String Theory: David Foster Wallace

Ben Leubner reviews a new collection for 3:AM Magazine


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 The only unpublished material in the collection is a short introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan that aptly summarizes Wallace’s junior career in and lifelong enjoyment of tennis,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.

David Foster Wallace

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. [Read More]

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