Here’s post No. 5 in the Infinite Words series. An explanation, if you missed it, is here. Buy the book here. Add your personal favorites in the comments.
I was a competitive junior tennis player on a very regional, mostly local level, which made Infinite Jest all the more enjoyable (it centers, in large part, on a junior tennis academy). Here are my favorite tennis-related passages:
Competitive junior tennis is meant to be good clean fun.
Jim, a tennis ball is the ultimate body. Perfectly round. Even distribution of mass. But empty inside, utterly, a vacuum. Susceptible to whim, spin, to force – used well or poorly. It will reflect your own character. Characterless itself. Pure potential.
Courts 13 to 24 are Girls’ 18’s A and B, all bobbing ponytails and two-handed backhands and high-pitched grunts that if girls could only hear what their own grunts sounded like they’d cut it out.
At late seventeen, Orin was ranked in the low 70s nationally; he was a senior; he was at that awful age for a low-70s player where age eighteen and the terminus of a junior career are looming and either: (1) you’re going to surrender your dreams of the Show and go to college and play college tennis; or (2) you’re going to get your full spectrum of gram-negative and cholera and amoebic-dysentery shots and try to eke out some kind of sad diasporic existence on a Eurasian satellite pro tour and try to hop those last few competitive plateaus up to Show-caliber as an adult; or (3) you don’t know what you’re going to do; and it’s often an awful time.
The Libertarians chew their hands in envy as the Dems and G.O.P.s stood on either side watching dumbly, like doubles partners who each think the other’s surely got it.
Clippterton by this time must have had a whole mantel plus bookcase’s worth of tall U.S.T.A. trophies, each U.S.T.A. trophy a marbled plastic base with a tall metal boy on top arched in mid-serve, looking rather like a wedding-cake groom with a very good outside slider.
‘I am one of the seldom of my home nation whose talents are weak in science, unhappily.’
‘This is why God also gave you quick hands and a wicked lob off the backhand, though.’
Steeply’s face looked as if the journalist were trying to think of pithy images for a motion as unexceptional and fluid as Hal’s serve. At the start a violinist maybe, standing alert with his sleek head cocked and racket up in front and the hand with the ball at the racket’s throat like a bow. The down-together-up-together of the downswing and toss could be a child making angels in the snow, cheeks rosy and eyes at the sky. But Hal’s face was pale and thoroughly unchildlike, his gaze somehow extending only half a meter in front of him. …The service motion’s middle might be man at a precipice, falling forward, giving in sweetly to his own weight, and the serve’s terminus and impact a hammering man, the driven nail just within range at the top of his tiptoed reach.
Off down the Weston street a church with an announcement-board in the grass out front – white plastic letters on a slotted black surface – and at least once Mario and I stood watching a goatish man change the letters and thus the announcement. One of the first occasions where I remember reading something involved the announcement-board announcing:
LIFE IS LIKE TENNIS
THOSE WHO SERVE
BEST USUALLY WIN
Dressing and stretching, wrapping grips with Gauze-Tex or filling a pouch with fuller’s earth or sawdust, getting taped, those in puberty getting shaved and taped. A ritual. Even the conversation, usually, such as it is, has a timeless ceremonial aspect. John Wayne hunched as always on the bench before his locker with his towel like a hood over his head, running a coin back and forth over the backs of his fingers. Shaw pinching the flesh between his thumb and first finger, acupressure for a headache. Everyone had gone into their auto-pilot ritual. Possalthwaite’s sneakers were pigeon-toed under a stall door. Kahn was trying to spin a tennis ball on his finger like a basketball. At the sink, Eliot Kornspan was blowing out his sinuses with hot water; no one else was anywhere near the sink….Troeltsch sat up against his locker near Wayne, wearing a disconnected headset and broadcasting his own match in advance. There were fart-accusations and -denials. Rader snapped a towel at Wagenknecht who liked to stand for long periods of time bent at the waist with is head against this knees. Arslanian sat very still in a corner, blindfolded in what was either an ascot or a very fey necktie, his head cocked in the attitude of the blind…Schath entered a stall and drove the latch home with a certain purposeful sound that produced that momentary gunslinger-enters-saloon-type hush throughout the locker room.
Serious juniors never pick up tennis balls with their hands. Males tend to bend down and dribble the balls up with the face of their stick; there are various little substyles of this. Females and some younger males less into bending stand and trap the ball between their shoe and racquet and bring their foot up in a quick little twitch, the stick bringing the ball up with it. Males who do this trap the ball against the inside of their shoe, while females trap the ball against the outside of the shoe, which looks a bit more feminine. Reverse-snobbism at E.T.A. has never reached the point of people bending way down and picking balls up manually, which, like wearing a visor, is regarded as the true sign of the novice or hack.