Book Club: Wild Things ate my wig!
Max, a naughty little boy, came home one evening dressed in a wolf suit. “I’ll eat you up!” He yelled, jumping mischievously in front of his mother.
Angry over his misbehaviour, Max’s mother sends him to bed without supper. In his room, a world of seas and forrest grew out of Max’s imagination and Max decided to sail to the and of the wild things.
The great Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure once declared that meaning is eternally deferred. We know we exist, but what does that existence mean? Andre Agassi’s autobiography “Open” depicts a man’s search for the meaning of existence, a pursuit that took him out of the comforts of his bedroom, shoved into the tennis world, and ultimately into a land where the wild things frolicked and he was king.
The son of a brutal Iranian immigrant, Agassi began hitting balls in preschool to satisfy his father’s ambitions of having a tennis player in the family. As the object of his father’s obsession, Agassi grew to hate tennis, yet see it as his responsibility. A responsibility that made everything else in life seem irrelevant – school, fun, rest, friends. At the core of a tennis obsession, winning is everything, so when Agassi won a sportsmanship trophy after losing in a tournament, his father smashed it to pieces. It was from this sort of background that Andre Agassi’s lifelong love-hate relationship with tennis began.
Max journeys deep into his imagination, “to where the wild things are”. The Wild Things are yellow-eyed monsters. Max conquers them “by staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once, and he is made the King of all Wild Things, partying with his monster-mates in a wild rumpus.
Cut to Andre, aged 13, living at the Bollettieri Academy, or “Lord of the Flies with forehands“, as Agassi himself describes. He was “the man”. A boy so special that he demanded the special attention of Nick Bollettieri himself. His tennis was growing in leaps and bounds, but his personal search for meaningful existence took a wayward turn: he drank hard liquor, smoked dope. He wore an earring and a Mohawk, played tennis in eyeliner and jeans.
And although he didn’t know it at the time, this would be the start of a long journey through the land of the wild things, where monsters came in all shapes and sizes – the media, Brook Shields, crystal meth, depression, and indeed, tennis itself.
What the press called rebellion was simply a search for identity, a belief that a Self can be found in a mohawk, short jeans or a pink shirt … A ‘wild rumpus’ of sorts with the yellow-eyed monsters in life.
And in the land where the wild things are, Andre Agassi was king of all wild things.
And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.
Then all around from far away across the world
he smelled good things to eat
so he gave up being king of where the wild things are.
In many ways, we all search for the meaning of existence and that “gap” between what we feel and what we say we feel. Max, wisely, took his time, went away to party with the wild things, and when he was ready, he came home to find supper still hot, left in his room by his mother.
But first, he must shed the wolf-suit.
Andre Agassi, like Max, tried to find identity amongst the wild things. He faced monsters. For a while, he became one of them – gentle, wild, and ultimately lonely.
As Agassi admits, tennis is the closest thing sport has to solitary confinement. It’s a lonely sport made lonelier by a racket, a net, and a distance that separates the competitor from his opponent, both only too aware that there can only be one man left standing in the end.
In such an existence, how can one stay true to himself? Or even know what the Self is? As the trajectory of the book shows, identity cannot be constructed through clothes, hair, or the number of grand slams a player wins. Image is everything. But Image is nothing. And “the Self” that Agassi spent most of his adolescent and adult life building cannot actually be built.
But the Self can be located. It can be reflected. It can look back on him in a compassionate, loving gaze. Cue “Team Agassi”, his eventual entourage featuring his body trainer and surrogate father Gil, brother Philly, best friends Perry and JP, coaches Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill, and of course, his eventual wife Steffi Graf, mother of his 2 children.
Each of them flawed but loving and loyal, Agassi eventually found himself reflected in them, the people who unconditionally love him, forgives his desires and flaws and stuck by him through thick and thin. As the official anthem of angst goes, be my mirror, my sword and shield.
With that reflection comes acceptance and closure – shedding the wolf-suit, saying goodbye to the wild things, and coming home to hot supper.
There is poetry then in the fact that the book ends with a chapter on Agassi’s school – his real inspiration in life and vision for the future. The scene shifts to a public court, with Agassi and Graf playing tennis, a sport they both so hated but were driven to play. Only this time in retirement, Agassi embraced it as a part of his identity and made a conscious choice, “I want to play just a little longer.”
Ghost-written by JR Moehringer, a Pulitzer prize winner, “Open” is a beautifully structured book, full of subtle symmetries and humanity. By deliberately doing away with quotation marks for speech, the book exposes the readers to a voice unconstrained by verbatim, a stream of consciousness where the distinctions between utterance and thoughts, fact and recollection are rendered irrelevant.
The result is that ‘Open’ is so much more than a tennis biography. Tennis provides merely for an undercurrent of chronology in the book.
Ultimately, it is a book about the search for an identity, and a reminder that no matter how deep we journey into the land of the wild things, there is a way back. Back into your bedroom, perhaps even with hot supper waiting.
But first, we must shed the wolf-suit.