59% was the moment that Infinite Jest put a claw around my heart, almost making it stop. 59%, when Hal decides to follow a serve in to the net, and makes a stutter-step at the service line.
The entire novel, David Foster Wallace has been speaking of a fictional tennis academy, that is, to my mind, fictional. He never attended one of those strange boarding school academies and neither did I. I often wondered why he chose that setting, as alien as it is, then realised he chose it BECAUSE of how alien those places are. I've played plenty of tournaments at tennis academies all over Texas, at St. Stephen's, at John Newcombe's, and so on. But we who were not so hallowed always wondered: what exactly went on in those places?
Places where 12 year olds are surgically excised from their tennis parents and from emotional support. Places where 16 year olds gather nightly in supervised common rooms to discuss...what exactly? tennis scores? Certainly they had nothing else happening in their lives to talk about.
Wallace speaks of a mystical place, where honor is treasured above all else, where the prorector has to lie about killer instincts. This is his fantasy of what happens at those places, where false commitments to humanity lead to neurosis and addiction. Now I don't know about the personal lives of the academy players I encountered, but I can tell you one thing; most of those I encountered do not treasure honor. They cheat on line calls, stealing points, the highwaymen of the tennis court.
But I respect Wallace's fantasy.
I was also bound for the mythical show. I was a 14 year old tennis prodigy, ranked #2 in the state of Texas, whose entire confidence was derailed with a single ankle break. I can tell you exactly where it happened; I can tell you the court number if you cared.
So when Hal approaches the net and makes that stutter-step, in the middle of a match that signifies the end of his domination, I have to put the book down. I can't bear it, not for Hal, and not myself. It's a split second moment, nothing more, where I know that everything is about to change for Hal.
This is the moment when his confidence is broken. We already know, from the non-linear nature of the story, that Hal does not end up going to the Show, as he has been meant to all his life. I feel his heart break, and it reminds me of my own.