David Foster Wallace was young enough when he published his first novel, The Broom of the System, in 1987, that critics who read his witty marathon sentences and then flipped to the author photo of a young man willing himself to look older like every fake I.D. picture ever taken were powerless: they had to dub him the next literary voice of his generation. It’s exactly the kind of over-enthusiastic cliché Wallace was so good at examining and twisting and footnoting into an ironic tangent, and it was that distrust for pat declarations and easy praise that made him such a terrific non-fiction writer.
Wallace died on Friday, an apparent suicide in his Claremont, Calif. home. In his 46 years, Wallace fit journalism in. He was a novelist first, but several of his magazine pieces were classics of the form. Here are a few examples of his considerable skill.
“Federer as Religious Experience”
New York Times’ Play Magazine
August 20, 2006
The genius of this piece is that Wallace makes no pretense of covering the tennis star as a personality or phenomenon “Journalistically speaking, there is no hot news to offer you about Roger Federer” even though he is a witness to the famous 2006 Federer-Nadal final at Wimbledon. Instead, Wallace, who played competitive tennis in his teens, tries to explain why the experience of watching one intelligent but fairly dull man hit a ball is among the more beautiful things a person can see. One of the best magazine stories of the past decade, and the best piece of sports writing I’ve ever read.
A portrait of vagabond right wing radio host John Ziegler that penetrates the sad fluorescent-lit subculture of talk radio and expresses true disdain for some of Ziegler’s politics. Yet Wallace is filled with admiration for the skills “skills so specialized that many of them don’t have names” that make Ziegler good at his job. In one typically electric paragraph, he challenges the reader to appreciate some of these skills:
“Try sitting alone in a room with a clock, turning on a tape recorder, and starting to speak into it. Speak about anything you want with the proviso that your topic, and your opinions on it, must be of interest to some group of strangers who you imagine will be listening to the tape. Naturally, in order to be even minimally interesting, your remarks should be intelligible and their reasoning sequential a listener will have to be able to follow the logic of what you’re saying which means that you will have to know enough about your topic to organize your statements in a coherent way. … You’re trying to communicate in real time with someone you cannot see or hear responses from; and though you’re communicating in speech, your remarks cannot have any of the fragmentary, repetitive, garbled qualities of real interhuman speech … So then, ready: go.”
“Consider the Lobster”
Sending Wallace to the Maine Lobster Festival to write a straight food piece was a bit naive like sending Hunter Thompson to Las Vegas and expecting a few paragraphs about hotel amenities. Wallace attended the festival, but instead of writing about lobsters as food he mused about them as living beings in a piece that, after some entertaining diversions through marine biology and colonial history, asks, “a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure”
“The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and The Shrub”
Apr 13, 2000
Most campaign journalism has a terrible sameness about it, and there are portions of this piece, culled from Wallace’s week with John McCain during the fractious 2000 GOP primary race, that read like lots of other stories by lesser writers. But while he got caught up in the misery of travel and the griping of the press pack, Wallace also noticed that it was the television camera men who were the most trustworthy witnesses and analysts of the candidates’ chances, and developed a deep appreciation for the sacrifices John McCain made, and the indignities he faced, as he tried to become President. The story was later expanded and turned into the e-book Up Simba!