Well, I suppose it started, as so many things do these days, on Twitter. And then it somehow migrated onto Facebook and now it’s on a blog. Whether it ever graduates to the dull, analogue grind of real life, we’ll just have to wait and see. But this is what happened.
First, the author Bret Easton Ellis (1964—) made some disobliging remarks about the author David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) on Twitter. You can get a pretty good overview of what happened in this Guardian article, although the details aren’t particularly important. What matters is that the remarks were made. A modest commotion followed. (Makes note of phrase “A modest commotion” for use as a title for something or other. Is it a quote? It sounds as if it may be. It is now, I guess.) Of course, these things are all relative. It was a commotion among some people who read contemporary American literary fiction. It did not provoke any so-called water-cooler moments, not in my workplace at least.
Then the baton was taken up by Dan Waites. You may not have heard of Dan Waites, but he’s a writer too, in this case of occasionally pungent reviews of restaurants in the Bangkok area. Do check him out, he’s good. Anyway, he took to Facebook to say:
I’ve never read a Bret Easton Ellis books (I had to throw out American Psycho after puking off the side of my bed on it). But I’m pretty sure he isn't fit to write the full stop at the end of a DFW sentence.Now, I responded in defence of Ellis, especially of American Psycho, which I still maintain is one of the greatest novels of the past few decades. But my ammunition in the debate was just as depleted as Dan’s because I hadn’t read anything by David Foster Wallace. I hadn’t even puked on anything by David Foster Wallace. I knew he was American; I knew the titles of some of his books; I knew that he’d written a very big book called Infinite Jest, about which many people said good things; and I knew that in 2008, he killed himself. But apart from that, not much. So I decided to remedy this.
The sensible thing to do, I suspect, would have been to start off with one of Wallace’s shorter, more manageable books. This is a pretty good rule of thumb when you’re confronted by a literary work that’s big and a bit scary. Have a go at A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a dry run for Ulysses. Before you plunge in Gravity’s Rainbow, dip your toe in the paddling pool that is The Crying of Lot 49. But that’s what I did in my teens and twenties. I’m 44 now. I’m 10 years older than Wallace was when Infinite Jest was published. I’m only a couple of years younger than he was when he died. Is there time for this suck-it-and-see approach to literature? I decided I would have to pass up the more accessible delights of (checks DFW’s Wiki page for titles) The Broom of the System or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and take on the big scary one itself.
It’s still pretty intimidating, though. Infinite Jest runs to over 1,000 pages in most editions. My comfort zone runs out at around 350. However good the book turned out to be, I realised I’d need some sort of support mechanism to help me through the bad bits. A book group might have seemed like the obvious answer; and I’ve nothing whatsoever against book groups; but I don’t know of any such groups in my immediate vicinity; and even if there were I’m not sure I could convince many book groups to take on Infinite Jest (Don’t they tend to prefer stuff like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin? Although to be fair I haven’t read that either.) and I know I’d start getting a bit snotty and overly theoretical after a few meetings; and I’d probably object to somebody’s taste in chocolate biscuits; yeah, I think I probably have got something against book groups...
So I decided to write a blog about it instead.