Two pieces of personal association on this one. Both will be brief.
First one: I love seafood, including lobster. My father’s family are all Northeaterners, and have given me a heritage of love for the sea and its delicacies. Second one: I acquired Consider the Lobster early September 2008, days after I arrived here. I had read IJ first, then ASFTINDA, which turned me on to his nonfiction. Obviously, this was pretty poor timing all things considered. So, when I finally got around to reading this essay in particular (on the recommendation of my next-door-neighbor, who’s a true literary junkie), I couldn’t avoid linking the two. This circumstance, combined with the power of DFW’s argument in Lobster, made me genuinely consider swearing off seafood. That’s how powerful the essay is.
This reading response is about lobster, in a tangential way. Specifically, relating DFW’s perceptions of the MLF and vacationing with lobster and its consumption. DFW believes that the tourism that the MLF epitomizes and capitalizes on is a rather dreary affair, in which those present have been brought to experience something. Obviously, there are several flaws with this conception of tourism. For one, there’s the fact that nothing is ever as beautiful as you might expect just by nature*; for the other, there’s the fact that tourism is corrosive to itself. As more people are drawn in by the allure of travel, the destination in question becomes increasingly more crowded, which in turn directs it ever further toward fulfilling the interests of the tourists, which makes it even more touristy. You can see how this becomes circular really fast. This is why DFW points out the problem with the perspective of the woman who reviewed the festival in previous years glowingly – not only was that perspective probably not representative of the true nature of the fair, it made it so such an abominable fate, an effectual “tourist overpopulation”, became inevitable, which is what is depicted by the scene in the Main Eating Tent, which is like hell’s cafeteria if hell’s cafeteria only served lobsters.
So why is lobster important? Well, it’s one of those examples of something attaining an exaggerated value to the point where one is consuming less the lobster than the inside of the idea. Lobsters are usually the main item of a major seafood chain, and for good reason. Why do you think it’s called Red Lobster? Because lobster, in the eyes of your average diner, is the, as DFW puts it, “seafood analog to steak” (238). Not even considering the fact that the lobster tank is frequently situated in the front of the restaurant as if daring children to order the dish to confront the mortality of food firsthand – to literally “meet the meat” – lobsters are idolized in dining. And this translates into exaggerated expectations. Lobsters aren’t my favorite kind of seafood, but my grandparents think I love it, in part because of this exaggerated status. Lobsters as a food are the equivalent of the MLF itself – a kind of ultra-delicacy. However, the consumer at either of these events isn’t consuming the item, but rather the concept of the item – an idealized lobster, or an idealized tourist attraction. Hence DFW’s criticism of the festival – it’s less something exciting than something to do because it’s exciting, or, worse, something to do because it’s depicted as exciting. This is why tourism is so caustic – because it’s removed from any kind of excitement at that point.
* My parents are fans of public television, which means I’ve watched a rather excessive amount of a program called “Rick Steves’ Travels in Europe”, which are a strange sight. At once, they’re really well-attuned to the beautiful things one can discover in travel, and Mr. Steves himself is quite good at getting his hands dirty, immersing himself in the local culture, etc. but at the same time, it’s almost too meta in its reflection of the travel experience. By attacking the conception of tourists-visiting-for-its-own-sake, programs like this that try to get the tourist to partake of the culture create their own layers of self-justification, in this case justification-of-the-culture-and-the-experience-of-such, which frequently is either hopelessly romanticized or itself an iteration of the tourist’s experience. This is getting convoluted. The point is that travel is a self-reinforcing process – as soon as one tries to get the best-of-both-worlds in travel by “acting like locals”, they reinforce the fact that travel is ultimately about going somewhere and doing something for no really good reason.