James Michener Meets David Foster Wallace
It was mid-August at the University of Mississippi when young gun David Foster Wallace, progenitor of the novel “Infinite Jest”, met seasoned hand James Michener, progenitor of single-named historical tomes of infinite length like “Alaska” and “Texas” and “Madgascar”.
Differences in temperament were reflected in their clothing. Michener wore plaid pants with a shirt that was neither short-sleeved nor long-sleeved but something in between. Wallace wore a red kerchief and a black t-shirt with the words “What’s After Post-Modern?”.
Michener was old school, doggedly piling up respectable Anglo-Saxon words on his Underwood and winning readers the way Chrissie Evert won tennis matches: with a relentless baseline game. Wallace was new school, showing up on campus with stacks of newly coined words that he served like flashy revolvers under the southern sun.
Their advance men met and shook hands, followed by Wallace and Michener themselves. James extended his hand and David shook it, saying that he read him when he was just a boy.
Then they stood twenty paces apart as called for by the script of any good Western. Wallace drew first blood: “Macarism!” he yelled before Michener could say "malapropism".
Michener answered, “that’s easy. Noun. ‘Pleasure in another’s joy.’”
Michener then said, “Tathagatagarbha!”
Wallace paused and said, “A gimme! The eternal and absolute essence of all reality according to Buddhism.”
“Tachyphylaxis,” said Wallace.
“Rapid development of immunity to the effects of a drug, especially to those of a poison through previous ingestion of small amount of same,” answered Michener.
“Engraver of gems.”
And so it went, each taking their shot, until the sun faded and the bystanders who stood next to facades of old buildings left and only the stars in the heavens witnessed the rest of the exchange.
"Bull," slurred Wallace.
"a male bovine," said a very tired Michener.
Fatigued to the point of drunken stumbling, they hung onto each other's shoulders for balance when Wallace said, "how about we co-write something? Like "Infinite Russia?"
"Sounds good to me..."
Update: Just received a friendly email from a reader who corrected my spelling of "tathagatagarbha" which I'd erroneously gotten from another source as "thagatagarbha". I think I just moved up about eighty places on the list of blogs having the smartest readers. Not that my head is swelling or anything. (Although my wife is getting me an ice pack.)