Cienna's post about David Foster Wallace's journalism yesterday reminded me about this book that's been sitting around on my desk for months now. I read it way back before Christmas, and I really enjoyed it, but I just couldn't bring myself to write about it. It's called Pulphead, and it's a book of essays of John Jeremiah Sullivan. The first essay, about a trip to a kind of Christian rock Lollapalooza, is hilarious and smart and really well-written. The rest of the book—about teabaggers and reggae and obese Latin teachers—is a joy to read. It's great stuff.
But I just couldn't bring myself to write about it because everyone else was writing about it, and everybody else was writing about it by comparing the book, favorably, to the essays of David Foster Wallace. I understand that people mean this as a compliment. Just by dropping his name, they're suggesting in shorthand that these essays are smart (true) and funny (true) and inventive (true). But, come on, now. Let's be serious: There is no way that John Jeremiah Sullivan can come anywhere near David Foster Wallace, at least not yet, not at this point in his career. This isn't an insult: David Foster Wallace was a genuine genius, someone who could convince language to do strange tricks and unfold itself into something new and weird.
What's more, I loved David Foster Wallace's novels, but I think his essays are where his true genius was at its most evident. At certain points, you could see that big brain working, and you could watch as he connected the dots without the artifice of fiction getting cloaking the process. The more reviews and Twitter posts and recommendations I witnessed claiming that John Jeremiah Sullivan was picking up where David Foster Wallace left off, the more I became uncomfortable with Pulphead. Soon enough, I just couldn't bring myself to write about it, because it had this giant shadow looming over it. I buried it in the two-foot-high pile of books on my desk that I've read but not yet written about, and I forgot about it. That was a mistake; people should know when there's a good book out there. I'm sorry I didn't write about it. But even now, whenever I look at Pulphead, I see A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again lying on top of it. It makes me think about the lack of David Foster Walllaces in the world, and it makes me sad. I wish people would think before they make these kinds of analogies, because one inaccurate, lazy comparison can destroy a reading experience for someone else.