild. If you see an issue with any image we share, please notify me.

This is the War Room!

Kat Eschner's newsletter about animal-human relationships, Vol. 4 Iss. 3

This week’s issue of CREATURE FEATURE is brought to you by Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I rewatched it last Thursday as part of the imitable Nathalie Atkinson’s series on film design.

The first time I saw it was shortly after Donald Trump was sworn in as the American president. At that point, I was more focused on the idea of nuclear war with North Korea. This time, I’m pretty much only focused on climate change and the extinction crisis.

The only time animals crop up in Strangelove is during discussion of the doomsday machine, a device which, if triggered, will destroy “all human and animal life on Earth.”

In the film’s doomsday scenario, a smart government would have sequestered some domestic animals in deep mineshafts, along with foodstocks and a few select survivors who will ride out the toxic century sparked by the device’s explosion by breeding and doing little else (10 women to every one man, blah blah blah). But nobody talks about what would happen to the other animals.

I can’t fault the movie for this, but it did get me thinking. People (even military people) did think about the Bomb as a source of ecological threat in the Cold War, as anthropologist Joseph Masco argues. The US military also thought of animals (in the below excerpt from Masco’s essay, pigs) as a venue for testing the impacts of nuclear strikes:

The DOD film presents a slow-motion image of the blast wave hitting a pen filled with the animals and then documents the efforts of scientists to collect the injured and dead bodies after the test. In describing the experiment, the DOD narration identifies the pig as "an instrument" for radiation research, and in one close-up, the film shows a chart outlining the body of a pig used by radiation scientists to mark the injury and radiation effects on each of the animals. The rationality of this preprinted form, which suggests an industrial logic of production and control, is at odds with the chaos documented in the postexplosion scenes of technicians in white anticontamination suits and ventilators trying to round up the visibly wounded and dying animals.

BEAT. IMAGES CONTINUE TO PLAY AS THE MUSIC SWELLS.

We’ll meet again… don’t know where, don’t know when… but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.


Each of these metal canisters contains a live pig. They were exposed to a nuclear blast as part of Operation Plumbbob’s “Military Effects Studies.” The declassified footage from this is some of the internet’s earliest primo gross-out content, and I don’t suggest viewing it for entertainment alone.

If you want to learn more, here is the DOE accession page explaining what you’re watching and here is the Youtube link to the footage on Youtube, from the source used by the Atomic Heritage Foundation. It’s legit footage but I can’t be sure of the editing, because I’ve never seen the source film.


Extra credit

Newsy stuff I read this week

Longer/thinkier stuff


The mechanical Hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the fire house. The dim light of one in the morning, the moonlight from the open sky framed through the great window, touched here and there on the brass and copper and the steel of the faintly trembling beast. Light flickered on bits of ruby glass and on sensitive capillary hairs in the nylon-brushed nostrils of the creature that quivered gently, its eight legs spidered under it on rubber padded paws.

—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


Please read me

My most recent work

  1. This bone-eating dinosaur was constantly losing its teeth

  2. We can still slash emissions and survive climate change, but we’re running out of time


Questions? Comments? Compliments? Complaints? Contact me at my email or on Twitter. If you enjoy this newsletter and would like to tip me, I am on Ko-fi.

All images in CREATURE FEATURE are used under Creative Commons licensing. Efforts have been made to ensure that photographs of living animals or natural scenes have been taken ethically, in responsible pet ownership conditions, at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums or under safe, non-damaging conditions in the wild. If you see an issue with any image we share, please notify me.

Y'all got any uhhh... uhhhhh.... lamps?

Kat Eschner's newsletter about animal-human relationships, Vol. 4 Iss. 2

This week’s issue of CREATURE FEATURE is brought to you by fire. I saw a video on Twitter of a screaming, burned koala being rescued from historic bushfires in Australia and I’ve been thinking about it for a few days now. I normally avoid graphic video unless I have to watch it for work. In this case I just felt… compelled. It was upsetting. The above link is to a story about the bushfires, not the video.

Science journalists are writing about fire and its costs a lot more than they used to, for obvious reasons. Years of faulty fire management and historic drought are coming due around the world, a price paid by wild animals, pets and livestock as well as people.

Animals have always died in wildfires, and nature has never put any weight on their agony. That doesn’t mean it lacks weight.


Save the bugs! Turn off ALAN!

So say some researchers. “Artificial light at night (ALAN) is human-caused lighting—ranging from streetlights to gas flares for oil extraction,” one author told The Guardian’s Damian Carrington. “It can affect insects in pretty much every imaginable part of their lives.”

Extra credit: You can’t pretend that Gen Z doesn’t know about ALAN’s impact on insects.

Nobody knows exactly how the cops killed a juvenile bobcat in Oregon

And people are worried about it, writes Erin Ross for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

The killing of the animal by Oregon State Police was criticized by many wildlife and animal advocates. They said the cat should have been moved and re-released. Indeed, another bobcat, presumably the first one’s sibling, was removed from the same Eugene school, Oak Hill, the next day, and was released alive.

Public criticism intensified after state police confirmed it had killed the animal with “blunt force trauma,” a method that the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2013 guidelines say is only humane when the animal has a small or underdeveloped skull, and that they discourage using if any other option is available. Since then, wildlife advocates have called the death a “bludgeoning” and asked for more information.

Poop power

The Toronto Zoo has partnered with other local organizations to build a biogas plant that will use zoo animal poop to produce electricity. “The plant will use an anaerobic digester where bacteria will break down animal waste as well as other organic waste, like food waste, in an oxygen-free environment,” writes Reka Szekely for Oshawa This Week.


Image: A meme-style image of a moth, which reads “Y’all got any uhhh… uhhh… lamps”


A raggedy brown and white springer spaniel was cruising the pavement for scraps. It wandered over to our group and began to snuffle excitedly at our hands and pockets. Its coat was matted with stalactites of dirt and its tongue hung from its jaws like a sodden pink sock. It stank like a heap of used bath towels, and was clearly a stray.

Colin Barrett, from“Let’s Go Kill Ourselves”


Extra credit

News:

  1. Florida dog does donuts in owner’s car (CNN, Andrew Scottie) 

  2. Still no life on Mars (CNET, Amanda Kooser)

  3. Released animals from Russian whale jail doing alright (CBC News, Chris Brown)

Longreads:

  1. Do gorillas think about thinking? (The Atlantic, Ed Yong)


Please read me

My most recent work.

  1. Mosquitoes are becoming resistant to our best defenses

  2. Doctors placed gunshot victims in ‘suspended animation’ for the first time

  3. Cannabis might help curb chronic pain, reducing the need for opioids


Questions? Comments? Compliments? Complaints? Contact me at my email or on Twitter. If you enjoy this newsletter and would like to tip me, I am on Ko-fi.

All images in CREATURE FEATURE are used under Creative Commons licensing. Efforts have been made to ensure that photographs of living animals or natural scenes have been taken ethically, in responsible pet ownership conditions, at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums or under safe, non-damaging conditions in the wild. If you see an issue with any image we share, please notify me.

Leaf it alone

A science journalist's newsletter about human-animal relationships Vol. 4 Iss. 1

Welcome to Vol. 4! What’s new: the newsletter comes out on Saturdays or Sundays now; the “More things I read this week” section is divided into news and longreads; pullquotes from fiction aren’t allowed to be more than four sentences long (I need to rein in my excesses somewhere.)

In other news, I’m fundraising to start a CREATURE FEATURE podcast where I’ll go deeper into the stuff we talk about here every week. I’m hoping to launch it for my birthday on December 14.

This week’s issue of CREATURE FEATURE is brought to you by my colleagues and friends, without whom this job would be impossibly hard. Here are a few of their newsletters that I like reading: Hu Cares (Jane Hu), The Purposeful Object (Navneet Alang), Shake It Off (Eva Holland.)


The diamonds? Real. The teeth? Possibly false. The fur? Definitely fake.

Queen Elizabeth II of that island nation has stopped wearing real fur, Rory Sullivan writes for CNN. The royal family and especially the monarch have gotten shade for continuing to wear fur before, Sullivan reports, but no word on exactly why 2019 was the year HRH decided it was time to cut it out.

Extra credit: I’d argue wearing fur (or leather, or whatever) isn’t inherently any better or worse than eating animals, which nobody in the British Royal Family is likely to stop doing any time soon. And most alternatives to these products are made out of plastic.

In January this newsletter featured an amazing piece on the significance of wearing furs for her mother and other Black Americans from Jasmine Sanders—you can read that here. Then there is the sustainable harvest and use of animals such as seals from the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic—which is also stigmatized by white organizations, eg. PETA. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

You could just… stop raking leaves

A Canadian conservation group has a suggestion: just stop raking up the leaves in your yard and removing all the dead plant stuff. It’s not just less work, writes Basem Boshra for CTV News Montreal, it might also help capture carbon in your lawn.

Full disclosure: I write for a competitor organization’s membership magazine, Canadian Wildlife.

“Backyard animals, such as toads, frogs and many pollinators, once lived in forests and have adapted to hibernate under leaves,” said Dan Kraus, the [Nature Conservancy of Canada]'s senior conservation biologist. “The leaves provide an insulating blanket that can help protect these animals from very cold temperatures and temperature fluctuations during the winter.”

Leaving plant stalks, dead branches and shrubs in one's yard or garden through the winter months can also help provide an inviting winter habitat for native insects and birds, Kraus added.

Wearable art and wild blood

This Lithub longread by Richard Louv, the man who coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” is… interesting. I find the whole argument that we yearn for an Edenic connection with nature to be specious. After all, where we live is nature too. But it’s a common argument, and this piece has some good reporting on the community of those who keep reptiles as pets, known as herpers.


GIF: A shovel-snouted lizard in the wild does a weird dance to keep their feet from burning on hot sand. (BBC Planet Earth)


A raggedy brown and white springer spaniel was cruising the pavement for scraps. It wandered over to our group and began to snuffle excitedly at our hands and pockets. Its coat was matted with stalactites of dirt and its tongue hung from its jaws like a sodden pink sock. It stank like a heap of used bath towels, and was clearly a stray.

Colin Barrett, from “Let’s Go Kill Ourselves”


Extra credit

More things I read this week.

  1. Ram the owl rescued from Maria Fire (Venture Country Star, Gretchen Wenner) 

  2. No more Russian whale jail (National Geographic, Natasha Daly)

  3. US en route to making (some) animal abuse a federal offense (ABC Action News, WFTS Digital Staff)

  4. Australia horse race gets shade (The Guardian, Luke Henriques-Gomes)

  5. Rabies-proofing the raccoons (National Geographic, Jason Bittel)


Please read me

My most recent work.

  1. Arctic critters are sneezing on each other like never before

  2. California power outages hit small businesses—but bolster generator companies

  3. Teen vaping is on the rise, and their favorite flavor is flying under the radar


Questions? Comments? Compliments? Complaints? Contact me at my email or on Twitter. If you enjoy this newsletter and would like to tip me, I am on Ko-fi.

All images in CREATURE FEATURE are used under Creative Commons licensing. Efforts have been made to ensure that photographs of living animals or natural scenes have been taken ethically, in responsible pet ownership conditions, at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums or under safe, non-damaging conditions in the wild. If you see an issue with any image we share, please notify me.

Loading more posts…