Monday, May 8, 2017

Too Much Information

One of the few detectable lies in David Foster Wallace's books occurs in his essay on the obscure '90s-era American tennis prodigy Michael Joyce, included in Wallace's first nonfiction anthology, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Apart from some pages in his fiction, it's the best thing he wrote about tennis—better even than his justly praised but disproportionately famous piece on Roger Federer—precisely because Joyce was a journeyman, an unknown, and so offered Wallace's mind a white canvas. Wallace had almost nothing to work with on that assignment: ambiguous access to the qualifying rounds of a Canadian tournament, a handful of hours staring through chain link at a subject who was both too nice to be entertaining and not especially articulate. Faced with what for most writers would be a disastrous lack of material, Wallace looses his uncanny observational powers on the tennis complex, drawing partly on his knowledge of the game but mainly on his sheer ability to consider a situation, to revolve it in his mental fingers like a jewel whose integrity he doubts. In the mostly empty stadium he studies the players between matches. "They all have the unhappy self-enclosed look of people who spend huge amounts of time on planes and waiting around in hotel lobbies," he writes, "the look of people who have to create an envelope of privacy around them with just their expressions." He hears the "authoritative pang" of tour-tight racket strings and sees ball boys "reconfigure complexly." He hits the practice courts and watches players warm up, their bodies "moving with the compact nonchalance I've since come to recognize in pros when they're working out: the suggestion is one of a very powerful engine in low gear."

The lie comes at the start of the piece, when Wallace points out a potential irony of what he's getting ready to do, namely write about people we've never heard of, who are culturally marginal, yet are among the best in the world at a chosen pursuit. "You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something," Wallace says. "At anything. I have tried to imagine; it's hard."

What's strange is that this was written in 1996—by then, Wallace had completed his genre-impacting second novel, Infinite Jest, as well as the stories, a couple already considered classic, in the collection Girl with Curious Hair. It's hard to believe he didn't know that he was indeed among the hundred best at a particular thing, namely imaginative prose, and that there were serious people ready to put him among an even smaller number. Perhaps we should assume that, being human, he knew it sometimes and at other times feared it wasn't true. Either way, the false modesty—asking us to accept the idea that he'd never thought of himself as so good and had proposed the experiment naively—can't help reading as odd. Which may itself be deliberate. Not much happens by accident in Wallace's stuff; his profound obsessive streak precluded it. So could it be there's something multilayered going on with sport as a metaphor for writing—even more layers than we expect? It does seem curious that Wallace chose, of all the players, one named Joyce, whose "ethnic" Irishness Wallace goes out of his way to emphasize, thereby alluding to an artist whose own fixation on technical mastery made him a kind of grotesque, dazzling but isolated from healthful, human narrative concerns. Certainly Wallace played textual games on that level.

Here's a thing that is hard to imagine: being so inventive a writer that when you die, the language is impoverished. That's what Wallace's suicide did, two and a half years ago. It wasn't just a sad thing, it was a blow. (...)

It's hard to do the traditional bio-style paragraph about Wallace for readers who, in this oversaturated mediascape, don't know who he was or why he mattered, because you keep flashing on his story "Death Is Not the End," in which he parodies the practice of writing the traditional bio-style paragraph about writers, listing all their honors and whatnot, his list becoming inexplicably ridiculous as he keeps naming the prizes, and you get that he's digging into the frequent self-congratulating silliness of the American literary world, "a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, [...] a Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters...a poet two separate American generations have hailed as the voice of their generation." Wallace himself had many of the awards on the list, including "a 'Genius Grant' from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation." Three novels, three story collections, two books of essays, the Roy E. Disney Professorship of Creative Writing at Pomona College...

When they say that he was a generational writer, that he "spoke for a generation," there's a sense in which it's almost scientifically true. Everything we know about the way literature gets made suggests there's some connection between the individual talent and the society that produces it, the social organism. Cultures extrude geniuses the way a beehive will make a new queen when its old one dies, and it's possible now to see Wallace as one of those. I remember well enough to know it's not a trick of hindsight, hearing about and reading Infinite Jest for the first time, as a 20-year-old, and the immediate sense of: This is it. One of us is going to try it. The "it" being all of it, to capture the sensation of being alive in a fractured superpower at the end of the twentieth century. Someone had come along with an intellect potentially strong enough to mirror the spectacle and a moral seriousness deep enough to want to in the first place. About none of his contemporaries—even those who in terms of ability could compete with him—can one say that they risked as great a failure as Wallace did.

by John Jeremiah Sullivan, GQ |  Read more:
[ed. From the archive: Readers of this blog know I'm an unabashed DFW fan, and so, please excuse another review of his postumous book The Pale King, which I somehow managed to miss the first time around.]