The Triumph of the Will of Athletes in Infinite Jest
In 1995, in the introduction to Tennis and the Meaning of Life: A Literary Anthology of the Game, Jay Jennings lamented that there were still “no great” tennis novels. Had the collection been published just a year later, a revision would have been in order. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), the encyclopaedic masterpiece set around the grounds of Enfield Tennis Academy, is a great tennis novel. Yet, when critics discuss Wallace’s work on tennis, the focus is usually on his essays and tends to fall into one of two camps: either emphasizing the bodies of Wallace’s dumb jocks, or the divine inspiration that helps them play so well. Once we recognise that Wallace’s treatment of character was itself always dualistic, we can begin to reconcile these two apparently conflicting points of view. Doing so will shed new light on Wallace’s treatment of tennis as a stress-test of the connection between body and soul, and will raise difficult questions about the fate of a country where that test is so necessary.