I hate to
have to keep doing this -- eulogising completely non-cricket related heroes of mine
in what is supposed to be a cricket forum. (What can I say? The fuckers just keep on
dying.) In a way, I suppose this one can be
justified by saying that since he had once appeared and been linked to in a
post on Outside the Line, writer David Foster Wallace is more than worthy of tribute in these pages.
(Besides, it's not as if there's been anything noteworthy happening in cricket for a month or so. Just indulge me this once, and I promise I'll get back and treat this like an actual cricket blog during the India v. Australia series.)
It’s funny how, in the age of internet, the death of your heroes can become a joyous, celebratory event. Tributes and remembrances are written, highlight reels and old clips are posted, and the essence of the deceased’s genius is captured in the overlap of the various differing portraits presented about him/her. You come to be reminded of their greatness, and what it is that you loved about them in the first place, as it's put on your screen in simple, well-edited packages, with a concision and eloquence that might often escape you.
Wallace was known as one of his generation's most talented and precocious novelists, combining a mastery of postmodern form and language with a profound concern with the Big Questions of classical literature. And yet some of his most consistently brilliant work came from essays, journalistic pieces, and random magazine assignments, with topics ranging from porn industry award shows, to luxury cruiseships, to right-wing radio shock jocks. He came into all these bearing an outsider's perspective... playing the role of the hyper-sensitive analytical geek-genius, dissecting and cataloguing the minutia of everyday experience, hoping to pick at a deeper, moral core beneath it all; one which the tools and structures of our day were ill-designed to support.
What Wallace understood in his non-fiction -- better than any career hack ever could when tackling the same topic -- was how to look for the story beyond the story. That's why, for example, his 2000 profile of John McCain for Rolling Stone became in part an exploration on the role of the news media in the shaping and of political narratives; or why he used a visit to the Maine Lobster Festival in a piece for Gourmet magazine to launch into a ethical inquiry into the killing of animals and a search for an answer to the question, "“Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?
This brilliance at non-fiction was particularly evident in Wallace's forays into sports journalism, which sadly were confined to the sport of tennis. Take, for example, his celebrated NYT piece, "Roger Federer As Religious Experience". Here, again, he tackles the subject from odd angles, from the metaphysical to the mathematical.
By way of illustration, let’s slow things way down. Imagine that you, a tennis player, are standing just behind your deuce corner’s baseline. A ball is served to your forehand — you pivot (or rotate) so that your side is to the ball’s incoming path and start to take your racket back for the forehand return. Keep visualizing up to where you’re about halfway into the stroke’s forward motion; the incoming ball is now just off your front hip, maybe six inches from point of impact. Consider some of the variables involved here. On the vertical plane, angling your racket face just a couple degrees forward or back will create topspin or slice, respectively; keeping it perpendicular will produce a flat, spinless drive. Horizontally, adjusting the racket face ever so slightly to the left or right, and hitting the ball maybe a millisecond early or late, will result in a cross-court versus down-the-line return. Further slight changes in the curves of your groundstroke’s motion and follow-through will help determine how high your return passes over the net, which, together with the speed at which you’re swinging (along with certain characteristics of the spin you impart), will affect how deep or shallow in the opponent’s court your return lands, how high it bounces, etc.
Plus there’s the fact that you’re not putting a static object into motion here but rather reversing the flight and (to a varying extent) spin of a projectile coming toward you — coming, in the case of pro tennis, at speeds that make conscious thought impossible. Mario Ancic’s first serve, for instance, often comes in around 130 m.p.h. Since it’s 78 feet from Ancic’s baseline to yours, that means it takes 0.41 seconds for his serve to reach you. This is less than the time it takes to blink quickly, twice.
Can you imagine what Wallace could've done with a game as intricate as cricket? How much could he have written about a simple Tendulkar flick off the hips behind square? Knowing DFW, a hell of a lot. (And with a bucketful of footnotes to boot.)