Wallace is Federerrific

The September issue of the NY Times’ Play magazine features David Foster Wallace’s cover story on Swiss tennis star Roger Federer. In most of Wallace’s non-fiction, the specific subjects at hand become framing devices for meditations on larger philosophical issues that on first-glance seem only tangentially related: “Consider the Lobster” saw him linking the Maine Lobster Fair with psychic pain; “Host” connected talk radio to the function of syntax, brilliantly rendered in color-coded text boxes. With the Federer essay, Wallace returns to the subject of tennis as an opportunity to extend his earlier ruminations (in particular, see “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” and “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm for Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness,” both of which can be found in Wallace’s 1997 collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) on sport and beauty:

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

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.

Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.

It’s immediately apparent that this isn’t cluttered with the cliched sports journalism soundbites we’ve come to expect from reading Sports Illustrated while waiting to see our dentists and watching ESPN between meals and before bedtime. Where most sports writing focuses its attention on surface issues like points scored, conference standings, giving 110% and taking it one game at a time, Wallace drills into the cultural codes that underlie our sporting interests. (To be fair, though, the bottom line of sports journalism–and really all journalism–is space; most sports writers aren’t given 8,000 words to work with, as Wallace has been.)

All of this excision is delivered in Wallace’s precocious prose style that frequently tests our expectations (and sometimes our patience) of what is proper and/or essential in a piece of non-fiction (this is largely true of his short stories and novels as well). Wallace frequently strikes me as perhaps the best contemporary practitioner of Michel de Montaigne’s fundamentally experimental notion of what an essay is in the first place (essai = “to try”).

Take for example Wallace’s description of a volley between Federer and Andre Agassi:

There’s a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes, one with the distinctive butterfly shape of today’s power-baseline game, Federer and Agassi yanking each other from side to side, each trying to set up the baseline winner…until suddenly Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (=left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer’s scrambling to reverse and get back to center, Agassi’s moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does — Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centerline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot in to the net at an angle from the backhand side…and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi’s side, a winner — Federer’s still dancing backward as it lands.

Wallace’s picture-perfect play-by-play is some of the best sensory description I’ve read for quite a while, and it moves effortlessly from one detail to the next; all the sound, smell and punch of a vigorous tennis volley is here. But forget all that for a second. Take a close look at the grammatical construction of this, and before too long you’ll realize the entire exhange has been rendered in just one sentence.

Yes. Look again. One sentence.

My initial reaction was to grab a pen and insert a period after every bounce of the ball, but when I looked for places to break up what appears on first glance as a particularly bad-ass run-on sentence, I found the syntax and dependent clauses strung racket-tight with Wallace’s clever use of ellipses and hyphens. It’s damn near impossible to create complete sentences and keep the build-up and discharge of energy in Wallace’s snake of a sentence.

That’s when it struck me that Wallace’s deliberate choice to render the volley this way is an obvious objective correlative of the event. The sentence does not rest until Federer wins the point and the ball is still; to impose a period anytime before that is both thematically and grammatically premature. Game. Set. Match.

Tangentially: NPR has a short interview with Wallace about the essay (click the red “Listen” button).

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