A collection of discretely commissioned pieces for assorted magazines marshalled over 15 years might feel disjointed. But String Theory is remarkable for its cohesiveness and seamlessness with the preoccupations of Wallace’s fiction ... Wallace played the game with all of his person. The same intellectually questing, sensorily hungry spirit is present in his writing about it. The result is a terrific book about a human activity and life outside the lines that trammel it.
Ruminative, digressive, lyrical, funny, sad, sometimes borderline lunatic, these posthumously collected journalistic pieces have all the hallmarks of Wallace’s novels. Verbal pyrotechnics and philosophical speculation alternate with pop-culture allusions and Homeric lists. His fixation on brand names and sponsors’ logos at tournament sites would daunt a deconstructionist. And his penchant for footnotes may daunt readers accustomed to the rat-a-tat of most sports reporting.
Rereading them all together, rather than years apart, I appreciated anew just how well Wallace could write about the sport that he loved ... I could fill this entire review with descriptions as lively—and that would just be the highlights, glitter Wallace sprinkles atop insightful observations about tennis and what it says about the human spirit. But the venom Wallace has for his tennis enemies—Mr. Agassi and pretty much anyone, like Rafael Nadal, who tangles with his heroes—is unsettling.
Read together, these pieces demonstrate a few things. One is that Wallace’s grasp of tennis was truly prodigious. The analytical powers that must have ended up hindering him as a player made him a peerless observer of the sport. He has often been described as the best tennis writer of all time, and these essays don’t disabuse that notion. Wallace is interested in – and understands – every aspect of the game, from its strategic complications and technical evolution through to sponsorship deals and methods of hydration. In itself, of course, such knowledge isn’t exceptional. But where Wallace stands apart is that he is never boring with it. One of the marvels of his writing is the way it combines a nerd’s outlook with a novelist’s gift for exposition.
Wallace brought to tennis writing the complete package: knowledge of the game and a style in a zone of its own, a distinctly ingenious talent for sprawling distillation, detail, whisking highbrow with lowbrow, deploying the vernacular to reach higher ground, and fervidity, free of irony and code ... These essays are not only informed and artful, but also comic and, at times, confidently poignant.
Like his fiction, or the sliver I know of it, anyway, Wallace can’t resist footnoting his way through all of these stories. These many (infinite?) digressions are mostly entertaining and interesting as the main text, though the constant back and forth can be taxing for readers. Wallace was whip-smart and, while that mostly means delight for readers, at other times it can leave mere mortals such as this reader a bit woozy ... An obsessive’s penchant for detail serves reader and writer alike. We learn of the personality of the crowd, the endorsement-rich clothes worn by the players, the copious advertising and product placement ... Wallace aficionados long ago embraced these scattered tennis writings, but they are unlikely to have any qualms about revisiting them. For the rest of us? This collection is a memorable introduction to taking flight with the soaring prose of the late DFW – and a convincing argument for what makes tennis intriguing.