Thursday, September 27, 2012

From Anna to Andre: Reflections on Andre Agassi’s Open

Elizabeth, you ask, how does Andre Agassi’s autobiography fit into your series on Anna Karenina

It doesn’t.  But I have to interrupt the series and talk about this book that made me read it cover to cover when I meant to read only the first couple chapters.  I just finished it last night and I’m eager to share it with you, if for no other reason than that I’m still shocked that I, not especially a tennis fan, devoured Agassi’s book.  In fact, I’m so poorly versed in tennis that I recognized Agassi’s name primarily from memorizing it as a good guess for any tennis-related questions that my high school In the Know team encountered back in the day.  (I know, this makes me sound like the quintessential dork and is therefore probably not something to confess on a public blog…all this autobiography stuff must be rubbing off...)

More amazing still, I’d wager that most non-tennis folk who give Open a try would find themselves hooked, too.
In part, the book’s appeal comes from the vicarious thrill of living an incredible career and with seeing more of that career than just the fame and the fortune. Agassi really does come off as a down-to-earth guy with no real designs on the vast wealth he ultimately obtains, and so there’s this kind of underdog, rags-to-riches allure that we Americans have historically loved and continue to love.  In fact, Agassi’s story has a lot of the same elements that draw us to many movies and books: the domineering father, the ill-fated romance, the fairytale romance, the nice moral to care for other people, and the lesson that hard work pays off.

But if the book had just these archetypical plots, I doubt I would have picked it up in the first place, and I certainly wouldn’t have continued reading.  What Agassi offers is an intimate look at the struggle for vocation that everyone, in one way or another, wrestles with through their young adult lives and into their twenties, if not well beyond.  Agassi’s grand claim and recurring theme is that he hates tennis.  He seems to think his confession will shock everyone, and maybe, if I were a die-hard tennis fan, it would.  But people who love their jobs are as rare as happy marriages—they do come along , but they are the dear pearls on a beach full of ordinary sand.

I appreciated the honest struggle, and part of what makes it work so well in the book is the way it’s punctuated with real, tangible, win/loss situations.  No tennis match recounted in the book was dwelt on in a way that tested my patience, because no match felt as if it were included for the sake of the sport alone.  Instead, it was part of the search for motivation, for Agassi to find what he did and didn’t want, for him to observe how these other players approached tennis and, by extension, vocation. 

A similar struggle with vocation occurs in the novel I’m currently drafting, and a friend of mine who reads my work and who also happens to arrange his life around Roger Federer matches, saw the similarity and recommended I read Open.  But whether one reads Open for a character study (unlikely) or for an interest in Agassi (more likely), the pleasure quickly becomes that of personal identification. 

Whenever you read a first-person narration, it’s hard not to identify with that first-person narrator.  Of course, in fiction we have the unreliable narrator, and there are certainly elements of that here too.  For one thing, I was skeptical—and the acknowledgements confirmed my skepticism—that Agassi himself sat down and wrote this; indeed, he credits J.R. Moehringer with “transform[ing]” (Agassi’s word) transcripts from their personal interviews into this story.  It’s an autobiography only insofar as Agassi himself was involved in the process.  We expect artifice in fiction; we want reality in autobiography, subjective though its presentation will be.  For another, I caught glimpses that—for however much I read along with “Agassi” and identified with him—if I had actually met Agassi at many points in his career, I would not have gotten along with him.  Chilly and determined as Pete Sampras comes across in Open, I can see, when I step away from the lure of Agassi’s “I,” that I would be faster friends with Sampras than Agassi (insofar as Agassi’s memoir represents the two).  And then, of course, we have to be constantly aware of the subjectivity—that this is Andre Agassi’s story and not Mike Agassi’s story, etc. etc.  Don’t get me wrong: subjectivity is not a bad thing.  In fact, it’s essential to autobiography.

But now here’s my shocking confession: for as much as I identified with Agassi and was rooting for him, I actually felt a little disappointed with the final chapters—not because I wasn’t glad that he had finally secured his reputation and his wealth, wooed Stefanie Graf, experienced the joys of fatherhood, and established a thriving charity.  I was glad, glad in a more genuine way than we usually are for people who make it so big because I understood the difficulties he’d faced in getting there.  And yet, after such struggle, the book comes down to pat and usual morals: caring for others, caring for education, caring for family.  I don’t doubt his love for his wife, children, and charity, but it suddenly all seemed so storybook that it lost its ring of authenticity.

Which is as much a lesson for fiction as for life.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to realize that success has little to do with happiness at a job. There may be lots of janitors who work at what society considers a thankless job and are much happier than famous people we idolize for their success. Fascinating! As for the ending, I wonder if there IS a truer moral there, and it is not something Agassi chose to share. Disappointing in a life story.