I graduated from Pomona College one year before David Foster Wallace began teaching there. His professorship, the Roy Disney Writing Chair, was also inaugurated the year after I left. When I graduated, I had some idea that being a writer was what I wanted to try to do — I’m, uh, still trying — and I was very disappointed not to get to take a class from Wallace. That’s in part because he was the towering young literary dude of that period — the first girlfriend I ever really cared about had read Wallace’s canonic (and canonically huge) Infinite Jest twice, which seemed very cool to me; his short stories and nonfiction, when they popped up in magazines during those years, always made me feel a dozen different emotions at once, but usually left me with a sort of worn-out and confused awe at his virtuosity. I never felt — and didn’t feel until later — the joy I should’ve been feeling, as a reader who loves good writing, at reading what was so obviously that.
Somehow, with the grandiosity only a 22-year old can feel, I think considered him a peer: I thought he dressed badly and abused the bandana/ponytail thing unpardonably; that he was a show-off; that he overdid it on the grad student theory-speak shit, and that it didn’t help him. I think, now, that I was bitter (if not wrong on all those complaints). I know, now, that I resisted what he was writing because it was new, and because I couldn’t do it, and because I was pretty envious of that.
I’ve become a fan since, and while I didn’t always agree with the literary (or sartorial) choices he made — and while I still can’t get as into his fiction as well as I feel I should — I feel bad about the time I spent pretending he wasn’t a brilliant writer. Wallace is to my mind inarguably that: incredibly deft with dialogue and supremely in command of his always just slightly out-of-control style.
From my friends who did get to take classes with him after I graduated, I learned something else: that he was also an engaged, attentive teacher who — despite his fame, the MacArthur Genius Grant, the deluxe chair-por-vida — really did care about his students. I’m sorry I never got to take a class from him for many reasons. But I’m sorriest that future students will not get to learn from him. He killed himself Saturday, in Claremont, at age 46.
The writing I most admired of Wallace’s was his nonfiction stuff, which always seemed to me to channel his empathies and cynicisms and idealisms and multiple ambivalences with more nuance and less indulgence than his fiction (which, of late, I found pretty hard to take — anyone who wants my copy of Oblivion is welcome to it). In Consider the Lobster his last, excellent collection of essays, Wallace — himself a former junior tennis player (the experience is all over Infinite Jest) — turned in a very fine piece of sportswriting about the women’s tennis star Tracy Austin and how disappointed he was by her “breathtakingly insipid autobiography.” I recommend pretty much everything in that book, but I’ll leave you with this, which I think is one of the best things I’ve ever read about being a sports fan. Just because I never got to take a class from him doesn’t mean I’m not trying to learn from the dude. I’m transcribing it, because I can’t find a copy of the essay online.
Here is a theory. Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we Americans revere — fastest, strongest — and becaue they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter, or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.
Plus, they’re beautiful…There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man. So actually more than one theory, then. Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.
…So, the point, then, about these sports memoirs’ market appeal: Because top athletes are profound, because they make a certain type of genius as carnally discernible as it ever can get, these ghost-written invitations inside their lives and their skulls are terribly seductive for book buyers. Explicitly or not, the memoirs make a promise — to let us penetrate the indefinable mystery of what makes some persons geniuses, semidivine, to share with us the secret and so to reveal the difference between us and them and to erase it, a little, that difference…to give us the (we want, expect, only one, the master narrative, the key) Story.
Of course, he goes on to say, we don’t get that story. The full story of Wallace’s death may come clearer in the days to come, but for now we don’t have that, either. For the moment, though, I’ll just salute Wallace for the abstractions that he made so memorably and uniquely incarnate, if no less abstract, in his work.