19 August 2006

Foster Wallace + Serious Writer + Federer

David Foster Wallace cares.

DFW is the most talented living American writer. When he was younger he seemed a little too precocious and in love with his own ability. But his last few books show something new, something that he even proclaimed in his essay on Dostoevsky from Remember the Lobster. His writing now has a moral gravitas. And if you know me, you know that I'm all about moral gravitas. Something about recovering from sin. It's appealling. But, so. DFW maintains his technical genius while aiming it precise like a laser at Things That Matter.

His article on Federer, for example. It seems at first that he's writing about Aesthetics. As something transcendental, something that urges us to go past the bounds of language (a task in which we fail), this tack would seem aimed at something that Matters.

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.


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.


he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow,


Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.

Within this smattering of breathless talk about the Aesthetic value of Federer's game, DFW intersperses technical detail. No surprise. But if I'm correct in assuming that DFW decided early on (likely just after his debut, Broom of the System) that he wanted to be a Serious Writer, he realized something: There is nothing higher than the transcendent. The variety of descriptions one desires to use have the form of analogy, simile and metaphor. DFW uses these well. And I don't make a claim for his originality here, but I think he realized another avenue to the transcendent--exhaustion. He exhausts subjects with comprehensivness, vocabulary, descriptive overload and technical detail. Endless chains of chemical formulas and syntheses; in-depth descriptions of the inner workings of cruise ships; being a floating eyeball at a porn festival. Through exhaustion of subject matter DFW manifests something higher: boredom, ennui, loathing, frailty, desire, exhaustion itself. DFW makes through sheer persistence of assertion through structure a narrative framework that is itself unsupported yet self-sustaining. He manifests Ethical and Aesthetic problems and solutions.

(I'm running up against the limits of my language.)

At first I thought it was a DFWian trope. He has little ticks, little verbal-descriptive-narrative ticks. He early in the article described the final cointoss for the serve in the match between Federer and Nadal. A child who had overcome cancer tossed the coin.

Later, at the top of page 4 DFW interpolated a little bit of seemingly unrelated data about the child with the cancer. For a little gravitas, right. He uses this technique and it's pretty neat. He did it all the time in his 9/11 essay and his McCain essay and, well, all the time in Infinite Jest. Neat, an interpolation.

Another neat thing about DFW's style is the footnote thing. You might hate it, 'natch. But in this essay--wow. I quoted the body's final paragraph above, it's the last quote. It seems to wrap up the body-Aesthetic thing a little. It's a little bit of fluff. But the final footnote really ends the article. It ends it a few paragraphs before the article actually ends in the body.

DFW takes the same path that, say, Blake took in writing Songs of Experience and Songs of Innocence. Little lamb, who made thee? Tiger, what immortal hand or eye formed thy fearful symmetry? The Big Thing: how could the creator of the lamb, so meek and mild, be also the creator of the Tiger, of burning bright in the forests of the night fame. This might not be that interesting of a question. But DFW makes the same move.

One wouldn’t want to make too much of it, or to pretend that it’s any sort of equitable balance; that would be grotesque. But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that.

But there's more. The "just look at him down there. Look at that" reemphasizes the Aesthetic concern. White liberal guilt, maybe, necessitates such a concern, but: Why isn't DFW writing a prolix, verball impressive and sure to be widely-read article about children with cancer? Why is he at Wimbledon? In the lap of luxury? Watching a sport? As much work as it is to compete, watching sports is something of a leisure activity. Tennis? LaCoste? Isn't all a little bourgeoise?

But D
FW almost anticipates this concern. It would be grotesque to think that, say, a million cancerous children equals one Roger Federer. But there is something transcendent to a Federer. Trying to get at this transcendental-ness, isn't this a worthy task? If you can't heal sick children, what better alternative is there than to give sustenance to the human faculty that values physical genius and spiritual rectitude? Even in a fluff piece on tennis, DFW continues to make a bid at being The Serious Writer. (Compare this piece to his piece on Michael Joyce from Esquire. But there is no comparison [as the saying goes]: It's the difference between a church and a stripclub.)