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‘Sudden Death’ and the fiction racket

 “David With the Head of Goliath” (1609-10, Galleria Borghese) by Caravaggio, the violent, homoerotic Baroque painter at the heart of Alvara Enrigue’s new tennis novel, “Sudden Death” (translated by Natasha Wimmer).

“David With the Head of Goliath” (1609-10, Galleria Borghese) by Caravaggio, the violent, homoerotic Baroque painter at the heart of Alvara Enrigue’s new tennis novel, “Sudden Death” (translated by Natasha Wimmer).

On a recent trip to Jacksonville, Fla. via Delta, I had a disquieting thought. The flight attendants were so friendly, so generous with their drinks and snacks that I felt guilty about the scene in my debut novel “Water Music” in which an officious flight attendant denies tennis star Evan Conor Fallon an extra package of nuts, precipitating an international incident known thereafter as “Nut-gate.”

Mulling the gracious treatment I have always received while flying, I wondered how fair and realistic I had been with Nut-gate. Mustn’t fiction reflect life?

Then while at the beach house my sisters had rented on Amelia Island, I read the introduction to Alvaro Enrigue’s intriguing new novel “Sudden Death” (Riverhead Books, $27, 261 pages) – about an imaginary 16th century tennis match between the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo – in which he writes something that buoyed me so much I felt as if I had made a new friend:

“…The only real things in a novel are the sequence of letters, words, and sentences that make it up, and the paper on which they’re printed. What they produce in a reader’s head are private and unique landscapes of objects in motion that have only one thing in common: they don’t exist. A game that is played in a novel has everything to do with that novel and nothing to do with reality.”

Precisely: A novel is not reality. It’s not even probability. It’s about possibility in service of drama. (Unlike life, which is more about probability than possibility.) Yes, of course, if you have no understanding of tennis – no feel for the game – then there’s really no point in using it in a story. Why would you?

But a “tennis novel” isn’t Sports Illustrated either. It’s not a report of an actual match. If it were, why read a novel? Nor is a novel The New York Times. So while Nut-gate may be unlikely to happen to any real-life tennis star – or any other airline passenger, for that matter – it enables me to put Evan’s traveling companion, tennis star Alí Iskandar, into the orbit of tennis legend Alex Vyranos and, more to the point, to put Alí in a position to be grateful to Alex, spurring their love affair. As a writer, there is a method to the madness.

As a reader, you’re not looking for the everyday in a novel, because you’re already living the everyday. What you’re looking for in a novel is the everyday through the prism of the extraordinary.

Hence Enrigue’s story about Caravaggio, de Quevedo, Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mexico, Henry VIII and tennis balls made out of Anne Boleyn’s hair.

Separately, these elements make no sense. Putting them together is the novelist’s skill and will. (Or so I hope to discover when I actually begin Enrigue’s story.)

“We are who we are, unfixable…,” he concludes in his introduction. “We fly from good to evil, from happiness to responsibility, from jealousy to sex. Souls batted back and forth across the court. This is the serve.”

One that I as a reader can’t wait to return.