MANILA, Philippines - The most exciting tennis game I have experienced is the finals of the 2005 US Open, Roger Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. I didn’t watch it on television, nor did I have the pleasure of watching it live; David Foster Wallace told me about it in an essay: “Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court back hand that pulls Federer way out to his wide to his left 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.”
Who has the patience to write an opening sentence like that? Not even sports journalism comes that close to the bone of the game, the beauty of the man. David Foster Wallace, a man who lived to write, lived hardest through his writing, and died doing it, was this obsessive; my obsession is with his obsessiveness.
“Mister Squishy,” which opens his collection of short stories Oblivion, contains this sentence: “The conference room’s carpeting was magenta pile in which wheels left symmetrically distended impressions when one or more of the men adjusted their executive swivel chairs slightly to reposition their legs or their bodies’ relation to the table itself.” The story goes on for 63 pages, describing in excruciating detail the goings-on in a room where a focus group is discussing the new “high-concept chocolate-intensive Mister Squishy snack cake designed primarily for individual sale in convenience stores,” before zooming with surgical precision in and out of the thoughts of each person in the room. All the description could drive a reader mad, but the rewards — a lasting, rattling empathy toward fellow human beings and the world in general — are staggering.
DFW’s language is always precise. His obsession was with words, and beyond that, meaning, and above that, fact, and over everything: truth. Of him Mark McAdam wrote: “He dared to follow ideas into the abyss, beyond the normal barriers of patience and trepidation.” In glorifying the mundane through obsessiveness with language, DFW slit open the readers’ consciousnesses and shook their gazes right out of their navels. Everything DFW wrote — from his review of Terminator 2 to his wicked novella Broom of the System to the introduction of Best American Essays 2007 to his masterpiece Infinite Jest to his unfinished masterpiece The Pale King — was a call for you to pay attention — no, not to him — okay, to him for a bit — but mostly to what surrounds you: the water.“This Is Water” is a digestible version of DFW’s lifelong call for compassion, accessible online.
“This Is Water” was a commencement speech to the 2005 graduating batch of Kenyon College and is necessarily pop, though not petty. DFW never officially said so, but “This Is Water” can be read as his ars poetica. He takes the audience through allegories — including one of goldfish that are oblivious to the water they exist in — before easing into an argument that reality is not what it seems, or it doesn’t have to be what it seems.
DFW describes in his characteristic obsessiveness the grim situation of going to the supermarket after work, where all your thoughts radiate from the seething dullness at your core. Everything is about you, welling up inside you: your hunger, your impatience at the long line, your dread of the traffic. DFW pauses your internal monologue, pushes up your chin between his forefinger and thumb, and shakes your head to look around you and reevaluate — not how to change the situation drastically but — how you are taking it in. Wonder at the exhaustion of the woman screaming at her child, he says, consider what the checkout lady has to go home to. DFW, pontificating from atop the jungle gym in the vast multiverse that is his mind, reminds you that your head can be a playground too.
“It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
Yet the human eye can only let so much light in before it goes blind. My favorite DFW piece is “Good Old Neon,” a short story. DFW writes in the first-person, declaring: “My whole life I’ve been a fraud.” Neon goes on to talk — at great intensity, of course — about his being “fraudulent, befogged, hopeless and full of self-contempt.” He narrates getting through class, seeing a psychiatrist, earning the nickname Neon as a .418 hitter on the baseball team — ending his life with a car-crash suicide. The story itself could end there, of course, but instead the gaze swings gracefully out of the body, and it’s now talking about a certain David Wallace, who has come across the yearbook photo of his classmate Neon, “trying to reconcile what this luminous guy had seemed like from the outside with whatever on the interior must have driven him to kill himself.”
The emotional click you experience at the end of “Good Old Neon” is a slow one, coming after a rapid-fire series of mental clicks. It’s a darkly funny one, with a sort of ha-ha-made-you-look cleverness because of the surprise character you encounter, a magnification of the grief into something you had to feel with the character; it’s empathy. Of course, you feel cheated. You feel deeply sad, you feel — finally! after much exertion on the brain, the heart flings open its doors! — the staggering loss. When I heard David Foster Wallace killed himself in 2008, that’s how I felt. I have tried to describe it for you.