On Ping Pong, Imagined

In his fascinating new book, beardy intellectual gadfly Slobodan Gadfly posits a world in which the game of ping pong does not exist. He then proceeds to “invent” it through the power of imagination. It would be easy to dismiss the work as pointless pseudointellectual twaddle, and many critics have adopted precisely that line. Here, for example, is Rolf Gutentag, writing in The Pingpongist:

Seldom have I read such a blithering farrago of drivel. My cat could write a more sensible book than this. In fact, he has done. Meat In Jelly, Daytime Naps, And The Torture Of Birds is available now from all good bookshops. But I digress. Even if we accept Mr Gadfly’s preposterous premise of a ping pong-less universe, must we be subjected to page after page of his strenuous mental groping towards some sort of fully-imagined tabletop-based indoor sport played with bats and lightweight balls? As if that were not piffling enough, there is further piffle in store, in the shape of an entire chapter devoted to a wholly imaginary scoring system which turns out, on close inspection, to be identical to the actual scoring system used in actual games of ping pong in the actual world.

Gutentag is positively enthusiastic in comparison to Seebohm “Not Susan” Sontag, writing in The New Pingpongist:

Never, ever, in all my days, have I read such a blithering farrago of drivel. As soon as I finished reading it, I burned it. Then I went out to the bookshop where I had bought it and burned all the copies they had in stock. Then, for good measure, I burned down the bookshop. As the flames licked the sky, I held in one hand a ping pong bat and in the other hand a ping pong ball, and when the fire brigade arrived, with bells clanging, I challenged every man jack of them to a game of ping pong. Look!, I was saying, the game exists! Why pretend it doesn’t and then try to imagine it? The fire brigade could only nod in agreement, thus proving the utter futility of Gadfly’s thesis.

I cannot help but think that Messrs Gutentag and Sontag are missing the point of the book. Quite what that point is I am not sure myself, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to worry my little head about such niceties. And it is indeed a little head, not much bigger than a ping pong ball, on account of certain mishaps in the maternity ward where I was born. I am often asked if life has presented me with insurmountable difficulties due to my tiny, white, and almost spherical head, and my invariable answer is “no, it has not”, for I carry myself with aplomb and meet the astonished gazes of those I encounter with a steely gaze of my own. If they continue to gaze, or to prod me with their fingers as if I were a circus freak, I take from my pocket the ping pong bat I always carry about my person and I thump them smartly on the head with it, several times.

I do not think it is necessary to understand the point of Mr Gadfly’s book to enjoy it. I would go further, and say it is not necessary to understand the point of any book to enjoy it. What, after all, is the point of Rolf Gutentag’s cat’s book? Does it give us new insights into feline life? It does not. Does it, more importantly, tell us of a cat’s approach to the game of ping pong? It does not. Indeed, save for one passage in which the cat-narrator chases a ping pong ball around a confined space, in a state of frenzy, there is no mention of ping pong at all. This absence, or lacuna, makes it a highly unusual book, at least in my experience. And that, perhaps, is the point.

And as much as I enjoyed the cat’s book, so I enjoyed Slobodan Gadfly’s. The opening chapter, in which he paints a vivid picture of a universe in which ping pong does not exist, and never has existed, is a tour de force. It is a world very much like our own, in almost every particular. It even has a few people in it like myself, with ping pong ball-size heads, though of course we are not described as such, for in this alternative universe without ping pong, there are of necessity no ping pong balls. Gadfly has to invent them, just as he has to invent the bat and the net and the rules and the scoring system. And invent them he does, each in turn.

He does not spare us the details of his mental agony. There are false starts, wrong turnings, red herrings, and mind-bogglingly stupid decisions. In chapter four, for example, Gadfly recounts his struggle to imagine a ping pong ball. As yet, he has no concept of either the bat or the net or the rules or the scoring system. He has not even arrived at the idea that the game might be an indoor one played on a tabletop. Indeed, he has not even thought of the game. At this stage, his only concern is the ball – in his parallel universe, a wholly new type of ball which he challenges himself to bring into existence. Laughably, the first ping pong ball he conceives is the size and shape and texture of a medicine ball. It is not absolutely identical to a medicine ball, of course, for they already exist in his ping pong-less world.

While I was reading this chapter, with its tragic undertone, I could not help but become engulfed by my own imaginings. I wondered what my life would be like if, instead of having a ping pong ball head, I had a medicine ball head? It was easy enough to posit a slightly different maternity ward mishap that could have had such an outcome for my head. But I found it far more difficult to picture how different things would have been for me. Would I still go about with a ping pong bat in my pocket, ready to strike the impolite? And if I did not, how would I deal with such people? Trying to fathom the answers to these questions made me all the more admiring of Slobodan Gadfly’s great act of imagination, in inventing, from nothing, the game of ping pong.

Hooting Yard Rating : Seventeen stars.

You may also enjoy : Ping Pong For Cats by Rolf Gutentag, The Fantastic Architecture Of The Burning Cities by Seebohm “Not Susan” Sontag, Ipsy Dipsy Doo Dah by Jeanette Winterson & Will Self.

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