Journalism Rules from David Foster Wallace
Wallace probably made a terrible journalist. At least the essays I’ve read of his so far are ridiculously detailed and personal and more like a really long journal entry than a sober, informative journalistic report of a particular event.
Which is why it’s so much fun to read.
The essay I just read is called, “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain STuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness”, sixth essay in the book, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”
(If that doesn’t give you an idea for Wallace’s penchant for wordiness and maximalist sentence structure, you’ll probably be bored by the rest of this post.)
The essay is about the Canadian Open in 1995, or more specifically about the pre-tournament, the week before the televised event, in which 128 qualified players play against each other for the top eight spots. Wallace follows Michael Joyce, a star-material tennis player.
Wallace doesn’t follow any rules that I can discern. He uses footnotes and parenthesis and brackets to say what he wants to say, and comment on what it is he is saying, and then wanders off onto tangents that keep branching out further. He doesn’t follow chronological order, and sometimes rambles, sometimes educates, sometimes narrates.
Wallace goes into incredible, relentless detail about everything. He spends pages describing the techniques of certain players, the play-by-play of the games he watched, the weather, the clothes that the players are wearing, Joyce’s reactions, Joyce’s tics, Joyce’s facial expressions, Joyce’s hair.
He spends an entire paragraph discussing the bathroom for the media at the event, as a footnote to his description of the endless lines at the two public bathrooms, in a section about the general atmosphere at the event.
“I learn by the second day to go very easy on the Evian water and coffee as I’m wandering around.”
(He talks about Evian water, one of the many sponsors of the event, all throughout the essay. I can’t help but read into it a conscious attempt to bring to our intention the pervasiveness of marketing and branding and the consumer society, mostly because of his own essay on television and U.S. fiction, earlier in the book, which describes the fiction-writer’s use of pop cultural references.)
He doesn’t only talk about himself, he talks about himself as a journalist and is completely candid about his weaknesses in that regard, and in all regards. About a tennis coach that he describes as, “one of the coolest people I’ve ever met”, he confesses in parenthesis, “(so cool I’m kind of scared of him and haven’t call him once since the assignment ended, if that makes sense.)”
The parenthesis is in a footnote which begins by describing this particular coach who was mentioned as an aside, and then goes on to discuss the relationship of coach and athlete after a lament about the difficult, lonely, and insane lifestyle of the pro athlete.
He zooms in on the smallest details, feeds you on them until you’re gorged on the colors and the feels and the tensions and the humidity of the moment, and then zooms way out and talks about free choice, or mastery, or athlete-as-ascetic and themes that are cultural, sociological, national or global in scope.
The level of detail is remarkable – as is the amount of fascination he must have had to notice it, and attention he must have paid to retain it, the energy he must have had to write it and share it, and his belief that somehow we would find a week’s worth of one sport in one town through one man’s eyes as fascinating as he did.
What if he saw the entire world that way? What if every person he met, every stop at the traffic light, every short trip to the coffee shop, had that kind of intensity and that many angles, and held that level of interest for him? What kind of capacity for life (as an observer) at least would you need for that?
(It’s fascinating to me because I can imagine it. That’s the way I am to some extent, and I’ve always felt like it sets me apart. It’s not about the amount of space in the brain, or even the amount of depth. It’s just this voracious capacity to see everything as it is, and then see it also as a symbol with meaning, and unconscious intent, and as a cultural, spiritual, local, global, mental incarnation of something ultimate.)
That, and his disregard for rules, and his waterfall of words, should make for some hyperactive reading, but either I’m hyperactively attuned, or there’s this rhythm that he has, where he moves between peak points of intense visuals, to more relaxed troughs of insightful commentary, with breaks of personal and comedic tones in between, that kind of lulls you, so you’re coasting instead of flailing.
I feel like you could possibly get high on him.