David Foster Wallace’s Wincing Worries About Wisdom

Sight from today’s dog walk.

John Jeremiah Sullivan on DFW, via David Quigg:

It’s this quality, of being inwardly divided, that risks getting flattened and written out of (David Foster) Wallace’s story by his postmortem idolization, which would make of him a dispenser of wisdom. We should guard against that. We’ll lose the most essential Wallace, the one that is forever wincing, reconsidering, wishing he hadn’t said whatever he just said. Those were moments when his voice was most authentically of our time, and they are the reason people will one day be able to read him and feel what it was like to be alive now.

This comes via David Quigg’s too many Daves – “forever wincing, reconsidering”, where Quigg draws on “Too Much Information,” Sullivan’s longer and very smart consideration of DFW in GQ. Sullivan warns against warping the labile, restless Wallace by quoting him into the calcified form of a self-satisfied Wise Man of Letters. Wise words well-advised. Sullivan’s piece  is also worth a read simply because Sullivan really knows what he’s doing. A lovely opening, in which he alludes to Wallace’s String Theory, one of the best pieces of sports writing ever:

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.”

Enough stealing borrowing. For the lie Sullivan refers to, I refer you to the full piece at GQ. For continuous rich literary and photographic stimulation, bookmark Quigg’s too many Daves.
Photo: “Sight from today’s dog walk,” by David Quigg

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