If you read this blog, you know DFW is one of my favorite writers. I even named my book app, in part, after him. So I could be short about String Theory — it’s a absolute pure delight to read — but, of course, I won’t.
String Theory is a collection of 5 DFW essays about tennis. It mostly covers 90s era tennis — Sampras and Agassi — but it closes with 2006 Federer. With DFW’s untimely death in 2008 I find it rather pleasing that by attending the 2006 Wimbledon final, Wallace got to witness, and write about the phenomenon that Federer is. And writing this in 2020, it is even more remarkable that Federer is still playing and competing with the best. Think about that for a second will you.
That said, his piece on Federer is not the best in this collection. But with Wallace that doesn’t mean it’s bad, because for any other writer such an essay would still be the summit of their writing career.
Though it seems with Federer that Wallace was, understandably, genuinely awestruck and smitten in such a way that he finds it hard to describe what makes Federer so special. And that probably says more about Federer’s remarkable talent than it does about Wallace’s.
But it is not just that what sets this essay apart from the others for me, but it is that there is less of Wallace himself in this specific piece. His surprised, bemused and bewildered observations of sometimes unrelated random events or encounters, sprinkled trough his essays, either in footnotes or the main body, are what make his writing so enjoyable. You can find this in most essays, but just a little bit less in the Federer one.
Take his complete letdown by the bland biography of famous tennis player Tracy Austin. I find it hilarious because it bothers him so much. Even though that (hilarity) was not the goal.
Because, mind you: in the end, even from such a dull an uninspiring sport biography, Wallace manages to ask valid questions about genius and talent and let’s you know the premise was not to be agitated and write amusingly about that, but to ask questions.
The essay about Michael Joyce might as well be the greatest thing ever written about tennis (or dare I say, sports in general?). It’s a complex and nuanced, highly technical, hyper personal but still general analysis of what constitutes greatness. He makes you see things with different eyes, while he is learning to see it for himself. Just amazing.
The lack of this personal observations with the Federer essay are a breeding ground for questions. Was this deliberate? Does this mean he was bored with this style? Was it a style? Questions you can endlessly debate.
Fact is never has their been a greater collection of stories about the game of tennis than what you’ll find in String Theory.