My name is Mia Lipman, and I never made it through Infinite Jest. In fact, you couldn't pay me enough to read most of David Foster Wallace's fiction to the end.
Go ahead—revoke my literary credentials. I'll pretend to understand. But if I've learned anything from working as an editor and critic for the past dozen years, it's that the world is too rich in great writing for me to finish a book I'm not enjoying. The next one in the stack is always right there, batting its Garamond eyes.
That said: The Cult of DFW has a point. Wallace's writing was rich, his brain a diamond mine, and his early death left a gaping hole in modern thought. Many of his essays were masterful, especially this one, and he was hot in the way a man in coveralls with dirt under his nails can melt college girls into butter and sugar.
I have a bias against footnotes, coupled with an inherent distaste for ponderous tomes that extends to the Russian masters and horrified many of my professors—but that doesn't mean I don't get it. Wallace was a mad genius cut from the classical self-destructive mold. He did what poets seek to do: interpret the intangible in a way the rest of us can't begin to imagine but can immediately recognize. I saw him read once in a church in San Francisco; he looked like a lumberjack and seemed to be gently spoiling for a fight. Nobody could stop staring.
Today would have been David Foster Wallace's 50th birthday, and it's a damn shame he's no longer here to practice his craft. Lord knows his work spoke volumes, even if it didn't always speak to me.
As it happens, another mind bender was born the same day DFW shuffled on this mortal coil: Chuck Palahniuk, who's still very much alive. The author of Fight Club and Damned uses one word for every hundred of Wallace's, but their writing shares an inability to be categorized or, thus far, successfully imitated.
Often hailed by adjectives like "eccentric" and "transgressional," Palahniuk's fiction is so bizarre and otherworldly that I've never quite understood its widespread popularity. Except when he pulls off lines like this: "It's green the way a pool table with green felt looks under the yellow 1 ball, not the way it looks under the red 3."
Again with the poetry. Again with a raised glass, even from those of us who earn our keep by finding chinks in the armor.
Happy 50th, David and Chuck. I don't get it, but I absolutely get it.