Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Alas David Foster Wallace...

I Hardly Knew Ye (and That's My Loss)

The world lost a bright light in David Foster Wallace

I read the New York Times obit (by photographer/filmmaker Bruce Weber) and appreciations yesterday about the apparent suicide of this apparent genius writer at age 46 and was fascinated. Not because he had suicidal tendencies - many authors and artists-in-general are clinically depressed (see William Styron, Hemingway, John Kennedy Toole, etc.). But when I read about how he was an avid tennis fan who was once a regionally-ranked junior tennis star, I was intrigued (being an avid tennis fan myself) - in the same way my only interest in seeing the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is to learn more about drummer Lars Ulrich's pre-musical career as a tennis player. So, working at a library, I decided to seek out his non-fiction works (since his most famous novel Infinite Jest runs over 1,000 pages and I have textbook AADD, I ruled out reading that book fast!)

One of the first things I found was his 2006 New York Times piece on Roger Federer, "Federer As Religious Experience." It was brilliant, the best appreciation of the Swiss master's skills I had ever read. In watching Federer play, Wallace saw the same kind of beauty Michelangelo realized in sculpting his David:
Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.

Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.

Further research led me to two of his non-fiction collections, Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays (2006) - which contained a piece about Tracy Austin and the "sports biography" - and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (1997), which had a superlative profile on Mike Joyce entitled "Tennis player Michael Joyce's professional artistry as a paradigm of certain stuff about choice, freedom, discipline, joy, grotesquerie, and human completeness."

Now I've read every book ever written about tennis and I am here to attest that David Foster Wallace was the best writer on the subject I've ever encountered. He "got it" as only a handful of writers ever came close to "getting it" (e.g., John Feinstein in Hard Courts or Eliot Berry in Topspin). Or, in his own words:
I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is, and also the most demanding. It requires body control, hand-eye coordination, quickness, flat-out speed, endurance, and that strange mix of caution and abandon we call courage. It also requires smarts. Just one single shot in one exchange in one point of a high-level match is a nightmare of mechanical variables. Given a net that's three-feet high (at the center) and two players in (unrealistically) a fixed position, the efficacy of one single shot is determined by its angle, depth, pace, and spin. And each of these determinants is itself determined by still other variables - for example, a shot's depth is determined by the height at which the ball passes over the net combined with some integrated function of pace and spin, with the ball's height over the net itself determined by the player's body position, grip on the racquet, degree of backswing, angle of racquet face, and the 3-D coordinates through which the racquet face moves during that interval in which the ball is actually on the strings. The tree of variables and determinants branches out, on and on, and then on even farther when the opponent's own positions and predilections and the ballistic features of the ball he's sent to you are factored in. No CPU yet existent could compute the expansion of variables for even a single exchange - smoke would come out of the mainframe. The sort of thinking involved is the sort that can only be done by a living and highly conscious entity, and then only unconsciously, i.e., by combining talent with repetition to such an extent that the variables are combined and controlled without conscious thought. In other words, serious tennis is a kind of art.

The physics behind the art of tennis

And it was an art that Wallace rightly concluded was best appreciated live, as "television doesn't really allow us to appreciate what real top-level players can do - how hard they're actually hitting the ball, and with what control and tactical artistry." (God knows I can appreciate that observation. Just this past weekend I was playing tennis on some nearby public courts when former Dark Side bass player Dave Jarkowski strolled in with his 15-year-old son Eric Jarkowski, and asked if I wanted to hit with Eric. I did, or rather, I tried to. Eric was the Baltimore City boys tennis champion last year - as a Freshman (!) - at Poly High School, and receiving his blazing forehand strokes was like seeing an asteroid hurtling toward me at supersonic speeds. Blink and you missed it. It took a half-dozen tries before I could return one measly ball over the net to him!)

I also have read just about every book written on the adult film industry (needless to say, I have divergent interests), so I was doubly pleased to read the opening essay, "Big Red Son," about the Annual AVN (Adult Video News) Awards at the 1998 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, which was described as "the Apocalypse [taking] the form of a cocktail party.". It was a spot-on piece of reporting, Hunter S. Thompson with gravitas. Here's a sample:
The adult industry is vulgar...The industry's not only vulgar, it's predictably vulgar. All the cliches are true. The typical porn producer really is the ugly little man with a bad toupee and a pinkie-ring the size size of a Rolaids. The typical porn director really is a guy who uses the word class as a noun to mean refinement. The typical porn starlet really is the lady in Lycra eveningwear with tattoos all down her arms who's both smoking and chewing gum while telling journalists how grateful she is to Wadcutter Productions Ltd. for footing her breast-enlargement bill. And meaning it. The whole AVN Awards weekend comprises what Mr. Dick Filth calls an Irony-Free Zone.

Irony-free vulgarity at the AVN Awards

Reading all the obits, I realize (all too late) that I must read his books which, thanks to an prodigious-to-the-point-of-exhaustive work ethic, are plentiful. As Sam Anderson wrote in New York magazine:
"He was the great enemy of word limits, proportion, and journalistic restraint. He aimed, in every single project, for the grand totalizing exhaustive gesture — whether it was a 1,000-page novel seeking to catalogue an entire culture (Infinite Jest) or a 100-page "experiential postcard" recounting a week on a cruise ship ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"). For Wallace, a thought could never actually, in good conscience, realistically, be finished — there was always one more reversal, one more qualifying clause, and an honest writer had to follow them out. Hence the famously never-ending sentences that spun off, even more famously, into never-ending footnotes. The black hole of his self-consciousness drew everything into it, even and especially self-consciousness itself. But that compulsion to be exhaustive was, apparently, exhausting."

It's ironic (and David Foster Wallace apparently hated Irony!) that it took a death to make me take notice of the man once considered by his peers to be America's greatest living author. Sign of the times?

Related Links:
New York Times Obit (Bruce Weber)
"Exuberant Riffs On a Land Run Amok" (Michiko Kakutani)
"The Genius of David Foster Wallace and the Ugly Monster of Depression" (Baltimore Sun)
New York Magazine Obit (Sam Anderson)

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