August 31, 2009

The Stars’ Tennis Balls

Posted in Literature tagged , , at 12:34 am by j128

The Stars Tennis Balls
The Stars’ Tennis Balls

The Stars’ Tennis Balls by Stephen Fry, published in 2000, is a modern retelling of Alexandre Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo; set during the Internet age, specifically the dot com boom. It was released in the United States with the alternate title Revenge.

The original title comes from a quotation taken from John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, in which the full quotation reads: “We are merely the stars’ tennis balls, struck and banded which way please them.” It’s also quoted in full at one point in the story by the character Babe.

Plot summary in a nutshell

“It all began some time in the last century, in an age when lovers wrote letters to each other sealed up in envelopes. Sometimes they used coloured inks to show their love, or they perfumed their writing paper with scent.”

The year is 1980 and it’s a good year for Ned Maddstone. He has it all: looks, talent, he’s popular in school, and is in love with a girl. He’s the son of the cabinet minister of Sir Charles Maddstone, and like father like son, he is considering entering a career of politics. As is the basic psychology of when there is a fortunate, happy person with seemingly everything going for him, others less fortunate are quick to despise and hate him. Ned is so innocent, like a baby, and blind to the world’s cruelties and injustices that he does not see or even detect malice towards him: everyone is a friend, yet it is not so. Early on in the novel, it is let on that there are a few fellow pupils who have grown an intense dislike for young Maddstone: it’s generally shared and agreed upon that Ned Maddstone is arrogant and is seriously asking for it. (Yes, there is foul language again, but we’ll get to that in a moment.) Meanwhile, Ned is completely oblivious to this. All is fair in love, and…later on, war.

The early stages of trouble start brewing early on when Ned accidentally reads a fellow student’s (Ashley Barson-Garland) diary in biology class. Ashley immediately suspects Ned, noticing a pressed four-leave clover left on his seat which had previously remained in his diary for three years, and this quickly builds up even more resentment until it is just hatred. This mutual feeling is shared by Rufus Cade, another student, who lives something of a hedonistic lifestyle smoking joints. Later on, when his girlfriend Portia’s American cousin comes to stay with her family, the air tingles even more since he begins wanting Portia for himself as he is in love with her also and is intensely jealous of her relationship with “arrogant Ned” (yet still Ned is as unaware as ever).

Ned really lands in the soup while sailing in Scotland, when the captain entrusts him with a letter to deliver at a confidential address before dying. With a little help from his “friends”, a prank in which a joint is planted in his sailor’s jacket, while waiting outside on the street for Portia while she’s at a job interview he’s arrested initially for illegal drug possession, and is then sent to an asylum as a mentally unstable patient, where he is told that his previous life was just a fantasy and his original name and life are so deeply embedded in other fantasies that it has been lost, he almost believes this until he meets Babe, the oldest patient in the asylum. From there Babe teaches him, an education, and at the same time Ned slowly learns as to how his arrest came about, and he plots revenge on those who wronged him. To do this, he escapes from the asylum and with the help of a fortune left to him by Babe he reinvents himself as an Internet entrepreneur, making huge profits by doing high-risk ventures and garnering massive media attention until he goes back to England and unleashes his revenge, driving all four men who did him wrong to their deaths.


As previously stated, The Stars’ Tennis Balls is a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo. With that in mind, Stephen Fry wrote it in a way that makes allusions to the original work, such as in the characters’ names seen here in a chart copied and pasted from the Wikipedia article. Of course, I think the one that probably gets the most kicks is Portia’s name.

Monte Cristo The Stars’ Tennis Balls Notes
Edmond Dantès Ned Maddstone anagram
Mercedes Portia pun: Mercedes-BenzPorsche
de Villefort Oliver Delft anagram
the Abbe (Faria) the Babe (Fraser) partial anagram
Fernand Mondego Gordon Fendeman anagram
Noirtier Blackrow translated literally (calque)
Capt. Leclere Paddy Leclare homonym
Caderousse Rufus Cade translation: rousse = red = Rufus
Baron Danglars Barson-Garland anagram
Monte Cristo Simon Cotter anagram
Albert de Morcerf Albert Fendeman homonym

The novel opens with some letters of correspondence between Ned and Portia, and that helps set the tone of the novel and helps to introduce its characters and their idiosyncrasies. Stephen Fry does an excellent job of capturing the modern, typical style that teenagers express themselves in the written word, whether letters sealed in envelopes or email, that is often seen and is associated with youth – Portia even uses “prolly” instead of “probably” in her letters – and in the manner in which almost everything, except their love, is written passively: one “boring” thing after the next and a certain amount of swearing just to keep it real – it is considered typical and sometimes is even expected for older teenagers to cuss, right? (At least, in Western society.) It’s just another part of their vernacular.

After Ned is arrested and imprisoned, and later meets the Babe the story picks up pace. Not that it wasn’t already fast-paced before, but let’s say that it starts sounding more like a real novel and not like reading a bunch of young people’s love letters and the like with all their pubescent idiosyncrasies; it starts sounding less like stereotypical “oh-my-gawd”-high-school-cadence and more realistic, how people really talk, and toning down on the #&!%*-bombs. Of course, there’s still a bit of swearing but not exactly to the same extent or usage as it was by the adolescents of 1980 at the start of the novel.

Once Ned has escaped the asylum and has reinvented himself as a wealthy Internet entrepreneur that appeared out of the blue – so far as becoming even bigger than Harry Potter – this is when things really speed up. It’s one bam! after the next, in almost immediate succession. No sooner has he returned to England than the cold-blooded revenge begins and systematically one by one, he knocks down his enemies like dominoes to their ultimate downfalls, all of which end horrifically. Rufus Cade ends up being murderously killed and mutilated by a drug gang whom he’d unwittingly done business with through one of Ned’s henchmen and dies in his own blood; Ashley Barson-Garland commits suicide after being publicly disgraced by the scandal of his secret gay, perverted Internet habits (looking at images of young boys) while he had been promoting Internet security for children; Gordon Fenderman, Portia’s cousin, is ruined and disgraced by apparent unethical actions in his ethical coffee and tea business from Africa and apparently dies from the same reason his father did all those years ago, and finally Oliver Delft is taken to the house where he had first interrogated Ned Maddstone, at the start of the whole mess, and he is given the choice of being admitted to the asylum or swallowing hot coals like Portia from Julius Caesar.

That’s one difference between this and The Count of Monte Cristo is the protagonist’s revenge, and how he decides to execute it. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantes infiltrates himself into elite society and makes himself a figure of considerable influence, with Paris practically before his knees, and with strategy he tactfully knocks down those who wronged him one by one, though not always with death in mind: just enough so that they are ruined and/or disgraced, but also at the same time he recognizes the innocents and helps them get what they want with his influence and different aliases. Here in this modern retelling, Ned’s sole motivation is revenge and to make his enemies pay dearly, with their lives. There is no Maximilien and Valentine, etc. It is just cold-blooded revenge.

At the end of the novel though, I feel sorry for Ned. He has his revenge but he isn’t fulfilled, for he still feels the human need for love, but it is not consummated. In Dumas’ story, Monte Cristo made it clear with Mercedes that he couldn’t go back and share his life with her after all he’d been through and after the completion of his redemption he finally allows himself to realize that he does love Haydee, a Greek slave but of noble birth, and it is suggested that at the end of the novel he starts a new life with her. In The Stars’ Tennis Balls, there is a brief hint of a start with the female character Cosima, whom he meets early after escaping from the asylum as he sells the prescription drugs that he smuggled from there, and when he is famous Internet entrepreneur Simon Cotter, celebrity gossip circulates that he is in a relationship with her as they have been seen together, yet it is made clear that his heart is still with Portia. However, after Gordon’s death, Portia flees with her son Albert, only leaving behind only the old love letters between her and Ned.

He stood on the deck looking back towards England. He let the pieces of paper fly from his hand and dart like butterflies in the wake. They came from the last century, an age when lovers wrote letters to each other sealed up in envelopes. Sometimes they used coloured inks to show their love, or they perfumed their writing-paper with scent.

He slowly ripped the last of them, just glimpsing down at a halved sheet.

I picture your hair flopping down as you write, which is enough to make me writhe and froth like a…like a…er, I’ll come back to you on that one. I think of your legs under the table and a million trillion cells sparkle and fizz inside me. The way you cross a ‘t’ makes me breathless. I hold the back of my envelope to my lips and think of you licking it and my head swims. I’m a dotty dippy dozy dreadful delirious romantic and I love you to heaven.

Ned let the wind whip it from his hand.


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