Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

While tennis and the tennis players whom the narrator meets have very little to do with plot or characterization, they do have something to do with Gustafsson’s themes. The narrator comments that there are only two things that a superior being from outer space would find to admire on earth: One is the opera Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Mozart; the other, he insists, is the tennis serve. The tennis serve is difficult, erratic, and embarrassingly public. Like the queen in chess, no other move has so many options, but nothing is as disastrous as a bad serve/move or as effective as a good serve/move.

The game of tennis, then, becomes a metaphor for the game of life. Perhaps this relationship explains why the professor is content to drift along until some other character forces him to act. Yet this reluctance to involve himself in events allows him, not unlike his theoretical visitor from outer space, to stand back and observe the natives. The natives do come in for a bit of gentle ribbing. The impressive University of Texas tower that looks like an erect phallus, the dignified chairman of the Board of Trustees committing an indecent act in an open field, the engineering students packing SR-51 minicomputers in holsters just as cowboys of the American West used to carry their guns, and the fragility of America’s sophisticated defense weaponry all seem a bit silly when viewed through the eyes of an objective observer.