Don't get me wrong. I think Matthew Baldwin who came up with the Infinite Summer idea to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest this summer, along with like-minded people, is a great one. A multitude of blogs have sprung up, it's a hit on Facebook, Twitter and even around the prehistoric water cooler, talk is of the 1,078 pages by the genius who last year committed suicide. He was working on his second novel and, in a weird way, he reminds me of the character in Camus' La Peste who spends his life trying to write a perfect sentence about a rose and dies without achieving it. Maybe the same demons in Wallace's second novel.
I have Infinite Jest on my nightstand and had planned to read it this summer, however now I can't, or won't. I feel coerced. (Believe me, I know how childish this is, this outlandish tendency to translate even the slightest suggestion into an order. I must be free!) I'll read it later when it's not so cool to do so, although he will always be cool, as heard below.
However, that's not my point today. I'm weary of the hoopla that's accompanied this summer project, the lament of the death of the novel, Round 283. In a recent piece in the Globe, John Barber (a favorite writer of mine) hauls up the hoary litany of writers and editors who have made just such declarations. He cites V.S. Naipaul (love him too) saying the novel is "over" and edification from Naipaul's editior Diana Athill in her book, Somewhere Towards the End. Barber recounts Athill's premise there are no modern equivalents to Eliot, Tolstoy, Dickens and Proust. She writes: "They are so rare because they are a different kind of person, just as a musical genius is: They have an imaginative energy of a kind so extrordinary that it is hardly too much to describe it as uncanny." Barber notes Athill's view the the contemporary novel is no substitute for those greats of the past, although she makes an exception for Infinite Jest.
Hooey. How many times have we heard this? I think it was Tom Wolfe who was going on about the death of the novel one summer a few years ago when I happened to be engrossed in American Blood by John Nichols. (Seem to recall Norman Mailer making a similar point.) Does Wolfe read nothing but himself? In my view, American Blood, about war and the awful redemption, is equal to All Quiet on the Western Front or The Thin Red Line. It's the book on the Vietnam War that opens with a pig noshing on the strewn intestines of a dead child on a Vietnamese road and moves to America with the shell of soldier/man seeking to restore his own life through a bond with other human beings. It's all that's possible after the hugeness of horror - redemption through the individual. The Bonfire of the Vanities is a good, speedy read, rollicking entertainment. But it's not the American war novel. (I know, Nichols wrote a lot of other books that come nowhere near the quality of American Blood.) I argue this does not make me, too, a literary snob because Wolfe set the terms of debate.
This idea the greats who died long ago can't be replaced is elitism. For me, Eliot is in a class of her own (and I'm not a Proust afficionado), however while Dickens and Tolstoy (big fan of both) are brilliant chroniclers of their time, I wouldn't say they can't be matched by living writers, or those of the last century. To toss off a fast list: John Steinbeck, Vikram Seth, Edward P. Jones, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy . . . I could spend all day on the list. So could readers.
Ignore literary pronouncements and just read. Whatever you like, without feeling it doesn't count if you aren't rereading Anthony Trollope or James Joyce for the upteenth time.
That's my segue into a two-week break from the Decoder in which I plan to inhale as many books as I possible can. Some may even be classics by a deceased literary genius or two. I'll save Infinite Jest for Christmas.
Back on August 17.