The Year in Books
David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest first appeared 10 years ago. And, apparently, the 10th anniversary of that fact is worth celebrating. A new $10 paperback edition of the novel appeared last month, with a Dave Eggers introduction trumpeting both the novel's significance and the necessity to read it. Eggers' essay also appeared in LA Weekly last month--although the so-called literary blogosphere is alight in Eggers scrutiny, since his new essay is a complete reversal from his 1996 castigation of the novel in the San Francisco Chronicle, but, you know, having a cool media profile is a hell of a drug--and The Village Voice and Time magazine also ran essays commemorating the novel's debut.
Jest, or so it is being argued, ushered in the 1990s' "big idea" novels that championed complexity, prolixity, ambitious vocabularies, sprawling paragraphs, and hefty shelf real estate--viz., Don DeLillo's Underworld, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, et al. And while it's nice to regard the then-33-year-old Wallace as a belletristic wunderkind pushing the narrative and page-number envelope, such a view overlooks the healthy American lineage of such novels--the one-man page armies of Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, David Markson, William T. Vollmann, John Barth, etc.--and the rigorous output of post-war European novelists (see: Halldor Laxness, Martin Amis, David Lodge, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, ad infinitum).
To say nothing that Jest is, at the end of its more than 1,000 pages, merely--and being generous here--OK, not great. As a piece of modest sci-fi satire it is both fun and funny--the renegade arsenal of Québécois wheelchair assassins is hilarious, and tennis academy smooth operator Michael Pemulis remains Wallace's greatest creation. And it was nice to see a young writer aim for something as overwhelmingly sad as Jest is at its core. But it is not the greatest American novel of the past 10 years, the 1990s, or even 1996. All Wallace and Jest did encapsulate is the triumph of literary marketing forces that are now as fervid and hype-happy as the art world, movies, and music.
Yes, we now have literary rock stars once again. And even the most discerning of readers is prone to such influences. City Paper's Top 10 books of 2006 includes some expected heavyweights (Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Alice McDermott, Pynchon), modestly underground cool cats (Alison Bechdel, Ian Svenonius, Alan Moore), and the latest in the names you need to have on your bookshelf to show that you're paying attention (José Saramago, Michael Pollan). Too early to tell if any of these may eventually warrant a 10th anniversary edition, and absolutely no idea who might be tapped to pen the requisite mellifluous introduction. Not that it matters one bit. Ten years is long enough for today's cantankerous cranks to become tomorrow's effervescent whores. Who says there are no second acts in America? (Bret McCabe)
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201