March 17, 2012 § 7 Comments
Finished: The Art of Fielding.
Among my favorite books as a kid were sports stories of the Matt Christopher ilk, especially basketball and baseball books. These books more or less always featured a preteen or teen whose real-world problems overlap with and affect their sports abilities. I still have one of these, which I’m pretty sure I bought through Weekly Reader for $4 or so: Johnny Long Legs, featuring a new kid in town heroically struggling to improve the strength of his freakishly long legs and help his school’s basketball team, the hilariously named White Cats. But I loved the baseball books, too, and have a vivid memory of reading one on my bed on a rainy summer afternoon, swept away by a young shortstop’s difficulty with turning the double play.
I mostly read these books for the descriptions of the games: the main, non-sports conflict in the book was only useful insofar as it enhanced the conflict I really cared about, that of the Cougars vs. the Eagles or whatever mascots were involved. To be honest, I also just loved the creation of team and player names, uniforms, and mascots. My favorite sections of pretty much all of these books were the expository paragraphs at the beginning of the games, the scenery of names, colors, gyms or fields.
All of which is to say that, though I’ve done an awful lot of reading since then, there’s still a big part of me that craved the baseball action in The Art of Fielding, and that valued it as a baseball book with a nostalgic, Christopher-esque structure: boy loves baseball, boy has baseball-related life problem (or life-related baseball problem?), boy finds help and solves problem to improve baseball skills. Harbach intentionally embedded this nostalgic structure, I think, having a similar reading background: in this interview, he mentions growing up reading “Matt Christie” books, which I think is a reference to Matt Christopher. And you can feel his delight in the creation of the Harpooner’s uniforms and logo, and those of their small-college rivals. The “powder-blue jerseys” of the Muskingum Muskies (a real school whose colors appear to be red and black). The “beet-red” jackets, uniforms, faces of the preppy Coshwale “douchetards.” And, especially, the mild satire of the Opentoe College Holy Poets, in “threadbare brown-and-green uniforms” like a bunch of John the Baptists or Thoreaus.
Of course, because this is not a kids’ book, Harbach uses Henry Skrimshander’s baseball problem as a way into complex thinking about life and the process of becoming a functioning human adult, and critiques its own embedded YA sports-book structure. But it’s also a really good baseball book, and one of its interesting sidelights is that it might, in its roundabout way, show how maybe athletics of the small-college variety could still have a place in the educational mission of institutions of higher learning. (There’s no point in even trying to defend big-money Div I programs anymore. They’re hopelessly corrupt alum-appeasing farm systems with zero educational reason for being. And I’m pretty sure that, deep down, every administrator knows that.)
The device that brings this all together is the eponymous book within the book, The Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez, Henry’s idol, a Hall of Fame shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. Rodriguez’s book is a collection of numbered items of practical advice, epigrams, and aphorisms, some of them cryptic koans. The two most important appear very early in Harbach’s book:
3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.
213. Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.
These epigrams form a fascinating thought. These two statements are bookends to Rodriguez’s book, the earliest and latest excerpts we are given from it, and keys to Harbach’s book, as well.
The first is the journey of Henry Skrimshander compressed to a “simple” Buddhist thought. In the book’s gorgeous, idyllic 50-page opening overture, Henry is a “natural”: a scrawny South Dakota kid whose preternatural grace, constant practice, and passionate love for the game have made him the perfect defensive shortstop. He thoughtlessly is a being made to play shortstop. If such being is useful, we call it talent, and Mike Schwartz recognizes and hones Henry’s talent. In a bravura passage at the book’s center, Mike reflects on Henry’s development, and “[t]he making of a ballplayer: the production of brute efficiency out of natural genius.”
For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine….
The body of the book constitutes “Thought” in Aparicio’s formulation, introduced to Henry’s mind by his near-fatal errant throw into the dugout, and brings us to the second aphorism. Sanction is a complicated word. A sanction can be a permission or encouragement; it can also be a punishment, and this seeming contradiction stems from the word’s original meaning of a law or decree — and, even more interesting, its etymology from the Latin sancire, “to render sacred or inviolable” (per OED). Death can be the athlete’s sanction in the sense that Mike uses above — encouraging production of the grace and beauty that athletes feel and display in the use of the lively body that will eventually perish and move no more. But it can also be a warning or punishment, as when Henry nearly kills Owen with a bad throw, and has his own brush with death later. And athletes grow older, lose their skills. The athlete must become reconciled to the mini-death of losing the body’s ability, an image of the larger, final death of the body and spirit.
Beyond the level of the individual, Henry’s crisis of thought — his severe case of “Steve Blass Disease,” or “the yips” — also has cultural significance. In another great passage, the literary scholar Guert Affenlight reflects on the apparent lack of such cases before 1973:
It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation — the Modernists of the First World War — would take a while to reveal itself throughout the population. And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport…. that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era when even the athletes were anguished Modernists.
Rodriguez’s Buddhist formulation has an important codicil: “33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.” Henry has to come to realize that he cannot un-think the thought — the consciousness of life, and death, to which he has been awakened — which has been introduced, but must understand and learn from it. His (and Mike’s) desire for life to remain forever the same must be understood as impossible. Like any college student, and any baseball player, he has to move into the world, and become an adult, to be able to play again. There’s a lovely little intimation of this cycle in an early training scene. Henry, in the batting cage, seeks to “meet the ball so squarely that it retraced its path and reentered the mouth of the pitching machine, sending the big rubber wheels spinning in the opposite direction, as if reversing time.”
July 19, 2009 § 1 Comment
Just finished: Only Revolutions.
I feel like I’ve been rather too crabby about the book in my previous posts. It undeniably gets bogged down after the escape from St. Louis, around p. 220, after the truly amazing and hallucinatory effect of the center of the book, when both sides of the narrative on each page mirror each other as well as mirroring the other half of the narrative retreating away into the other half of the book — it’s really wonderful, a genuine delight. (It made me giggle.) From 224 or so to p. 312, it’s a slog.
But from then on, it’s a bloody miracle. (You should probably stop reading this if you want to go into the book without knowing how it ends.) The urgency and passion of the language in those last 8 sections is astonishing. Somewhere along the line you realize you’ve been reading Romeo and Juliet again, only it’s as if Shakes had written R&J after King Lear. Just… heartbreaking.
And theoretically, at least, we’re unsure what has happened in the end, but then we’ve been bludgeoned over the head with the fact that the book is a circle — so conveniently it’s right there, on the flip-side of the final page. And those mysterious first lines begin to make a kind of sense.
For Sam it’s “Haloes! Haleskarth!/ Contraband!” “Haloes” neatly combines circularity with death-imagery and saintliness; “Haleskarth” is an obsolete word meaning “free from injury” (thanks, OED); “Contraband” is a tricky one with an obvious meaning which doesn’t make much sense. Since Sam’s narrative starts in the middle of the Civil War, “contraband” has a very specific slang meaning at the time: a fugitive slave was contraband. Is Sam “contraband” in that he’s escaped from the enslavement of death, or in that he feels himself as “smuggled” out of the grave into a new life? Or is he (also) an actual fugitive slave — is that his role at the book’s opening?
Hailey begins with “Samsara! Samarra!/ Grand!” (Notice each begins their narrative with the other’s initial, and that second-line cross-narrative rhyme.) “Samsara” is, in Indian philosophy, “the endless cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound” (thanks again, OED). “Samarra” is a kind of garment to be worn by those burned at the stake during the Inquisition, but it could also be a reference to An Appointment in Samarra: a commonplace for the inevitability of death. “Grand!” could have some meaning of which I’m unaware, but I think it’s mostly just an exclamation of delight and surprise.
From these obscure meanings and their place at the beginning/rebeginning of the narratives, we can reread the early sections as a kind of reimmersion in life for both reborn characters: from these early indications that they know they’ve been reborn to their early characterizations as deities or earth-spirits of sorts, to their reimmersion in human life, to their conjoined lives and their love of one another, their placing another’s needs before their own. Is it this that allows rebirth?
April 16, 2009 § 3 Comments
Now reading: Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen, and Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, by S.S. Prawer.
There’s a fantastic etymological tangent in S.S. Prawer’s chapter on “The Uncanny.” Trying to pin down what he means by the term “uncanny,” he focuses on the German word unheimlich. He provides two common understandings of the term:
(a) the ‘un-homely,’ that which makes you feel uneasy in the world of your normal experience, not quite safe to trust to, mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar. In this sense, unheimlich has frequently been used as the equivalent of a word that would seem to be its opposite, the word heimlich, meaning ‘secret’ or ‘hidden.’..
(b) the ‘un-secret,’ that which should have remained hidden but has somehow failed to do so.
He goes on to translate from the German philosopher F.W.J. Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology: “Uncanny [unheimlich] is a term for everything which should remain mysterious, hidden, latent and has come to light.”
Why do German words always seem to have these awesome subtleties and gradations of meaning?
This is really fascinating to me, this Gothic and proto-Freudian sense of the uncanny being the forbidden intrusion of the secret or hidden into the world — and the connection to the home, the connection that heimlich seems to have with both the hidden and the cozy, the comfortable, the homey. (Those madwomen in the attic again; those horrors in the basement; those extrusions of the id.) The seeming simultaneous opposition and equivalence of unheimlich and heimlich is also perfect, somehow. Think of the way your name, or any common word, starts to sound really weird when you repeat it to yourself over and over. (Best cinematic representation of this phenomenon that I can think of off the top of my head: Kicking and Screaming.) Both canny and uncanny. It’s hidden there all along, that weirdness, that divide between meaning and meaningless symbols.
Or think, more to the point, of the Doppelgänger. The doppelganger (forgive my lazy Anglicization), as Prawer points out, is the consummate example of the uncanny/unheimlich. And yet it’s so close to home: the double, the other self. Weird like the world in the mirror is weird, and will spook you if you stare too long.
Atmospheric Disturbances is shaping up to be one helluva doppelganger story: a psychiatrist who “senses” one day that his wife is no longer his wife, but a simulacrum, or a double. This “sensing” is the trademark of the uncanny, as well as one of the stock devices of the horror genre: “something doesn’t feel right here.” But Galchen is doing great things with it here, by destabilizing our relationship with our narrator/psychiatrist, making us question his stability, this supposed practitioner of mental health.
All fiction is uncanny in that anything, really, can happen: writers can be as strange or as normal as they choose to be (although, of course, the unconventional ones — those who do not follow conventions, intentionally or not, skillfully or not — have a harder time getting anyone to read them). I am loving the way that this book is making me question what’s going on: I do not know what kind of story I am being told. It could be a story of mental illness or a story of supernatural phenomena. Or a story of hidden lives and domestic drama. Is it a Borgesian puzzle or a kind of parable of marriage? Or all of the above? (Well, it is definitely of Borges. That’s for sure.) Isn’t that another quintessentially uncanny feeling — the feeling, as in many dreams, that you don’t know where you’re going?
(An aside on this last comment: a couple of months ago at the Nevermore Film Festival here in Durham I saw this movie from New Zealand called Blackspot. It’s really stuck with me: the empty nighttime road played for its full uncanny potential. It’s imperfect, and pretty difficult to track down at the moment, it would seem, but really, really worth seeking out if you’re a fan of the best kind of Twilight Zone fright.)
November 2, 2008 § 6 Comments
Just finished: Infinite Jest.
Reading next: End Zone, by Don DeLillo.
It’s one of the most audacious gambits in American fiction, period. It makes perfect sense for its narrative and yet it seems a colossal singularity. In complicated ways it recalls both Hamlet’s father’s ghost and the “Circe” episode of Ulysses. Somehow (how?!) I’d forgotten it was coming and then, as I read it, the feeling of reading it the first time rushed back to me: that feeling of being torn between belief and skepticism, at the appearance of James Incandenza’s “wraith” to agonized, incapacitated, feverish Don Gately.
There’s no doubt, really, that this actually happens: James Incandenza appears to Don Gately, even bringing Lyle or his disembodied spirit with him at one point. If it’s a product of Don’s fever, it’s a vision, not a dream or figment. The wraith corresponds exactly to James O.’s characteristics, which Don would have no way of knowing, even though Don’s seen some of his films (unwittingly) and has other weird tangential relationships with the Incandenzas (getting us back to that confluential/anti-confluential discussion).
The word itself, “wraith,” is important here, since DFW uses it pretty much exclusively. Hal’s beloved OED is less than helpful, but interesting. The first definition is the simple “apparition or spectre of a dead person…” The second is somewhat confusing: “An immaterial or spectral appearance of a living being, freq. regarded as portending that person’s death; a fetch.” But what Hal would likely be most interested in is the utter lack of etymological information: “Of obscure origin.” The earliest uses are from 1513, in a translation of the Aeneid into “Middle Scots” by one Gavin Douglas. And a 1691 reference also refers to the use of the word among “low-countrey Scotts.” Just as the appearance of the wraith is inescapably creepy and weird and outside of the already very weird (but differently weird) world of this book, so the lack of etymological information on the origins of the word itself would strike Hal, I suspect, as equally creepy and unsettling.
Hal is the key here, because the only reason I can see for JOI’s wraith to appear to Don is to plant a dream in Don’s feverish mind of helping Hal unearth his (JOI’s) corpse. The wraith explains to Don that it takes enormous effort for him to appear to Don: “Wraiths by and large exist (putting his arms out slowly and making little quotation-mark finger-wiggles as he said exist) in a totally different Heisenbergian dimension of rate-change and time-passage.” Therefore, the wraith has to stand still for extremely long periods of time to appear at all to Don (who seems to be able to see the wraith at all just because of his feverish dream-fugue state; and all of this seems creepily reminiscent of the way that Hal moves in jerky and frightening ways at the beginning of the book, so deep inside his own head that he’s something of a wraith).
Basically, as Don summarizes: “death was just everything outside you getting really slow.” JOI’s wraith then does this scary kind of whirl into Don’s brain, where he can plant thoughts and vocabulary Don would never use and basically make things even more confusing for poor fever-addled Demerol-tempted Don. So he plants a dream, very similar to the brief mention of Gately all the way back in the very first section of the book, with Hal thinking (remembering?) as he’s strapped down during his apparent seizure in November of the Year of Glad (a year after the action of the rest of the book), “I think of John N. R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father’s head.”
It strikes me that JOI’s wraith could function as a metaphor for the authorial perspective of the book, a figure outside of the world diving in and out of heads and planting thoughts in the voices of the characters themselves, if we want to get metafictional about it. Less metaphorically, could be JOI is our narrator. Even less metaphorically, but on rather more destabilizingly metaphysical ground, could be that JOI’s wraith is somehow behind the movement of Stice’s bed (last seen somehow hanging from his room’s ceiling), the strange movement of other objects around E.T.A., and even the disappearance of Pemulis’s DMZ from its hiding place, acting as a kind of deus ex machina, although much more confusing and ambiguous in intent and execution. Could be that he also plants that thought of Wayne and Gately and digging up his body in Hal’s mind: that it hasn’t, in fact, happened yet, that Hal and Don haven’t met yet, and that JOI is still trying to get them together.
It’s hard to close the circle of this book. Things seem to be coming to so much of a head, as the Y.D.A.U. action of the book winds up, that it’s hard to imagine them getting to the point they’re at a whole year later, with Hal still playing tennis (apparently very well, still, since he’s in the semis of the WhataBurger) but apparently non-communicative for the entire year. The thought of Gately gives us hope that he survived, although he seems so very close to death at the end (although the cooling sensation of being on the beach in the “freezing sand” in the very last line could be a clue to his being given an ice bath, maybe, to relieve his horrible fever in the hospital, or perhaps just the fever’s breaking). One way to look at it might be that the wraith of JOI thinks that Don may be able to help Hal, to get through to him and help him both with his marijuana problem and with the apparent danger he’s in from the Quebecois separatists.
Beyond all that, though, is DFW’s amazing insistence on the wraith’s appearance. We go on. The wraith is undeniably James O. Incandenza, not just some facsimile or hologram or apparition thereof. He’s got the man’s characteristics, memories, annoying and inspiring quirks. I suppose what it is, is an insistence on the human soul, warts and all, and on the possibility of infinity.