“Angles of Response to Your Angles, or Brief Reflections on Tennis, Sharks, and the Loss of David Foster Wallace”
It was late, almost three in the morning, and the vibrating of my iPhone shook the bedstead. I answered without looking. The voice on the other end was placid and female. She sounded like someone I knew.
“Did you hear?” she asked.
I had been asleep for several hours, a copy of Raymond Carver’s Elephant on my chest, and had heard nothing.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“I’m sorry, love,” the woman said. It was the love that struck me, and I knew it was Katherine. Her breathing was soft but rapid, like she’d been holding her breath and was afraid to exhale all at once.
“Are you hurt?” I asked, then immediately wondered why this was my first question1.
“David Foster Wallace died,” Katherine said. “Hung himself.” Her voice contained the perfect amount of somberness.
“Jesus Christ,” I said2.
I repeated the words several times over the course of the next few minutes. Katherine remained on the other end of the line but said nothing. Her breathing, though, comforted. For some reason, there were no words capable of capturing my despair3. I felt languid and unnerved and unsure of how to process the death of my héros littéraire.
“Will you stay on the phone with me,” I asked Katherine, “until I fall asleep?” It felt childish to want company. I didn’t know David Foster Wallace, not on any personal level. But, I did know him, his writing, his hopes and fears on the page. He opened himself, acerbically and unashamedly, to the reader. In a peerless, particular way, David Foster Wallace had informed aspects of my life that were, in the most general of terms, strictly my own: writing, reading, teaching, a love of tennis, an obsession with sharks, and a desire to use, whenever appropriate and necessary, a footnote4.
Shortly after Wallace’s suicide, I rediscovered an older essay of his, some eighteen years old, entitled, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley5.” While the essay contained much of Wallace’s classic sardonic tone and irreverent observations, the piece felt early—early in Wallace’s career, his style, and his efforts as a maître of nonfiction. Most notably, though, the piece lacked his signature footnotes. I had come to expect that all of his work contained footnotes, though I knew better6 style: his comedy, his brilliance, his humaneness” (Lipsky 102).]. In the end, though, I found little fault with this early piece.
The sagacity of the essay could be found in Wallace’s ability to weave together seemingly foreign concepts—tennis, math, tornadoes, and ultimately, writing—in a manner that left readers wholly satisfied. He connected these ideas early on, allowing the reader a closeness to his own bias and mindset: “Competitive tennis…requires geometric thinking, the ability to calculate not merely your own angles but the angles of response to your angles (“Tornado” 9). I could not help but think of writing after reading the passage—could Wallace’s essays, short stories, and novels not be described in the same way, as “angles of response to your [the reader’s] angles?” Or even as a response to Wallace’s own “angles?” The essay revealed itself by allowing every reader, not just Wallace himself, to calculate those “angles of response.” If a reader simply stood at baseline, expecting Wallace to hit groundstroke after groundstroke, he/she would have grossly misplayed the terrain7 of the essay. Wallace, described as “In [His] Element” on a tennis court (“Tornado” 14), displayed equal deftness in his ability to crystallize his experiences as both a junior-ranked tennis player and Midwestern adolescent. The true power of the essay, though, ultimately rested in Wallace’s unabashed honesty and willingness to, more times than not, expose his insecurities to the reader.
In early adulthood, I learned how to play tennis on a cracked, forgotten court on the outskirts of the University of Central Florida campus. The court sloped slightly in the middle and, when I rushed the net, I would always lose my footing. The terrain, it seemed, was a weakness. Even after the courts were resurfaced and leveled out, there was always something unsettling about rushing the net. So, in the end, I decided to stay back, on the baseline.
Despite being a rather mediocre tennis player, I entered a few low-level USTA (United States Tennis Association) events at the behest of my tennis coach8, Ed Smith. He, like me, had two loves: language and tennis. Having been an English teacher for nearly twenty years, Ed enjoyed the similarities between tennis and writing9.
In my first event, I somehow made it to the third round. To be fair, though, my second round match ended in a walkover: the seventeen-year-old boy on the other side of the net was suffering the lingering effects of a flu and began vomiting all over the ad court. The smell of fruit punch Gatorade overtook the afternoon. My opponent in the third round was a former high school champion and had the benefit being a few years my junior10. The match was quick, though, and for me, painless: 6-2, 6-0. My bright red bandana was soaked with sweat from the summer sun, but I felt fresh. Ed came to me after the match and hugged me. It was a strange, unrepeated moment. He placed his hand on my shoulder, gave it a firm squeeze, and said, “Goody, you really play that court. You’re not pretty, but you play that court.”
I rarely thought about that moment until recently. In rereading “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” I came across a passage that I’m positive Ed Smith was aware of even back then: “What I could do was ‘Play the Whole Court.’ This was a piece of tennis truistics that could mean any number of things. In my case, it meant I knew my limitations and the limitations of what I stood inside, and adjusted thusly” (4). Once more, I was in awe of Wallace’s ability to, in one moment, capture a sensibility that moved fluidly between the sport of tennis and the craft of writing. This captured the essence of my literary struggles, put to words that feeling of sitting at the computer and watching the thin, abiding cursor flash sadistically against a bright, overwhelming white. Within the limitations of where I stood, atop a flawed, unpredictable terrain, rested one inescapable truth: both writing and tennis, in their own ways and only when done well, should leave those on the other side unable to catch their breath.
The decision to teach “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” did not come without difficulty. I was nervous, knowing how emotional I’d been about the subject since Wallace’s death. To begin the class, I handed out a copy of the New York Times obituary, written on September 15, three days after Wallace’s death. The class, seemingly as a whole, had the wind knocked out of them. They didn’t know, not one of them, that Wallace had passed away. One young man looked up at me and said, “How? This guy can’t be dead. He’s incredible.” I nodded and grinned. Both statements were true.
Throughout “A Supposedly Fun Thing…”, Wallace had a way of moving between the beautiful and the absurd with seamless ease. Just before describing the absurdity of “reggae elevator music,” “sea legs,” and “blucky” caviar, Wallace wrote: “I have seen, one time, from an upper deck’s rail, way below and off the right rear hull, what I believe to have been a hammerhead shark’s distinctive fun, addled by the starboard turbine’s Niagaracal wake” (258). There was a captivating innocence to Wallace when he referenced sharks in his writing. It could overtake any moment(s) of absurdity. Later in the essay, he went on to describe the ocean as “primordial nada, bottomless” (262), and said he had always “associated the ocean with dread and death” (261). I found strong fascination, though, in Wallace’s recounting the tale of the U.S.S. Indianapolis (done, most appropriately, in a footnote):
5 I’m doing this from memory. I don’t need a book. I can still name every documented Indianapolis fatality, including some serial numbers and hometowns. (Hundreds of men lost, 80 classified as Shark, 7-10 August’45; the Indianapolis had just delivered Little Boy to the island of Tinian for delivery to Hiroshima, so ironists take note…). (262)
The goosebumps still came, despite having read that passage at least a dozen times before. Wallace had memorized the facts, the numbers; it seemed, however, even within those statistics, that Wallace had also categorized the panic, loss, horror brought on by that historic event. And, within the pages of his essay, Wallace found the words to bring to life, not only the fear, but also the interminable beauty moving, fast and determined, like a Great White shark just below the surface. He was capable, at all times, of noticing the fin breaking through the cresting waves.
My mother told me that I was three years old the first time I saw Jaws. I wasn’t sure whether or not I believed this, but I liked the idea of my three-year-old-self sitting on the couch next to my father, nails buried in his exposed leg. She told me that, surprisingly, I was okay with everything, the blood and music and screaming, until Ben Gardner’s head floated out onto the screen. There was just something about the expression on his face, the whiteness of his skin in the dark water, that I could never let go of; I thought that was the worst of it, the scariest thing I had seen.
Then came the scene. The three men—Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw11—sat around a table trading scar stories. After a few back-and-forths, Shaw began speaking about the U.S.S. Indianapolis, on which his character, Quint, was a crewmember. What followed was the most chilling moment, I believe, in cinematic history. It also began, for me, a lifelong obsession with sharks that remained long after this first viewing.
Wallace’s description of this event, as well as the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks12 that inspired both the novel and film, solidified our connection in my mind. He put to page my curiosities about sharks and did so in a way that made the requins feel even more matchless13. This was his curse. This was his power. Above all else, Wallace knew words, knew his writing, as well as he knew his sharks.
In the early morning after Katherine’s phone call, I searched the Internet for every available detail on Wallace’s suicide. There was very little information at that point, and my mind began to wander. How could he be dead? I felt incapable of understanding death at that moment. It was too large, too quiet, too pervasive—the sound of loss had become, to me, silence. As fewer and fewer results came back about Wallace, I began to search for sharks, then shark attacks, then shark diving. An idea came into my mind that I was unable to abort: I would go shark diving. Different options were presented, and I settled on several. Cage dive. Farallon Islands. Autumn. I sat back in my chair, a sense of odd satiation consuming me. Not long after, I returned to bed and slept.
In the summer, I spent time on the east coast of Florida. It had been years since I’d been in those waters, waters responsible for so many shark attacks; the ocean floor was always rocky and uneven. One particular day, the sun beat down mercilessly and I decided to take a swim. Katherine joined me. She moved out in front of me, some ten yards or so, and I sank down into the water, leaving only my head bobbing above the surface. The taste of salt overcame my lips. As the waves grew larger and more frequent, I stood up and called to Katherine, asked her not to go out too far. It was then that I looked down into the crystal, glassy water. A grey shadow passed in front of me, like it was gliding. Some five feet, and clearly a nurse shark. Harmless. I stared and fought the urge to reach down and hug the creature. She’s gorgeous. It was all I could think at the moment. I had goosebumps. When it moved on, I caught Katherine’s eye and realized how far out she’d gone. I called her back in, remaining calm so as not to panic her. The shark, though, came beside her and passed. Katherine was, needless to say, terrified. She swam in quickly, and we moved together to the shore. Standing there, holding Katherine’s hand and the tide moving in and covering my sunburned toes, all I wanted was to jump back in, to follow the shark down into the water, into whatever darkness it preferred.
Later that week, I had a strange dream. I was, in fact, diving with Great Whites, the Carcharodon carcharias14; the water, I recall, felt chilly. I cannot remember clearly what I was wearing, save for my red tennis bandana, which seemed to provoke the sharks. As the largest White approached, I stuck something out from between the cage bars, something resembling a book. It was thick and heavy, even in the water. There was no cover, no identifying marks, at least none that I remember. Just the weight of the object in my hands. The White struck hard and fast, rattling the cage. Whatever was in my hands had been taken. When I thought about the dream later, though, I pretended the object was Infinite Jest, Wallace’s seminal piece of fiction. I had no basis for this imagining—I simply wanted the object to hold some meaning. The dream left an impression, and I needed to know why, needed the connection. Pretending felt right. I imagined, wherever he was resting, David Foster Wallace would enjoy the thought of a massive Great White consuming his greatest work15.
Lipsky, David. “The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace.” Rolling Stone 30 Oct. 2008: 100-111.
Wallace, David Foster. “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1998. 256-353.
—. “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley.” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1998. 3-20.
—. “Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes.” Harper’s Dec. 1991: 68-75, 78.
Danny Goodman holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans, and teaches both creative writing for the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and English for SEO’s High School Scholars Program in NYC. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in various places, most notably Brevity, Found Press, Mixer, and Used Furniture Review, and two of his short stories were finalists for the Flatmancrooked Fiction Prize. Goodman edits the online lit journal fwriction : review, its sister blog fwriction and lives in New York City.
- She would certainly have led with something more exigent if she were hurt, such as, “I’ve fallen off my fire escape. I may die.” ↩
- Not a religious man, I was surprised by the inclusion of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in my
reaction. Perhaps, I thought, I should have said “Holy Shit,” or “Godammit”; those, too, though,
were pregnant with faith. ↩
- I thought of the word “despair” at that moment, though I had never consciously used it in either my thoughts or my writing. However, it was the only proper word. Only later, weeks later really, did I make any sense of that moment. During my preparations to teach a David Foster Wallace essay to an undergraduate nonfiction class, I reread “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” The piece still struck me, and later my students. “I know this guy,” one young woman said. “After reading this, I really feel like I know him.” Specifically, though, my attention was drawn to Wallace’s use of the aforementioned word:
The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously…It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard. (“Supposedly” 261)
Of course, now, I couldn’t help but read those words differently. They were, in the essay, written about a cruise; in reality, though, the words resonated far beyond the “very, very bright blue” that Wallace saw while aboard the Nadir (“Supposedly” 257). After all, the man had bound his wrists and ankles with duct tape (an attempt to avoid failure, which had happened on at least one previous occasion) and hanged himself with a black belt. Ligature, the coroner’s report called it. After a detailed description of the furrow made by the belt, the report made an avowal that, in some queer way, left me with a sense of peace: No other trauma is present. ↩
- I hope, above all else, that he would approve of this one. ↩
- The piece had originally run in Harper’s under the title, “Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes,” and listed Wallace as a “fiction writer,” which seemed at odds with the heading of the page: MEMOIR. There were some changes made in the latter version, found in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, many of which made the piece more like Wallace’s later works (decidedly darker, in my opinion). This made me think of the aforementioned essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” which was originally published, in a substantially shortened version and titled “Shipping Out,” in Harper’s. Later, I became obsessed with reading both versions of these essays, side by side, and chronicling the differences. What did Wallace add in revision; what did he deem expendable or unsalvageable? For days, I became fixated with the idea of Wallace sitting at his desk in Claremont, struggling over the minutia of every line, every word, his dogs nudging his legs, hoping for some play time. Then, I came across an omission, a line not carried from one version to the other: “My first really detailed memory is all sharp edges” (“Trigonometry” 70). I read the line over and over. I wrote it down. This was what Wallace had become to me, what his writing and his influence and his legacy had become. Sharp edges. ↩
- In fact, much of his short fiction did not utilize footnotes. And, perhaps my favorite piece of Wallace’s writing, “Federer as Religious Experience,” also lacked footnotes. It would seem that the footnotes, while brilliant, were not essential to the belief that readers “curled up in the nooks and clearings of [Wallace’s ↩
- This was not a word I was accustomed to using in my own writing, but Wallace’s use seemed utterly appropriate and prophetic: “The terrain’s strengths are its weaknesses” (“Tornado” 6). This felt applicable to both Wallace’s skill on a tennis court as well as his writing ability. More immediately, though, this had a strong impact on my own writing. As my writing evolved into something I found tangible and, well, comme ci comme ça, the concept of “terrain” became more apparent. The very foundation of my writing could, on the surface, appear even, level. However, without further investigation—revision, rewriting, revision, rewriting—the assumption of evenness would become an infection, a weakness, of my writing. The key was to identify this aspect of my writing and adapt. Use the terrain to my advantage; make the piece, fiction or nonfiction, stronger because of the terrain, not in spite of it. This was what Wallace did so well. This was what made me obsessed with his work the moment I began to know good writing. This was what broke my heart when my phone rang that September night. ↩
- He was, in actuality, not my coach; rather, he ran a weekly clinic at the Oviedo public tennis courts. We developed a rapport, Ed and I, and when the time came, he took it upon himself to encourage my advancement to the next level. He told me once, after a grueling practice in a ninety-degree Central Florida heat, that he once coached Jim Courier. He was child then, Ed said, but full of the passion. ↩
- Ed and I shared a few drinks the night after I defended my undergraduate thesis, which consisted of a series of interconnected short stories. His study, I remember, smelled of cigar, though I knew Ed had never smoked. As he filled my glass for a third time with thirty-year-old Macallan, he smacked my face, lightly, and said: Good writing, young man, is like a well-played match. If you do everything right, if everything falls into its proper place, the person on the other side won’t be able to catch their breath. He returned to his seat on the couch, and we sipped our Scotch in silence. ↩
- I cannot remember his name, but since that match, I’ve always thought of him as Robby Jones, though I’m not entirely sure why. ↩
- A classic story told that, the previous night, Shaw attempted to do the scene while intoxicated (which he was during much of the filming of the movie) in order to add a realistic effect. The scene flopped. A reshoot occurred the following day and was completed in one take. The scene, as it was in the film, was this one take. ↩
- A film was recently made about this event as well, though it fell short of both Jaws and Wallace’s description: “the most-fatalities-attributed-to-a-single-shark series of incidents around Matawan/Spring Lake NJ…(Great White again; this time they caught a carcharias in Raritan Bay NY and found human parts in gastro (I know which parts, and whose))” (“Supposedly” 262). He used so few words yet was able to capture a terror that consumed an entire summer (and perhaps a lifetime, for some people). I connected with the passage on a visceral level, as I had, many times before, rattled off the names of the victims from that summer: Charles Vansant, Charles Bruder, Lester Stillwell, Watson Fisher, Joseph Dunn. The last, Joseph, only a boy of fourteen, survived his attack. He was the only one. After a lengthy hospital stay, he was released on September 15. That day, it seems, means something. ↩
- “I made such a fuss,” Wallace wrote, “about the one (possible) dorsal fin I saw off starboard that my companions at…Table 64 finally had to tell me, with all possible tact, to shut up about the fin already” (“Supposedly” 262). I feared after reading the line that my friends must have, on multiple occasions, wished for me to shut up about the fin, already. The thought, I admit, made me grin. ↩
- I should admit that this was not an uncommon dream for me. I dreamt, on several occasions, about diving with sharks; in one instance, my mother appeared in the dream and was able to swim through the sharks. Like they were nothing more than water. She waved at me, I remember. ↩
- Wallace’s writing always felt like a shark attack, his words, like row after row of razored-teeth, cutting through a reader to the bone. Equal parts force and elegance. Like the tornadoes of Wallace’s adolescence, which left him forever changed:
and the fence had…body-shaped indentations like in cartoons…we got…lines impressed on our faces, torsos, legs’ fronts, from the fence, my sister said we look liked waffles…tornadoes do that, obey no rule, follow no line, hop up and down at something that might as well be will. (“Tornado” 20)
That was Wallace, wrapped up in the tightest package possible: a force of elegant nature, a disobeyer, a leader rather than follower, a writer capable of impressing his will upon a reader and leaving a body-shaped indentation, like in cartoons. ↩