That’s something David Foster Wallace used to say in workshop, if everyone was being too nice about someone’s work. (More here.) It’s also a pretty good description of what happened in the world of investment banking over the past few years. The mortgage-bundlers and the bankers were sitting around, giving each other hand jobs back and forth. And then the mortgage-bundlers were like, “Look, we’re going to get a hand job later, from the homeowner. Do you think you could spot us a hand job now?” And the banks were like, “Sure, yeah. You’ve always been good about giving us hand jobs back.” Which, though, when you think about it, at some level, the *banks just really liked giving out hand jobs*. And then the day came when the hand jobs stopped.
Anyway: I finally read—or finished, I guess, because I’d started it once a few months ago—DFW’s piece on Roger Federer.
I’d put it away in part because I felt like I was in familiar territory with Wallace—I didn’t want him to write anything boring or repetitive, and I was worried he might have—and also because I knew that if it wasn’t boring or repetitive, that if he got Federer just right as he’d gotten so many things just right (David Letterman, for example), that I’d have trouble having my own independent reaction. So it was lose-lose.
Well, it’s a little repetitive, if you’ve read his great essay on Michael Joyce, but it’s also new and surprising and certainly not boring. It always struck me that Wallace could write most honestly about writing when he was writing about something else—especially tennis. There’s that wonderful, wonderful aside—I don’t have it with me and I want to say it’s in a footnote, though maybe the really memorable footnote in that essay is about McEnroe, how listening to such a genius of tennis stammer through a telecast as a broadcaster is painful (this was true when he started out, though now McEnroe is the best color commentator probably in any sport, and Wallace makes a lovely little acknowledgement of this in the Federer essay, describing what happens on TV when Federer makes a great shot—“And there’s that familiar little second of shocked silence from the New York crowd before it erupts, and John McEnroe with his color man’s headset on TV says (mostly to himself, it sounds like), ‘How do you hit a winner from that position?’ And he’s right…”)—anyway, there’s that bit in the Michael Joyce essay in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again about how professional athletes are the monks of our time, who sacrifice their normal human lives to an absolute single-minded pursuit of a kind of perfection, a *useless* perfection, so that the rest of us can go about our very useful lives as we please. I was always sure Wallace was talking about writers here, though I don’t know if he meant that writers actually still were the monks of our time, or rather that professional athletes were the writers of our time. One way of splitting the difference would be to say that he might have hoped it was the former but suspected that it was the latter—that in fact writers no longer were of very much interest to anyone but themselves. Wallace was clearly *uncomfortable* being a writer, he was aware that in modern business-crazed America there’s something inherently ridiculous about being a writer: I’ll never forget the way the writer-grad student in “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” says that he can never admit to being a writer, that whenever anyone asks what he does he mumbles something about being a “freelance something.” What’s interesting, actually, is that that feeling never goes away—at least it hasn’t gone away for me. I wonder if it ever goes away. T. S. Eliot went through his whole life wondering if he’d ever write another poem.
So the Federer essay—it begins with a description of what Wallace calls a “Federer Moment”—when Federer does something that simply cannot be believed (causing McEnroe to mumble). It’s hard when reading it, especially reading it now, not to feel that what’s also being described is the experience of reading DFW. Here’s the part I mean:
…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.
This is Wallace’s prose, right? He writes such long sentences, they are filled with so many ideas, you don’t think he’ll ever get back to the point, the point has been lost, and then he does, and it’s incredible. It’s incredible and then you never forget it.
I’ve just been editing a very interesting piece for the next issue by Britt Peterson, about contemporary Swedish detective fiction. There’s a section in which she describes the literary landscape over the past 40 years, beginning with Jan Myrdal’s 1968 Confessions of a Disloyal European, a denunciation of the staid social-democracy of, in large part, his famous parents, who were Nobel Prize winners and pillars of the Swedish social-democratic state. I mean, if you were to invent a novel from 1968, this would have to be it. And these kinds of literary denunciations continue in Sweden for a while, but eventually Sweden also has an upsurge of experimental or postmodern writing, writing about writing, just as we do here, and it leads to a kind of dead end.
What has always appealed to me about this section of the piece is that it shows something we know to be true, but can’t be repeated (at least to me) often enough, which is that literatures develop in totally parallel ways: In the 1920s you have your Russian modernists and your Anglo-American modernists and German modernists, and they’re all very much alike but that makes sense because they knew each other and all read the same books, but you’ll also, if you look, find Bulgarian modernists and Portuguese modernists, and so on. What you can’t ever have is a pure experiment: I mean, presumably the Bulgarian modernists read Nietzsche and Joyce and Mayakovsky, which is how you got Bulgarian modernism. (Actually, painting is always a better example, you can see it much faster and it’s inarguable.) But they also had approximately the same *social and political conditions*… what would be really interesting is to have a kind of Galapagos Island where you isolated a human society for a few hundred years, and tried to see what kind of literature they produced, and how different it would be from the literature produced on the mainland.
But—and here’s what I thought reading that section this time—sometimes a major figure can actually dislocate an entire literature, keep it away from the general current for a while. Wallace did that, I think, in the US. The major literary phenomena of the 1990s, at least in Europe, were nationalist, anti-postmodern, and highly memoiristic. I’m thinking of Limonov in Russia, Houellebecq in France, and maybe Sebald (in a melancholy romantic German iteration) in Germany. I mean, this is an overgeneralization, but, speaking strictly for Russia, the more popular writer in the 1990s was Pelevin, who is very much a mainstream 2nd-generation postmodernist (as DFW was also), but I think looking back on it Limonov is the more representative figure—if you’re a young writer, Limonov is the person you need to face, to accept or reject.
I don’t see an analogous figure (to Limonov) in the US for the 1990s. All I see is Wallace. He is *clearly* the major figure of that decade.
With what result? At some level, Infinite Jest redeemed the entire postmodern literary project. It’s a great book, and much more readable (to me) than anything Pynchon wrote, and bigger and more ambitious than anything DeLillo wrote (any individual work). So whereas—as Britt argues—in Sweden postmodernism kind of just burrows into itself, and in Russia it simply dies off (the only people still doing this sort of thing are the originals, Pelevin and Sorokin and Rubinstein (the original original, Prigov, died last year); young writers don’t write in this vein at all), in the US it gets a new jolt from a truly major figure. The Corrections is a great novel that I think should be read as a descendant and also an answer to IJ, as Chad argues here; Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a major mainstreaming into the memoir genre of IJ. And then in a way, via McSweeney’s, the whole thing gets an institutional home—creating, amazingly, a *third generation* of postmodern writing. This is incredible! No other country has this, as far as I know. I think some literatures, partly under the influence of McSwy’s and the general publishing climate, are like re-importing postmodernism—but I’d be very surprised if there were actually an organic third generation, because you’d need a giant like DFW in the second generation, and who else has that?
Now, do I think this is “bad”? Kind of. But it’s what happened. And I don’t think I’d trade DFW for it not to have happened. And the thing is, one could have come to a very different conclusion from reading Infinite Jest: as Ben argues here, a much more reasonable answer to Infinite Jest than trying to write another Infinite Jest or even just a mini-IJ would be to set off in a different direction entirely, because you’re not going to write a better version of that book. I think this is all the more true with the advent of online writing—-one of the pressures that DFW was working with, always, was the limitation of time and also space, in a written, bound object. How do you communicate everything you think and feel within a limited time, given limited space? How do stay true to the way the mind works, the digressions it goes on, while also keeping people moving through your book, keeping them interested? To pretend like everything spills out of you in a neat little package is dishonest; one of the things Wallace wanted to do was be honest in every sentence, recreate the act of cognition in every sentence, as a way of being truthful ultimately about the way we lived in the world. Footnotes were part of an answer—but they were also, when taken as far as you wanted to take them, absurd, as the 200 pages of footnotes at the end of IJ proved. But what else were you going to do, forced to write in a culture of the book? We don’t really live in that culture anymore, or anyway you can opt out of it—-and online the limitations of time and space fall away, and even the imperative to keep someone moving through your book, page to page, is gone. This is a major problem for online writing—but it’s also a solution to some of the problems Wallace faced with the book. He had to solve it in a baroque, dense, incredibly complicated way, through a giant effort of genius and will. And part of the reason he did it in the form of the big postmodern novel, rather than some other form, was that it was still, when he was coming up, the dominant form, and he wanted to see if he could solve the problems inherent to it—Caleb, here, talks about how no contemporary novelist was as passionate and as knowledgeable about certain mathematical-philosophical questions as Wallace, and the same is true of his interest in literary history, in what literary schools and movements meant, philosophically, and what it meant to be working in a particular tradition. (See especially “E Unibus Pluram” in A Supposedly Fun Thing.)
To go back to the tennis essay: The thing about Wallace is that he always, without fail, took on the most important aspects of whatever subject he was addressing, even if the subject didn’t seem that important. The most important thing to happen to tennis in the past decade and a half is the rise of the “power-baseline” game. If you’ll recall, tennis after McEnroe lost to Lendl at the 1984 US Open went through this incredibly boring phase—-first it was dominated by Lendl and Wilander, who would have long boring surgical rallies from the baseline, and then after that it was dominated by the serve-and-volley, especially Pete Sampras’s serve and volley, during which it was just serve, run to the net, volley into the corner, end of point. It sucked. The only bright light was Agassi, the lone player in this era whose groundstrokes were good enough to play with the serve-and-volleyers—they’d run to net and he’d whiz a passing shot by them. He’d hit crazy forehands from no-man’s-land, just behind the service line, without letting the ball bounce. Now, DFW in his history of this whole thing says Lendl started the power-baseline game because Lendl first understood how to use the powerful new racket technologies, and I’m sure he’s right, but I always thought that it was basically Agassi versus Sampras, as the two possible modes, and it looked at the time like Agassi was an anomaly, a throwback, and that we’d have to live with serve-and-volley a la Sampras for the rest of our lives. But this turned out to be wrong. It was Agassi’s style that people in the next generation—-Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Nalbandian—adopted. Now they just whack the ball as hard as they possibly can from the baseline, with all sorts of crazy angles, just like Agassi used to do, and keep whacking it until someone hits a winner. It can also be boring but at its best—with Federer and Nadal—it’s great, in a way that Sampras’s serve and volley was never great.
Now Wallace doesn’t actually like the power-baseline game that much—-or, rather, he doesn’t prefer any particular kind of game to any other. What he admires is genius. McEnroe was a genius (serve-and-volleyer), and Federer is a genius.
The generic power-baseline game is not boring — certainly not compared with the two-second points of old-time serve-and-volley or the moon-ball tedium of classic baseline attrition. But it is somewhat static and limited; it is not, as pundits have publicly feared for years, the evolutionary endpoint of tennis. The player who’s shown this to be true is Roger Federer. And he’s shown it from within the modern game.
This within is what’s important here; this is what a purely [technical] account leaves out. And it is why sexy attributions like touch and subtlety must not be misunderstood. With Federer, it’s not either/or. The Swiss has every bit of Lendl and Agassi’s pace on his groundstrokes, and leaves the ground when he swings, and can out-hit even Nadal from the backcourt. … Subtlety, touch, and finesse are not dead in the power-baseline era. For it is, still, in 2006, very much the power-baseline era: Roger Federer is a first-rate, kick-ass power-baseliner. It’s just that that’s not all he is. There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace — all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.