Am I alone in finding the whole idea of Infinite Summer a little morbid? The renewed interest in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is an obvious Good Thing—a first step toward popular as well as academic canonization—but having lived through the recent Michael Jackson Media Event, I can’t help but wonder whether the desire to read Wallace’s novel is akin downloading Thriller because Some Important Someone died. Do I sound like I’m thwacking some straw man with shovel? Because I’m not:
I have a confession to make. I don’t even like David Foster Wallace. And I don’t mean that I found Infinite Jest too lengthy on the first run-through. I mean his accessible stuff. His tales from cruise ships and lobster festivals and tennis matches and radio studios . . . So why am I here?
The short answer is that David Foster Wallace died.
That’s Ezra Klein, writing at A Supposedly Fun Blog. I’m not complaining because famous bloggers (Matthew Yglesias and Julian Sanchez among them) are horning in on my territory—although I will note that the first thing I ever published online was a mediocre seminar paper titled “Demand and the Appearance of Freedom: The Role of Corporate Media in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” but only just to note it—nor, despite the above, am I really even complaining that Klein’s interest was piqued by Foster Wallace’s suicide, as a more charitable excerpt shows his interest to be far less morbid:
The slightly longer answer is that David Foster Wallace died and I cared. That was, to me, a surprise. Lots of people die. Just the other day, Ed McMahon died. It hardly registered. But Wallace was different. I read everything I could about his final days. I posted a memoriam on my site. I watched readings on YouTube. It affected me. I don’t know if it’s because he was a young writer who was felled by the violent bubble and froth of his own mind and that a small part of me relates to that. I don’t know if it’s because he was, in some way, unique to my generation, and as such, one of my own.
In the end, what’s interesting about the 25-year-old Klein’s post about the 46-year-old Foster Wallace’s novel is the notion that someone who was 18 years old when the Clash first performed in America and someone who was 18 years old the year Joe Strummer died can be said to belong to the same generation. How does that work? I’m tempted to blame it on the Internet:
Once you could identify someone’s taste by the cut of their concert tee—London Calling vs. Combat Rock, The Clash vs. Operation Ivy, Operation Ivy vs. Rancid, &c.—now that all these these bands (mostly) belong to the past tense, they’re part of that enormous cultural pool from which more recent generations sample freely. For example, someone Klein’s age will never experience the pain of the endless, fruitless search for something like the first Clash album (which, contrary to that link, has not been in print continuously since 1979), as CDNOW was in decline during his formative years. To people for whom almost everything has always been immediately available, the idea of what constitutes a culturally-determined generation is bound to be a little fuzzy.
Note that I’m not criticizing Klein for being born in a time of cultural plenty—I would rather not have spent the better part of a decade searching for this in vain—I’m merely pointing out that his inclusion of Foster Wallace among his contemporaries dumbfounds me . . . unless I chalk it up to the novel instead of the man. Wallace might not be Klein’s contemporary, but Infinite Jest could be. Now that I’m reading it again, I’m struck by how contemporary it feels. Everything that annoyed me about it in 1996 still annoys me now—the footnotes, subsidized time, the too-frequent self-indulgent sentence—but everything that felt new in 1996 still feels new now.
Given how we imagine ourselves into an intimacy with our favorite authors, it makes sense for people twenty-five years younger than Foster Wallace to feel a generational affinity for him on the basis of his novel; but that doesn’t really work, now does it? I mean in the academic sense, the means by which we identify Author X as belonging to Period Y and analyze his or her work in light of the aesthetic of Period Y. We don’t, in other words, seriously consider historical feelings of contemporaneity the way we experience our own, inasmuch as I’m fourteen years younger than Foster Wallace but, like Klein, count him as “one of my own.”