Since I have a little spare time now, I decided to pick up a copy of Infinite Jest, the most famous novel by David Foster Wallace (DFW). The thousand-page monster, considered by Time magazine to be one of the top 100 English-language novels published since 1923, is the War and Peace of my generation. That is, everyone has heard about it but few seemed to have taken the time to slog their way through it. There is good reason for this; you have to pay attention when you read this sucker. There is a section early in the book with almost five pages without a paragraph break. I lost my place each time I took a sip of coffee. Such writing would provoke Hemingway to violence. I am consulting the dictionary often as I read his book even though I am usually quite good at faking that I know the meaning of a word. You do not read this book, you commit to it. DFW was a good enough writer that people stay with it despite the fact that he does not make it easy for the reader. He presumes that his readers are brilliant. In my writing, I presume that my readers are smart enough to put it down if I bore them.
It turns out DFW and I had parallel but never quite overlapping lives. He was born in the winter of 1962, and I in January of ’60. He was at the University of Arizona in the 1980s as was I. He was in the graduate program in the English Department and I was across the mall working on my PhD in anthropology. We both accepted tenure-track professor positions at Illinois State University in 1992. He was in Stevenson Hall and I was a stone’s throw away in Edwards. We both lived in 1960s ranch-style houses in Normal, Illinois. In 1997, DFW received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the so-call “genius award,” and I gave the commencement speech at my high school.
You would think that this is where our lives diverged, but there was a final overlap several years after he died in 2008. I became a one-year interim chair of the English Department, where he once roamed the halls. There I occasionally took a call from someone interested in David Foster Wallace. I would just tell them that he was a man I almost knew.