Friday, November 4, 2011

An Anniversary Remembered

"Here's a thing that is hard to imagine: being so inventive a writer that when you die, the language is impoverished. That's what Wallace's [death] did...It wasn't just a sad thing, it was a blow." John Sullivan

I don’t often add books to my “Best Novels” list. The more you keep reading, the more the “thrill/joy/epiphany” of literary discovery happens less and less. You get jaded. You know what you like, even if it’s a broad spectrum, and you stick to it. I do try new authors, and I very often enjoy them, but it’s rare that one bursts out of the pack. I’m too old. I’ve read too much. So how the hell did Infinite Jest land on my desert island Top Ten?

September of this year was the third anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s death. At that time, my familiarity with his work started and ended with some of his non-fiction essays. And I read them in the magazines they appeared in, not in the collections. So thru the years I’d stumble across one of his essays, not really knowing who he was, and I was hooked – the intense, unrelenting drive to get to the subject’s core, to question everything, especially commonly held cultural “beliefs” (including his own), the loopy sentences that are always fascinating, the moments of “holy shit” stop your reading right now and marvel at what was just written, not in a “show-offy” way, but in an elegant, what an amazingly well constructed who is this guy way. I understood that he had also written a thousand page novel that the “elite” had canonized, but no way was I going to take that trip.

I don’t remember where I first saw the news that he was gone. Probably Salon. At that point, I was interested enough to dig a little deeper, in that “curious about this guy but he was no hero” sort of way. And a funny thing happened. As I began to read what people were saying about him, I was absolutely amazed at the emotional depth of the comments. His students (he taught at Pomona College) were almost uniform in relating how incredibly generous he was as a teacher, especially for being such a Literary Big Deal. His readers seemed heartbroken in a weirdly personal way. Comments were genuinely heartfelt across the board. I was intrigued. Could this be real? Maybe I should give his phone book a try.

Shortly thereafter, a coupla years ago, someone started a site called Infinite Summer and challenged people to take three months and read the novel, and Spencer said he’d join me if I did it, and we both read it, and there you have it. And now here I am, just giving DFW a little shoutout after his sad anniversary, and recommending to anyone who will listen: go read Infinite Jest. Check out the Infinite Summer site first; it’ll help you with some very worthwhile “tips”. The book is hilarious, terrifying, thought-provoking, melancholy, beautifully written. It’s a sci-fi story about tennis, addiction and family (among other things). You’ll be doing yourself a great favor.

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