Book Club: Tornado of Words

by: Steve Tignor | September 29, 2009

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The Book Club is flying solo this week. That’s because charter (and only other) member Kamakshi Tandon is kind of busy with something called law school. Nevertheless, it seemed like the right time to take stock of the small but influential collected tennis works of author and essayist David Foster Wallace, who died a year ago this month.

From what I can tell, “Tennis, Trigonometry, and Tornadoes,” published in Harper’s in 1991 and written in 1990 when David Foster Wallace was 28 years old, was the first article by the author to heavily feature the sport. He would begin Infinite Jest around the same time, and there are similarities in the characters and writing style. I came upon "TTT" a few years later, when he had re-titled it “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” for his book of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing. Wallace, or maybe his editor, had a flair for titles, and his is certainly more poetic than the original. But as someone who has to come up with magazine headlines on a regular basis, I can’t fault the Harper’s people too much. Theirs got the point across.

I can remember being extremely impressed by “TTT” when I first read it, maybe a little more so than I am today, though I certainly still enjoy it. The writing style, in its flat, rolling, affectless density, seemed perfect for the postmodern moment of the early 90s. And the treatment of tennis as something important in this intelligent guy's life was an epiphany—"Hey, maybe tennis really is cool." Wallace, in linking the three elements of the title, recreates summers on the Illinois junior circuit that were easily recognizable to me—like him, I was a respectable sectional player who never reached the national level—while also giving the sport a metaphorical meaning.

Re-reading the piece last week, I was struck more than anything by the complexity of the verbiage; I'm not used to the dense postmodern approach anymore. Wallace was still a new voice at that point, and filled with the idea of pushing literature forward; after a decade of Raymond Carver/Richard Ford minmalism, Pynchon and pyrotechnics were back in. While “TTT” isn’t overly difficult to read—Wallace always had a natural way with words below the wonkiness—his tennis writing would get better as he got more accessible, more plainly human. Here is how “TTT” begins:

When I left my boxed township of Illinois farmland to attend my dad’s alma mater in the lurid jutting Berskhires of western Massachusetts, I all of a sudden developed a jones for mathematics. I’m starting to see why this is so. College math evokes and catharts a Midwesterner’s sickness for home. I’d grown up inside vectors, lines and lines athwart lines, grids—and, on the scale of horizons, broad curving lines of geographic force, the weird topographical drain swirl of a whole lot of ice-ironed land that sits and spins atop plates.

That’s quite a start, and a lot of things at once: It’s an exciting performance; it’s a shade too cute (the colloguial “I all of a sudden developed” right after the imagistic “lurid jutting Berskshires”); it’s hard to understand; and it sounds like a math geek’s impersonation of John Updike, a writer who Wallace read faithfully but would famously rip in a review a few years later.

The headlong, complex style continues, and when it veers away from tennis it can be hard to follow. Here’s Wallace describing his tiny hometown of Philo, Ill.:

Philo is a cockeyed grid: nine north-south streets against six northeast-southwest, fifty-one gorgeous slanted-cruciform corners (the east and west intersection-angles’ tangents could be evaluated integrally in terms of their secants!) around a three intersection central town common with a tank whose nozzle pointed northwest at Urbana, plus a frozen native son, felled on the Salerno beachhead, whose bronze hand pointed true north. In the evening, the sun galvanized his left profile and cast his arm’s accusing shadow out to the right, bent at the angle of a stick in a pond. At college it suddenly occurred to me during a quiz that the differential between the direction of the statue’s hand pointed and the arc of its shadow’s rotation was first-order.

The tennis parts come as a relief from this type of convoluted physical/mathematical description, and they’re strikingly accessible and even down to earth by comparison. Wallace looks back at how the sport, with its swooping movements inside the hard right angles of the lines, mirrored the wind that blew at gale force for most of the year through the grid of central Illinois. The most entertaining parts for people who play will be his description of his own game. Wallace might have best been described as a “proud pusher”:

The best-planned, best-hit ball often just blew out of bounds, was the basic unlyrical problem. It drove some kids near-mad with the caprice and unfairness of it all, and on real windy days these kids, usually with talent out the bazoo, would have their first apoplectic racket-throwing tantrum in about the match’s third game and lapse into a kind of sullen coma by the end of the first set, now bitterly expecting to get screwed over by the wind, net, tape, sun. I, who was affectionately known as Slug because I was such a lazy turd in practice, located my biggest tennis asset in a weird robotic detachment from whatever unfairnesses of wind and weather I couldn’t plan for. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many tournament matches I won between the ages of 12 and 15 against bigger, faster, more coordinated opponents simply by hitting balls unimaginatively down the middle of the court in schizophrenic gales.

But to say I did not use verve or imagination was untrue. Acceptance is its own verve, and it takes imagination for a player to like wind, and I liked wind; or rather I at least felt like the wind had a right to be there.

This is a very fine and perhaps excessively detailed exploration of the pusher’s psyche: “Acceptance is its own verve” are words every tennis player should live by, if they can.

There are a couple of semi-annoying tics to this piece, ones that crop up again in DFW’s writing: the cute, colloquial “on real windy days”—this from a self-described hardcore grammarian—in the paragraph quoted above is one. And his implication, elsewhere in the piece, that as a professor’s son he was of a different class from the “dentist’s kids” and “Joe Perfecthairs” at the “country club.” We’ll see in the future that Wallace had a habit of branding at least one person a villain in his non-fiction stories, as if he were writing a screenplay, and that this creative writing prof at idyllic Pomona College in California liked to see himself as a kind of intellectual working stiff.

What matters more, though, is that Wallace had found an original and important way of writing about tennis. No one else has combined a nitty gritty knowledge of how the game is played with such an entertaining voice in getting it across—his omnivorous language in these 15 or so pages ranges from “secants” to “screwed over.” In the process, no one else made tennis seem so integral to a thinking person’s life. As he became a more accessible and less writerly writer, I could easily have seen a collection of junior tennis tales from DFW, or even a screenplay from him that would have become the sport’s version of Caddyshack (still waiting for that, by the way). But he went with Infinite Jest instead; probably the right choice (though, who knows, Caddyshack may be the more enduring piece of art).

The story ends, as it should, with Wallace and his partner trying to drill during a real live tornado. I’ll let him tell it in his own inimitable way—here the flat affectless style he’s used throughout begins to rise to the lyrical:

This all happened very fast but in serial progression: field, trees, swings, grass, then the feel like the lift of the world’s biggest mitt, the nets suddenly up and out straight, and I seem to remember whacking a ball out of my hand to watch its radical west-east curve, and for some reason trying to run after this ball . . . I remember the heavy gentle lift at my thighs and the ball curving back closer and my passing the ball and beating the ball in flight over the horizontal net, my feet not once touching the ground over 50-odd feet, a cartoon, and then there was chaff and crud in the air all over and Antitoi [his opponent] and I either flew or were blown pinwheeling for a I swear it must have been 50 feet to the fence one court over, the easternmost fence, we hit the fence so hard we knocked it halfway down, Antitoi detached a retina and hard to wear those funky Jabbar retina-goggles for the rest of the summer, and the fence had two body-shaped indentations like in cartoons where a guy’s face makes a cast in the skillet that hit him . . . 

Antitoi’s tennis continued to improve after that, but mine didn’t.

Wish I’d written that.


DFW goes pro tomorrow. Please keep all comments relevant to the Book Club posts, thanks.

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