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David Foster Wallace and String Theory

By Ben Leubner.


David Foster Wallace, String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis (Library of America, 2016)

The five essays that comprise String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis have all appeared in other books by Wallace: two in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, one in Consider the Lobster, and two in the posthumously published Both Flesh and Not. Nevertheless, it’s a treat to have them all collected between two covers now, especially when the book in question is a well-designed, slim and handsome hardcover, styled in the green-and-white of a traditional grass or hard court tennis surface. The only unpublished material in the collection is a short introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan that aptly summarizes Wallace’s junior career in and lifelong enjoyment of tennis, concluding with a black-and-white photograph of an eighteen-year-old Wallace and his high school tennis team, a bowl-headed Wallace grinning in the back row, hugging his racquet to his chest.

When Esquire originally ran Wallace’s essay on tennis pro Michael Joyce in 1996, it was titled “The String Theory,” a title which this new collection both borrows and improves upon by excising its definite article. Such an evocation of a branch of quantum physics in a book about tennis might seem unusual, but it is, of course, apt when the writer in question is David Foster Wallace. Wallace was always interested in what can be called the multidimensionality of tennis, and not just insofar as the game brings into play length, width, height, depth, and time, in addition to the laws of motion. There are psychological dimensions of the game to be considered, as well, along with others: economical dimensions, broadly aesthetic dimensions, even ethical dimensions, and so on. As often happens in his nonfiction, Wallace’s ostensible subject frequently serves as an excuse for, or rather a gateway to, any number of other considerations, some of which, on occasion, will temporarily hijack the essay in question, usurping its original topic. With tennis as the hub in this volume, spokes run out in several directions from essay to essay: to mathematics, to finance and commerce, to meteorology and geography, to celebrity culture and the ethos of entertainment, to Greek tragedy, to mysticism. It’s all in the game.

But Wallace’s true non-ostensible subject in these five essays would seem unsurprisingly to be, more often than not, writing – the game of tennis, that is, frequently serves as a metaphor for or simply evokes the art of writing in Wallace’s sports musings. One would expect something like this, perhaps, in his scathing and yet simultaneously sympathetic review of Tracy Austin’s ghostwritten autobiography, where his subject is already a book about tennis, but it’s there in the other four essays as well, an analogy usually cruising below the surface of their content, but one that occasionally surfaces for air. And this connection is made even more apparent in Infinite Jest, some of the tennis bits of which the editors at Library of America, who compiled String Theory, were wise to leave out, as it would have been just too messy and too violent a job to excerpt, abridge, and contextualize that particular novel.

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Yet Infinite Jest is indeed about tennis in a very big way, and early on in the novel, which was published the same year as “The String Theory,” Wallace makes the connection between tennis and writing readily apparent, where this connection then goes on to inform the remaining thousand pages that the reader still has to trek through. The passage in question is a conversation over ice cream between tennis instructor Gerhardt Schtitt and the multi-handicapped moral center of the novel, Mario Incandenza, where Schtitt’s remarks to Mario on the aesthetics of tennis function simultaneously as commentary on the aesthetics of the novel itself. Schtitt, we’re told, understands on an intuitive level what James Incandenza, Mario’s physicist-turned-filmmaker father, understood at a theoretical level (deep breath):

that locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern . . . was a matter not of reduction at all, but – perversely – of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth…

This expansion and growth are, however, “beautiful because infoliating, contained, [a] diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained.” There are any number of metafictional passages in Infinite Jest that seem to be about the novel itself, even providing “keys” to it, but few are more vital, I think, than this one and the remarks that immediately follow it. It’s easy to see the novel itself as a vast, expansive, perversely infoliating, contained system, an infinity between two covers, thus firmly establishing an analogy between the book itself and a tennis court. Both the book and the court are finite, bounded, delineated by lines; however, they are both also diagnate infinities, where the word “diagnate” would seem to imply, in the case of the court, the involvement of two players, and so in the case of the book the relationship between writer and reader. This is where the exponential infoliation occurs, in the relationship between two entities encountering each other in a given field, on either side of a divide.

Essentially, then, to read Infinite Jest is to play a kind of tennis with David Foster Wallace; it’s him against us, where unless we’re focused, poised, and really on our game, he’ll yank us around from the outset and torture us as Mario’s brother, Hal, does to his opponents – and as many who have tried to read Infinite Jest but failed to estimate it properly might attest, Wallace himself is perfectly capable of doing this, too. If we are ready, though, if we don’t underestimate our opponent, if our own strokes are practiced and we move about freely within the restrictions of the court, we might just play a good match against him. Plenty of people have said of Infinite Jest, “That book kicked my ass,” no doubt an apposite expression here. But a good reader can give the book a run for its money, though the point here, of course, isn’t who wins or loses, or whose statistics are better, but what Schtitt conceives as the “not-order” of the match, the “places [within it] where things broke down, fragmented into beauty.”


What, the narrator-as-Mario wonders in relation to Schtitt’s earlier claims, are the boundaries of tennis “that contain and direct its infinite expansion inward, that make tennis like chess on the run, beautiful and infinitely dense?” The baselines and service lines, etc., avers Schtitt, aren’t the true boundaries; neither, even, is the player’s opponent. “The true opponent, the enfolding boundary,” he says, “is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms.” The person on the other side of the net is just “the partner in the dance,” “the excuse or occasion for meeting the self.” In which case to read Infinite Jest is now not so much to go up against Wallace himself; he’s just the partner in the dance, the necessary excuse or occasion for our going up against ourselves: that’s where the real competition is, where the real winning and losing occurs. The reader’s confrontation with the writer, with just a thin barrier between them, is first and foremost a self-confrontation. We baffle ourselves with our own limitations, even when we occasionally exceed or even momentarily transcend them. And what’s true for the reader in relation to the writer is also true for the writer in relation to the reader.   Both reading and writing are forms of self-confrontation enabled by the occasion of meeting with a second party. And Wallace, it seems, both won and lost this confrontation with himself, as perhaps we all do, though Wallace both won and lost big.

In the essay on Michael Joyce, Wallace addresses his reader: “You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.” But why should this have been hard for Wallace? By this point in time, with Infinite Jest published a few months previously, he was well on his way to being one of the hundred most acclaimed living English-language writers in the world, where a good deal of people (Zadie Smith, for instance) would likely say, top 100? You mean top 10. Perhaps Wallace is just being humble here, though in that case there is a resulting irony inherent in his praise of Joyce insofar as Joyce will now probably be remembered more as a subject of a Wallace piece than as a top-100 mid-90s tennis player. That is to say, the overwhelming majority of people who know who Michael Joyce is today know this because they’ve read Wallace, not because they watched and admired Joyce’s game firsthand.

But perhaps what Wallace is doing when he admits “I have tried to imagine; it’s hard” is less a bit of humblebragging than the assertion of a disarmingly simple yet critical point: that to imagine is hard. To form in words what one has imagined is even harder. You’re up against the limits of language now, not physics, as well as the limits of yourself. But Wallace was game for this match; it would seem his own early adolescent success in tennis helped prepare him for the writer’s life. There’s a good deal of overlap between them, as it turns out. We often speak of trying to put a new spin on something, and a “zinger” might be a well-delivered bit of wit or a well-hit crosscourt forehand winner. There are verbal volleys and on-court repartees, and reporters no less than tennis pros are always in search of the right angle. Tennis is dialectic made physical, and Wallace was as much a pro at the latter as Joyce was at the former.


Much of what Wallace says about the likes of tennis players Joyce, Austin, and, most famously, Roger Federer, can therefore also be said about the writer Wallace himself. It’s appropriate that String Theory begins with Wallace’s essay on his own junior career as a tennis player, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” before moving on to those essays in which he discusses the abovementioned players, along with many others. He belongs, that is, as a subject, in the same class as them, and so in the same book, only not as a tennis player per se, but as a tennis player whose game somehow got funneled into writing. He belongs to the same group of which they are members because he’s as excellent at what he does as they are at what they do, which in both cases consists of turning the limitations of a given set of rules into a springboard to a kind of freedom that transcends the very idea of limitation, of rule.

Here’s Wallace on Joyce:

The radical compression of his attention and self has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art—something few of us get to be. It’s allowed him to visit and test parts of his psyche that most of us do not even know for sure we have, to manifest in concrete form virtues like courage, persistence in the face of pain or exhaustion, performance under wilting scrutiny and pressure.

What does it take to be a writer of Wallace’s caliber, a transcendent practitioner of that art as Wallace no doubt was, if not the radical compression of both attention and self, and a tireless persistence in the face of exhaustion, and an ability to perform under wilting scrutiny and pressure? Joyce was “a figure of enduring and paradoxical fascination” for Wallace; so Wallace might be for me, and for identical reasons. Where Joyce was “a grotesque” to Wallace because of the obsession required on his part to practice his craft at the level at which he practiced it, so Wallace strikes me as similarly freakish: compressed, hampered, paralyzed, and tortured by the very practice that rendered him free, graceful, powerful, and able to transcend the limitations of both his body and his mind. He won by losing; he lost by winning.

And here’s Wallace in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”: “What’s nearly Greek about her career’s arc is that 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.” If you swap “Tracy Austin” for “David Foster Wallace” here, the sentence loses none of its logic. If you want to read Wallace on what it means to be a writer, then, you could do worse than starting with his essays on tennis. There’s significant crossover between String Theory and linguistic theory.

Joyce returns a shot to Gambill


After the publication of Infinite Jest, you might have read in one of countless book reviews something like the following: “David Foster Wallace has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied American writing, and for the first time in years the future is unpredictable.” But this is actually Wallace on Federer in the 2006 New York Times article, “Federer Both Flesh and Not”: “He has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied men’s tennis, and for the first time in years the game’s future is unpredictable.” And in what did Federer’s re-embodiment of the game consist? In having taken two prevailing trends in the game, trends seemingly at odds with one another, and somehow fused them into a single game, his own. First, there was the long-predominant serve-and-volley game, or how tennis was traditionally played. Then, in the mid-1980s, there began to emerge the power baseline game, which slowly but surely all but wiped out the serve-and-volley style over the course of the next twenty years. The two styles of play were characterized by different racquets, different tactics and strategies, different demeanors, and so on. The one was graceful, the other brutal, etc. (Wallace offers several thoughts on this aspect of the game’s evolution throughout the essays collected in String Theory). According to Wallace, what enabled Federer to dominate the men’s game for years on end starting in the early 2000s was that he combined the two. Because of advances in racquet technology, just playing the elegant serve-and-volley game was no longer plausible, which left it to a new generation of baseliners to slug it out against each other. But Federer was able to dominate all of them because he incorporated the grace, the elegance, and the angles of the earlier style into his own ability to wail with the best of them. Advantage, Roger.

Anyone who’s listened to or read enough interviews with Wallace will recognize the narrative here. How did Wallace dominate the field of American letters and leave his own competition in the dust? He did what Federer did. First, he refused to hew to the dictates of what he called “capital ‘R’ Realism” – here, the fiction subgenre equivalent to the serve-and-volley game (or, how one ought to write). That particular “game” had recently become outmoded, displaced by new technologies and a younger generation, but Wallace also refused to pledge allegiance to the newer subgenre of avant-garde “metafiction,” characterized by brutal and relentless irony in contrast to its predecessor’s reliance on straightforward approaches to description. Instead, he synthesized the two, as any careful reader or critic of Infinite Jest will confirm. Wallace could deal in irony with the best of them, and even outplay others at their own game, but you also won’t find a more sincere, openly concerned, and straightforward writer than Wallace, either. For the likes of Brett Easton Ellis, Dave Eggers, and other representatives of what was then indeed (in a rather ugly manner) a decidedly “men’s game,” the consequences were lethal. Wallace eventually outplayed even his own idol, Don DeLillo, just as it was a young Federer who dethroned “King Pete” Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. Wallace was Federer before Federer.

The appropriate term for what both Wallace and Federer did, however, perhaps isn’t synthesis; more apt would be the Hegelian term, aufheben, which can mean a great many things – to lift up, to abolish, to cancel, to suspend, to sublate, to preserve, to transcend – all at once, where two existing terms are abolished, sublated, transcended by way of the orchestration of a collision between them, out of which a new term emerges, which then itself goes in search of a partner with which to collide. Aufheben is the key to dialectic; from the limitations of preexisting systems, rules, terms, conceptions, and ideas emerge forms more free and competent, more enlightened, and seemingly more effortlessly so.   If I now (something I thought I’d never say) prefer Wallace to Joyce (James this time), this has something to do with it.

2011 US Open;Grounds;General Views;Arthur Ashe

In “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open,” Wallace expresses something similar to what Schtitt says about the limitations of tennis when he writes that “part of the beauty of tennis . . . is the way the artistry and energy are bounded by specific lines on court.” Like the essay on Michael Joyce, this one, too, was composed around the same time as the publication of Infinite Jest. It’s easy, in fact, to imagine this line in the essay being borrowed from the book, or at least informing it. In both texts, limitation, be it physical or psychological, is celebrated as a source of excellence, perfection, and beauty rather than lamented as an obstacle thereto. Robert Frost notoriously disliked free verse because it was, he felt, “like playing tennis with the net down”: remove the restrictions and limitations and you remove the possibility of form, of grace, whether it’s in a game like tennis or an art like poetry, or an art like tennis or a game like poetry. (Frost, who taught at Amherst, Wallace’s alma mater, frequently likened poetry to sport, to play.) In a culture predicated in large part on the assumption that being limited equals a kind of failure, insofar as limitation is posited as the opposite of freedom, where freedom is what we embrace, Wallace’s view – that freedom and limitation are less mutually exclusive than they are mutually reinforcing – is refreshing, resonant, and urgent. To see limitation as the seedbed for form, and to proceed accordingly, not to mention diligently, is to discover the very possibility of freedom.



Ben Leubner lives and teaches in Bozeman, Montana. His writing has appeared in The Southwest Review, Twentieth-Century Literature, Religion and the Arts, Luna Park Review, and elsewhere. He is currently working on the scholarship of David Foster Wallace, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, and Derek Walcott.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 19th, 2016.