Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace: The Patron Saint of the Class of 1998

Shortly before I learned of David Foster Wallace's death, I'd been talking to a co-worker about his essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." We were debating the merits of cruise ship vacations, and I vowed I'd never do it, citing Wallace's essay as my reason. They're tacky and unimaginative and nouveau riche.

But the coffee's really good. That's how they get you.

DFW was much discussed among my fellow English majors during the late 90s. Many of us had attempted to read Infinite Jest, though few succeeded, and I was not among them. My friends who read the book in its entirety tended to be self-disciplined, self-consciously intellectual men, the sort who had been hopeless throughout puberty, but blossomed in their college years.

And if you didn't finish it, there was more debate -- was it the book, or was it you?

A friend of mine came up with an excellent concept for a New Yorker-style cartoon: a man sidles up to a woman in a bar, and says, "You know, I've read all of Infinite Jest." It was a very 1997 kind joke, but in 1997, what you thought about Infinite Jest said a lot about you.

In 1997, I wanted confessional poets and southern grotesques and naturalism and Vietnam fiction. What I wanted was muscles and blood. What I did not want was cerebral weightiness and agility. I wanted boxing, not tennis.

Many of my friends became... I hesitate to use the word disciples, because it sounds too slavish, and I don't want to say fans, because that's too casual, but something in between the two. And I eventually found my happy point of entry to Wallace's work through his essays, which were accessible to me in a way his prose wasn't. Which is not to say his prose is inaccessible, just that it is inaccessible to me.

Wallace was a tremendously important figure, but perhaps most important to the aspiring writers who were just beginning to flex their writing chops in the 1990s. I was particularly struck by something that LAT Book Editor David Ulin said: "He really restored the notion of the novel as a kind of canvas on which a writer can do anything."

For a young writer, that's an exhilarating and liberating idea, but it's also a terrifying one. David Foster Wallace made us realize that we could do anything in a book that we wanted, but also that maybe we couldn't, that we wouldn't be talented, smart, or hard-working enough to pull it off. And it's probably good for people who want to be writers to have someone like that, scaring them off of writing for good, or posing a challenge to try harder and do better.

He did that, and as for the rest, all I can really say is that it's sad, and that I'm sorry.

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