When the news broke a month ago about David Foster Wallace’s suicide, I realized I didn’t know his work except for a riveting essay on tennis great Roger Federer. Since then, I’ve read countless appreciations of Wallace, who taught creative writing at Pomona College and was best known for his epic modernist novel, Infinite Jest. “Wallace can do sad, funny, silly, heartbreaking, and absurd with equal ease; he can even do them all at once,” blurbed the Times’ Michiko Kakutani. One admirer compared him to Joyce in Ulysses.
Why do I bring this up? I’m a big believer in reading great writing wherever you find it or even when, embarrassingly for me in DFW’s case, I hadn’t found it. Even when a writing approach differs from your own. “He (Wallace) was the great enemy of word limits, proportion and journalistic restraint,” said Sam Anderson in New York magazine this week. That’s another principle espoused here, to get outside your comfort zone, to read sports if you usually read science, to dive into fiction when your habit is nonfiction.
Ask yourself why a writer works for you. Anderson made this compelling case for Wallace: “At his best he managed to dissolve his personality so purely into text that it felt like he was in the room with you, or more accurately right there inside of your head — as Emerson once wrote about Montaigne: ‘Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.’ ”
Wow, wouldn’t we all like to write words that bleed, that live. Here, before I make amends by reading more DFW, are the passionate picture-painting words he used to bring to life the art of Roger Federer:
A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.