Tuesday, August 22, 2006

David Foster Wallace searches for Roger Federer in a forest of footnotes


Rob Tringali/Sports Chrome

The New York Times must have thought they were wrong-footing the competition and hitting a clear winner when they commissioned David Foster Wallace to write an essay -- "Federer as Religious Experience" -- for their glossy sports supplement Sunday. Two geniuses for the price of one -- a great athlete, and a showy, trendy author with a signature style, who knows tennis from the inside, having been a regionally ranked junior player before graduating to literary fame.

It’s the signature style that’s the problem. Lengthy, numerous and only marginally relevant footnotes have become an instantly recognizable feature of the David Foster Wallace brand. On the Charlie Rose Show in 1997, Wallace said the footnotes were used to help “dis-lineate” the flow of the narrative. The Times was happy to accommodate this stylistic tic and included more than a dozen hard to read, tiny footnotes. A good copy editor could easily have integrated the footnotes into the text -- but who knows? Maybe the Times actually requested the footnotes so readers could easily recognize the David Foster Wallace brand.

All I know is that it was all too much dis-lineation for me. The essay was fascinating -- and so frustrating that I was tempted to throw it across the room. Each time the densely written essay gathered some momentum and started to intrigue me with its insights into what makes Federer great, I would have to break off, track down the right microscopic paragraph at the bottom of the page, and then eventually find my way back to where I was forced to break off. It might or might not make for an amusing game in purely literary work, but in a sports essay it seemed obtrusive, distracting and inconsiderate.

Just when I would be about to get really fed up, Wallace would serve up a really nice observation, and I would plunge on, trying to stay in the game. Here he comments on how Federer has brought finesses and touch back to a game that everyone had ceded to the power baseliners.
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.

Which sounds very high-flown and nice, of course, but please understand that with this guy it’s not high-flown or abstract. Or nice. In the same emphatic, empirical, dominating way that Lendl drove home his own lesson, Roger Federer is showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh. He has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied men’s tennis, and for the first time in years the game’s future is unpredictable.
Want to see for yourself? Click this link. An advantage of reading the article online is that the footnotes work much better in html. They’re less obtrusive, easier to get to and easier to read, and it’s easier to return to where you started.

If the footnotes still drive you nuts, remember -- dis-lineation is rarely fatal and recovery is usually rapid once you’re no longer assaulted by footnotes.

1 comment:

Louisa said...

While I do understand your frustration and agree that DFW's style can be a tad overbearing, I'd like to humbly point out that it is not a requirement to read footnotes as you read the text if you don't want to. That's why they're footnotes - they're not sufficiently relevant to be included in the body text. They are extra bits that you can consume, or not, as you like. To criticise an article because of its footnotes is almost (though not quite) like criticising a new car for its (equally optional) SatNav...