Noah-- whose new movie, Margot at the Wedding, opened over the weekend; Jonathan's latest novel is out next week-- mentioned his father’s short story, “The Return of Service,” which I hadn’t read before this weekend, though it has been collected and anthologized multiple times. Here’s how it begins:
I am in a tennis match against my father. He is also the umpire and comes to my side of the court to advise me of the rules. “You have only one serve,” he says. “My advice is not to miss.” I thank him—we have always been a polite family—and wait for his return of the opposing side. Waiting for him to take his place in the sun, I grow to resent the limitation imposed on my game. (Why should he have two serves, twice as many chances, more margin for error?) I bounce the ball, waiting for him—he takes his sweet time, always has—and plan to strike my first service deep to his forehand. And what if I miss, what if ambition overreaches skill? The ordinary decencies of a second chance have been denied me.Fans of The Squid and the Whale may recall that it, too, opens with father and son (and mother and younger son) playing tennis against each other. (Noah cited his father's story as an inspiration of sorts for this scene.) Christian Lorentzen noted the movie's opening line back when it was still in theaters: "It's Mom and me against you and Dad."
“The Return of Service” uses the metaphor in a less straightforward fashion—the story is dreamlike rather than realistic. But it still packs an emotional punch: after the son wins the match, he hears from a friend that his father is off crying somewhere. This moment surprised Noah Baumbach—as he explained to the audience at Southpaw the other day—and moved him.
My own favorite moment in the story is at the end:
The ball is arriving. Before I can ready myself, before I can coordinate arm and racket, before I can coordinate mind and arm, the ball will be here and gone, a dream object, receding into the distance like a ghost of the imagination. The first point is lost. And so the game. And so the match. Waiting for the ball's arrival-- it is on the way, it has not yet reached me-- I concede nothing.