Wallace does this beautiful thing with athletes in his non-fiction (I realize this is a vague and sloppy sentence by all standards, but any different set of words simply will not suffice-cannot capture the same sentiment). To borrow Wallace’s words, here is a theory. In “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” Wallace writes Tracy Austin’s biography.
The function of “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” is binary. On the one hand, Wallace evinces the paradox that the ones endowed with the gift of athletic genius must “be blind and dumb about it” and the ones denied of that gift become the (only) ones who “see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift” (155). On the other hand, in portraying himself as a member of the latter group, Wallace, in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” finds his way to express the athlete’s experience of her gift.
In the beginning, Wallace conjectures why Americans purchase sports memoirs. He reasons that “We want to hear about the humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instinct, liniment and pain….we want to know how it feels, inside, to be both beautiful and best” (144). His reason for why Americans read memoirs of top athletes echoes his reason for fiction’s existence: “to give her [the reader] imaginative access to other selves,” to provide the reader “an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience” (McCaffery 127).
Moreover, Wallace sets himself apart from the athlete, as someone on the other side, someone on the outside, someone yearning for that vicarious experience: “She was a genius and I was not. How must it have felt? I had some serious questions to ask her. I wanted very much, her side of it” (144). In these lines, Wallace stresses his-the reader’s, the outsider’s-desire to know the feeling of that experience. He begs for an answer to “How must it have felt?” and he emphasizes that “we want to know how it feels.”
His disappointment stems from the athlete’s inability to communicate that feeling or any feeling at all. Wallace laments that Austin’s autobiography’s function is not to communicate or illuminate feeling, but rather “to deaden feeling” (151). More precisely, Wallace’s disappointment arises from the athlete’s utter lack of feeling: the feeling that readers crave access to turns out to be absent. Wallace concludes that “the real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself….just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all” (154). In a way, Wallace concludes that the athlete is ultimately empty-headed, like an automaton that simply acts-thus, not a being incapable of articulating her feelings, but a being lacking the capacity to feel-to be self-conscious and self-reflective. In essence, Wallace depicts the athlete as dead. Accordingly, to Wallace, all the climactic moments in her life seem to be “boiled down to one dead bite” (151). Furthermore, the death of the athlete seems to be associated with silence-a non-linguistic expression.
And Wallace brings her back to life through writing-through translating or perhaps more accurately, imagining her feelings into words. Wallace transcribes Tracy Austin’s non-linguistic, “public and performative kind of genius” (153) into a linguistic, verbal, written kind of genius. By delineating what Austin’s autobiography “could have been” (148), Wallace in effect writes her biography for her. Wallace feels her feelings for her: “having it all at seventeen and then losing it all by twenty-one because of stuff outside your control is just like death except you have to go on living afterward” (150). Wallace discerns her privation, her persistence, her sacrifice, and her pain for her: “Tracy Austin’s most conspicuous virtue, a relentless workaholic perfectionism that combined with raw talent to make her such a prodigious success, turned out to be also her flaw and bane” (149). Through his writing, Wallace accomplishes what Tracy Austin cannot: he makes her “a recognizable human being” (151). Wallace thus brings the athlete to life. The athlete cannot write her own story, for in a sense, in her story, in the center court and “at the center of hostile crowd noise,” there is “nothing at all.” So he writes it for her.
There is so much more to Wallace’s athletes than what I have written here. What do you guys make of his athletes? The other non-fiction one that occurs to me most poignantly is Michael Joyce. How about Wallace’s fictional athletes? Do they have common qualities? They are also different; the fictional ones don’t seem as dead. In a way, Wallace seems to be inventing not only the fictional athletes, but also the non-fictional ones, by giving them life, feelings, and redemption.