This book starts out the way most brilliant, pop psychology books do from an angle you may have never considered before. Since this book is a collection of divergent essays, it should be reviewed chapter by chapter and essay by essay. The first essay “Big Red Son” involves comedic talk of the porn industry. To be fair to the author, David Foster Wallace, this essay was first written in 1998, and some may conclude it unfair to declare it dated, but I didn’t read this until 2012, so I am forced to say that this material has been mined for all its worth at the time of my reading. (See Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff.) The second chapter “Some Remarks on Kafka’s funniness…” whets the appetite. The general idea behind this chapter “that humor is not very sophisticated today” has been mined by those of us obsessed with pop culture, but Wallace does get some points for listing the specific problems with the current sense of humor that doesn’t understand the sophisticated and subtle humor of author Franz Kafka. He says: “Kafka’s humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary US amusement.” This launches the Wallace into a detailed list of complaints about contemporary humor brought to the homes of TV watchers.
“Kafka’s humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary U.S. amusement. There’s no recursive wordplay or verbal stunt-pilotry, little in the way of wisecracks or mordant lampoon. There is no body-function humor, nor sexual entendre, nor stylized attempts to rebel by offending convention. No slapstick with banana peels or rogue adenoids. There are none of the ba-bing ba-bang reversals of modern sitcoms; nor are there precocious children or profane grandparents or cynically insurgent coworkers. Perhaps most alien of all, Kafka’s authority figures are never just hollow buffoons to be ridiculed, but they are always absurd and scary and sad all at once.”
The point that Wallace attempts to make is that his students don’t understand Kafka’s absurdist wit, because they are more accustomed to being spoon-fed their entertainment. They’re not used to having to think through something as complex as Kafka’s central joke:
“That the horrific struggle to establish a human self-results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”
The chapter is worth reading not for its “When I was a kid, we had to walk ten miles to school” style of complaining about the youth of the day, but the illustrative manner in which Wallace complains about humor in general. A complaint this author laments may not be generational.
The fourth chapter may be the selling point for this book. In it, Wallace describes a war that has been occurring in the English language for a couple generations now. Wallace calls it a Usage War. The Usage War describes how one side, the more traditional side, AKA the prescriptive side, pleads for a return to traditional English. He talks of the other side, the more modern side that describes itself as a more scientific study of the language, updating our usage on a more inclusive plane. The latter, called the descriptive side, calls for more political correctness in its language. It calls for a more comprehensive list of words and usage that incorporates styles of language such as Ebonics and words that are more commonly used, such as “irregardless”. Previous to this reading, I heard that tired phrase “everything is political”, but I had no idea that that phrase could be extended to dictionaries. The author’s reporting on this subject is excellent. It is informative without being biased, and it is subjective with enough objectivity to present both viewpoints in a manner that allows you to decide which side is more conducive to progress in our language.
Wallace is not as unbiased in his John McCain chapter however. He makes sure, in the opening portions of an article –that was paid for by the unabashedly liberal periodical Rolling Stone— that his colleagues know that he is not a political animal (i.e. he is stridently liberal). He lets them know he voted for Bill Bradley. Other than the requisite need a writer of a Rolling Stone article feels to display their liberal bona fides, it’s not clear why Wallace would include his opinion in a piece that purports to cover an election campaign. If I were granted the honor of being paid to cover a Nancy Pelosi campaign, for example, I would not begin this piece with a couple of paragraphs describing how I feel about her politics, but such is the state of journalism in America today…particularly in the halls of the unabashedly liberal Rolling Stone.
To have such an article begin with a political screed that is different than mine, would normally turn me off, but I’ve grown used to it. (I know, I know, there is no bias.) The real turn off occurs after the reader wades through the partisan name-calling, to the languid dissertation on the minutiae involved on a campaign bus. If you’re ever aching to know what goes on in a political campaign, I mean really aching to know, this is the chapter for you. I would say that most are curious about the machinations that occur behind the scenes, but I would say that most of those same people would have their curiosity tested by Wallace’s treatment here. He says that the editors at Rolling Stone edited the piece. He says that he always wanted to provide his loyal readers a director’s cut. After reading through the first twenty pages of this chapter, I was mentally screaming for that editor to step in and assist me through the piece. It’s not that it’s poor writing, nor that it’s entirely without merit, but you REALLY have to be one who aching to know the inner workings of a campaign. You have to want to know bathroom difficulties —such as keeping a bathroom door closed on a tour bus— you have to want to know what reporters eat, why they eat it, and when. You have to want your minutiae wrapped in minutiae, until your eyes bleed with detail. It’s a cardinal rule of mine to never skip passages. I live with the notion that I can learn something from just about everything an author I deem worthy writes, and I deem Wallace to be a quality writer with an adept and varying intellect, but I had to break my cardinal rule with this chapter. It was too painful a slog.
As for the chapter on Tracy Austin, Wallace laments the fact that championship level athletes aren’t capable of achieving a degree of articulation that he wants when he purchases one of their autobiographies. Tracy Austin, for those who don’t know, was a championship level tennis player. Wallace purchased her autobiography hoping that, as an adult long since removed from the game of tennis, Austin would be able to elucidate the heart of a champion. He hoped that Austin would be able to describe for us what went through her mind at the moment when she achieved the pinnacle of her career, and he wanted to know what she thought about the accident that led to her premature retirement. He wasn’t just disappointed, he writes, in the manner that he is disappointed with sideline interviews that are loaded with “we give it 110%, one game at a time, and we rise and fall as a team” style clichés. He sums up his disappointment with the following:
“It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must (out of necessity) be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.”
In other words, we are able to express these ideas based on the fact that we concentrate on the arena of the mind, and their concentration lies in physical prowess. We, non-athlete types, think about the things they do, we fantasize about them, and they do them. We think about how glorious it would be to sink a championship winning basket over Bryon Russell, Michael Jordan just does it. We think about, and write about, that incredibly perfect and physically impossible baseline shot of a Tracy Austin, Tracy just does it. We see the replays of their exploits endlessly repeated on Sportscenter, and we hear almost as many different analyses of them. We then think about these plays from all these varied angles that are provided, and we project ourselves onto that platform. We don’t think about all the rigorous hours a Michael Jordan spent in gyms preparing for that moment, we simply think about that moment, and what it would mean to us to have conquered such a moment. So, when one of these athletes steps away from that stage to offer us a few words about that moment and those few words center around the “I just did it” meme we are profoundly disappointed. To paraphrase Yoda, “They don’t think, they do, or they do not.” They use the force granted to them though spending a greater percentage of their lives in gyms, on tennis courts, and in weight rooms. They concentrate on muscle memory to prevent the mind from interfering with their eventual completion of the act. If we, non-athlete types, were in a similar situation, we would think about the significance of the history of the game, the profundity of the moment, how this moment may affect the rest of our lives, how many people are watching us, if Bryon is a better athlete than we are, and if he will block our shot, what the fellas are going to say about this play after the game, and we become so immersed in the enormity of the moment that we probably think too much to make the shot. The point is that they’ve made that shot so many times, in so many different ways and games, that they simply rely on muscle memory to make the championship shot. They may think about that shot, as long as it takes them to project it, but once they step on the court, they go on auto-pilot and complete the mission. They would love to give Hemingway-esque descriptions of their game, that satisfied us all, and lands them in a weekly spot on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, but for all the reasons described here they are simply not capable of it.
I used to wonder what announcers were talking about when they said, “He’s too young to understand what this means.” This kid, as you call him, has been playing this game his whole life, and he’s lived the life of the championship level athlete, which means sacrificing the norms of daily life that his peers knew, and he’s done all that for “this” moment. What do you mean he doesn’t know what it means? It dawned on me, after a couple struggles with it, that “this kid” doesn’t know what this moment would mean to that announcer … or those of us at home watching. In that post-game interview, then, we’re looking for something, some little nugget that we can identify with. When we get phrases from the cliché vault, we’re so disappointed that they didn’t put more effort into identifying with our sense of their glory. We’re frustrated that they couldn’t reach us on our level. Yet, as Wallace states, it is the essence of a championship level athlete to be “blind and dumb” during the moments that define them, and we all know this to one degree or another. We’ve all seen these championship level athletes being interviewed about their individual moments thousands of times, so why do we continue to be so frustrated with them, and does this continued sense of frustration begin to say more about them or us?