Last night I read an essay called "Up, Simba," written during the 2000 Presidential campaign, originally published in abbreviated form by Rolling Stone and now available in its entirety among the contents of David Foster Wallace's new collection, Consider the Lobster. Had someone suggested, as recently as yesterday's lunch, that seventy-nine pages of journalism about a losing candidate (John McCain) from a six-years-past election would excite my interest in politics, even briefly, and (more unlikely still) inspire me to walk directly from the couch to a desk chair and start typing sentences for strangers to read, I would have confidently assumed that said "someone" was either a) drunk; b) naÃ¯ve; or c) confusing me for a look-alike who treats the front section of newspapers as more than a protective wrapper for Sports and Arts. And yet here we are.
"Up, Simba" arrives on page 156 of Consider the Lobster, on the heels of a disgruntled but typically insightful review of retired tennis star Tracy Austin's autobiography. Wallace (or is it Foster Wallace?) was a competitive tennis player in his youth, and close to Austin's age when she made a name for herself on the professional tour as the first in what has become a long line of the sport's child prodigies. Grappling with her "breathtakingly insipid" book, Wallace postulates that superstars cannot deliver memoirs equal to their athletic careers precisely because their achievement depended on a kind of native intelligence fundamentally at odds with deep reflection. Catch, pass, swing, jump, shoot. Perform. He writes, "It is not an accident that great athletes are often called 'naturals,' because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one." He's on to something, but not just about sports. The essays in Consider the Lobster succeed (or don't, quite as winningly) in direct relation to the clarity of the author's vision and, to no small degree, the stakes.
Consider that David Foster Wallace is arguably the most accessible, intelligent, versatile writer working today. Call him publishing's Magic Johnson. Play him anywhere — at the point, on a wing, or (sure it's the Championship Finals, but Abdul-Jabbar is hurt and who else are we going to use?) even at the low post; his genius for the game, and for competition, will overcome any awkward assignment. Never mind just now Wallace's novels and stories, or his "compact history" of infinity (show-off); in the new collection he insinuates himself among actors, actresses, directors, and producers at the Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas; delivers a brilliant portrait of Bloomington, Illinois, on the morning of 9/11; and fills sixty pages addressing an issue of great personal (his) significance, the evolution of American usage dictionaries. And let's not forget the justly acclaimed title piece, written for Gourmet and subsequently anthologized, about the culinary centerpiece of a summer festival in central Maine. Whatever the topic, you can take for granted that his sentences will sparkle with wit and pointed observation; you understand that he will see through his subject, and report back with fidelity and style. He is smarter than you, but you like him anyway. At the keyboard, Wallace is a natural, which is not to suggest that he doesn't work (and doesn't think) incredibly hard to liven up the pages; it means, rather, that a mere mortal, no matter how much sweat and blood he or she gives to the work, simply can't keep up. Maybe for a while, on his or her home court — in the domestic novel, say, or the African travelogue — but not over such a wide range of material, throughout a consistently expansive career.
If athletic achievement is nurtured to some significant degree by the kind of crystalline vision Wallace describes, surely the transcendence of a piece of writing, be it fiction or nonfiction, depends on a similar, singular purpose; and not just purpose, but undistracted, unambiguous attention. If an athlete can be in the zone, so too an author. It's no coincidence that Wallace covered John McCain's campaign for the young, disaffected readers of a magazine clinging to whatever counterculture street cred its activist roots still held but more likely, at the turn of the century, to attract new subscribers with celebrity gossip and photo spreads of teenage entertainers in various states of undress. McCain hoped to energize those same ambivalent non-voters into action. Alternately inspired and disgusted by the calculated message-making to which he bears witness, Wallace on the trail becomes politically charged, if not for the policies of the candidate than by the spectacular, tactical manipulation of our electoral process and the dangers posed to a society that fails to recognize it. "Up, Simba" soars on these high stakes. In the aforementioned piece about grammatical usage, Wallace admits that his audience "comprises that small percentage of American citizens who actually care about the current status of double modals and ergative verbs." It may be the best essay ever written on the subject, but outside the limited readership for which it was penned, who knows and who cares? (May we safely assume here that the casual grammarian need only read one sixty-page review of usage manuals before moving on to other matters? Please?) Evidently, grammar remains a driving concern of DFW's professional (and even personal) life, but as essay fodder it's of only mid-season importance, and Wallace knows it. Stars always bring out their best in big games.
Many talented authors instill in their readership a particular brand of I-could-have-written-that confidence. Nick Hornby comes to mind. He makes writing look effortless. David Foster Wallace also makes the job seem easy, but unless you scored 800 on both your SATs, cruised through med school, and now spend nights pining for the time when Mensa membership really counted for something, you never get the feeling that you would have known to use quite the same words or to put them in as effective an order. No, if reading Wallace stirs any reaction among prospective writers, it's more likely despair. Why bother? The shaggy fellow on the book flap is clearly so much better at this, and better informed, than you could ever hope to be. Hence my surprise to be sitting here, in the wake of "Up, Simba," writing. Did you know that almost 200,000 books were published in the United States last year? Add to that the rush of words let loose in magazines, literary quarterlies, zines, web sites, and blogs and, really, there has got to be a better use of my time.
Last week on this blog, Elissa Minor Rust, author of an impressive new story collection, noted the upside to professional jealousy: "it can spur you to work harder and accomplish more." This week, with Rust (Minor Rust?) back at work on her novel-in-progress, the guest blogger baton has been passed to Kevin Smokler, a true advocate for the arts. Smokler, as editor, last year published a book of original essays by young writers about the persistent significance of literature in our culture. At first glance, that may strike readers as a quaint, myopic platform, but if books are disappearing from our collective consciousness how is it possible that despite iPods, Netflix, Playstation, and a thousand other, alluring diversions, an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, can attract 70,000 visitors to its web site every day?
Which brings me back to the question of why I'm writing about David Foster Wallace. Credit a bookseller's reverence for craft, my requisite genuflection before a master. Or, cynically, call it marketing. "If you're a true-blue, market-savvy Young Voter," Wallace acknowledges, "the only thing you're certain to feel about John McCain's campaign is a very modern and American type of ambivalence, a sort of interior war between your deep need to believe and your deep belief that the need to believe is bullshit, that there's nothing left anywhere but sales and salesmen."
Elissa Minor Rust and Kevin Smokler appreciate that they're fortunate to reach even modest readerships. As do I. Mortals, we are. All those hours massaging paragraphs into shape, or practicing jump shots, or volleying from the baseline, they won't necessarily bring fortune or fame, but eventually our muscles learn. Repetition begets familiarity, familiarity begets confidence, confidence begets comfort. We can do this. But then watch out: complacency lurks around the corner. Can mediocrity be far behind? Who's watching? What's on the line? Motivation shouldn't need constant coaxing, on the court or the page, nor should it exert such authority over our performance, except that it does.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State