But Is It Good?

Having read — contemporaneously! — and very much enjoyed Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, I assumed his Fever Pitch memoir was a hard-earned reward for pumping out such a successful novel. It turns out that Pitch precedes Fidelity by three years. And not only that but it's basically his debut, which, after reading, makes you kind of scratch your head.

Just to be clear, the conceit of Fever Pitch is that Hornby traces his life as a soccer fan via every single match he'd ever seen. Or at least it seems that way. And it's not done in the sort of soft-pedaled frilly version where Jimmy Fallon watches a bunch of Red Sox games which become the background to his actual life. No, it's serious: every fucking goddamn match. In great detail. By an obsessive person who, at least if the in-book persona is accurate, blocks out the rest of life to focus on soccer. Which is to say, much is written about soccer.

Some of which is interesting, other stuff kind of passes by in a blur and not a whole lot about soccer sticks out. For example, a while back I had heard a description of how exhilarating it is to witness a team coming back from a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1; it was couched in terms of something along the lines of the entire stadium having an orgasm at the same time; this was a provocative and instructional symbol, for as an American sports fan who watches games that provide many more opportunities to score, therefore had never thought of these kinds of moments. It stuck with me and I assumed IN WAS IN THIS FUCKING BOOK. Alas, it's not and I can't figure out where it comes from. But stuff like that makes soccer come alive, or would seem to, and Pitch never quite gets there.

Fever does succeed at making obsessive fandom seem really unbecoming. Especially later in the book where he comes to terms with the underbelly of British football — Hillsborough, Heysel ("I like to think I have an answer for most irrationalities connected with football, but this one seems to defy all explanation"), the racism — it just sounds weirdly inhuman and OCD in that he acknowledges and moves on, rather quickly and expediently. Not that that's not the truth in the scheme of his life but more like what attracted people to this book in the first place?

High Fidelity addressed the same themes — obsessive behavior, male psyche — but that book softened, explained, drew you in and humanized the characters (at least to my twenty-plus-year memory of the book). Fever Pitch, on the other hand, just makes you scratch your head. There's a point later in the book where the persona begs off of a very small birthday dinner because Arsenal is playing some match; it's less cute than pathetic; and I say this as a moderate-to-high sports fan.


Elsewhere I heard or read that Pitch played a role in effectively gentrifying British football. Interesting and a seemingly outsized influence, until I remember hearing Hornby positing to Terry Gross on Fresh Air way back in 1995 to an impressionable post-grad that deep down men felt an inescapable urge to categorize things and funnel them into top-five lists. Today, I don't think this is true, but it has stuck up there in my head for quite some time . . .

Posted: April 4th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , ,

They Could Split The Difference And Frag Alexa

You might know Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey as the book the film was based on — I think it's safe to say that it's one of the rare adaptations that surpasses the book, though in this case that's not a terrible thing in that Clarke helped write the screenplay and then apparently produced the book afterward. Which maybe makes it more akin to a novelization, like the book version of E.T. I ordered from Scholastic back in grade school.

In any case, the book both helps and hinders the 2001 story: some philosophical or seeming philosophical moments can be slowed down for rumination; elsewhere the text could use a visual ("It was like the jigsaw puzzle of a giant that played with planets; and at the centers of many of those squares and triangles and polygons were gaping black shafts — twins of the chasm from which he had just emerged"); still elsewhere the book fleshes out the vague, arty opening of the film and follows its hominid protagonist as it gains consciousness; then again, the abstract ending of both versions could probably use each other.

My memory of the film was that Hal — the ship's murderous consciousness-raising AI assistant — was around for most of the movie. In the book Bowman shuts off the computer around page 203 and then rides the rest of the way to Jupiter in silence. Clearly that's not a great idea for a movie, Cast Away notwithstanding.

We are all very, very woke, so it was not lost on us that there are very few women in 2001. Well, there is one — the stewardess on the shuttle to the moon (whose safety instructions Bowman ignores). That said, it is mentioned that there are 600 women on the moon base, out of 1700 total, making it a sex ratio on par with the United Arab Emirates (though better than Qatar).

. . . . . . . . . .

Which is as good a point as any to bring up Andy Weir's Artemis, the followup to the popular book The Martian. As in The Martian, Artemis's stock in trade is the meticulously researched science underpinning the world in which the story takes place (see here for a taste). The solid science (I'm assuming it's solid; no way I would know) is a large part of what makes both stories so compelling: there is space travel using bogus trans-cosmic boost thrusters (ahem, Han Solo) and then there is the physical universe; I'm assuming Weir agrees that space travel is amazing enough not to have to resort to such hokum (the difference between this and 2001 is striking in this respect). Another nice part of Artemis is it's economic reality — in short, Weir's argument is that the only way a permanent moon base makes sense is to use it for tourism, which is a fun idea (and which he expounds upon here).

Where The Martian was a survival story, Artemis is a regular caper, albeit one set on the moon. As a caper, it's OK, but the science is the star here. It's already been optioned as a movie, I think before the book came out (and apparently it's currently in development); I think it'll be a fun film.

That said — oh, the portentousness of "that said" — while it is nice that this fellow Weir made the protagonist female (and it's only a slight spoiler in that it takes a few pages for this to emerge), in this day and age it can be a little touchy to some to step outside your lane to portray someone outside your immediate experience. Granted, we are talking about perhaps a hundred years from now, which if anyone stopped to ponder is audacious enough, but even if you don't subscribe to this parochial thinking, you have to admit that it is, er, ballsy to do. In this day and age. Which is all well and good. But this guy, this Weir gentleman, this guy doesn't just stop there: he also makes her Muslim. And if that weren't enough, he also makes her a boozer. And a slut — the character's self-characterization, not mine. He basically shoots the moon here. So far I haven't seen any "Identity Politics and the Problem with Artemis" think pieces but if and when the film comes out I wonder what the response will be.

Posted: April 3rd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , ,

Also, We Tried Making Fufu. . .

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing is a bold, expansive story following the path of two Ghanaian half sisters and their respective descendants as each character's family tree spreads to the present day. The sisters' fates diverge when one is sent off to marry an English army officer and the other is captured and sold into slavery (and whose transport to the New World is overseen by the same Englishman). Homegoing takes a granular approach to trace, generation by generation, the fortunes of each side. Along the way the reader experiences the big beacons of recent history through the lens of each descendant. The effect is not totally unlike Forrest Gump, if Forrest's life had spanned from the 1770s to the present day, and if he had been a slave (on the one side) and the mixed-race progeny of an English colonizer (on the other side).

The book is written episodically, each chapter a snapshot of a subsequent relation on either root of this family tree, and while it's mostly unclear how the two branches will come back together in this narrative, by the end (spoiler, just so it's clear) it becomes obvious: the side that stayed in Ghana ends up emigrating to the US, and long-lost descendants meet one another, though they remain oblivious to their shared history. That reunion is rendered in a lovely, almost spiritual manner and is the payoff for the long foray into the stories of generation after generation; overall the episodes are compelling and good reading, but just when you start to feel fatigued by staying unmoored from a real narrative, the final parts come in to save the day. That said, the ending is slightly pat, though obviously you can't have it all . . .

There's something also about the two characters at Homegoing's conclusion — the two who fulfill the reunion of the two half-sisters — that seems overly cautious. The two characters — male and female — feel unaccountably chaste, and not because male and female characters need to feel lust for each other, but there's just something . . . chaste about their interactions that don't feel fully fleshed out (literally, I suppose you could say). Part of that might be that it would have been SUPER WEIRD for these two characters to have feelings for each other. Clearly we're not talking about Jerry Lee Lewis first-cousin territory here but it would have been completely strange to write this in given that the reader is only a few hundred pages removed. My other theory is that the author, who clearly used her own biographical details for the part of the woman (family immigrated from Ghana to Alabama, etc.) wasn't going there (I guessed also that she might have been religious or raised as such, which is the case).

Homegoing, despite it spanning eight generations of two sides of a family and having 14 different viewpoints, is wonderfully written and a quick (and enjoyable) read. That said, it being episodic and focusing on 14 different characters, it was difficult to remember a lot of what happened. That doesn't mean it's not a great book, but maybe the conceit is lacking in a few respects. Taken with the earlier comment about the conclusion seeming pat, I think the book is a little flawed. Still, for a first novel: Fuckin' A. Also, clearly this uplifting story could and should be adapted in some way, shape or form — and maybe then the stories can be less episodic and more part of a narrative and the ending done in a more artful way (some very popular, very emotionally clued-in song could clearly work magic at the end there).

A word about that ending: it was spiritual and emotional while still very uplifting — and I couldn't stop thinking that the symbolism (or what emerged for me) was a little jagged for this day and age. By this I mean — and correct me if I'm wrong or on an impertinent jag — it seemed like she was saying that the two characters, despite being on the opposite side of slavery, ended up in substantively the same spot in life: both well-adjusted and enrolled in Ph.D. programs in the US — in other words, two young, incredibly talented and smart people with lots of potential. It just seemed like a different message than has been circulating (systemic, intractable racism, for one, which is alluded to in Homegoing but never treated as an existential obstacle to success); you get to this charming end and it sort of — sort of — negates the painful past. Also, the book depicts the one side of the family as complicit in the slave trade; a bold move and kind of surprising to see depicted; the great thing about Homecoming is that the storytelling goes where it wants to go and not where it thinks it needs to be. (If Homegoing moves beyond just a book, I wonder if these choices will be called out — it would be a shame if that happened, in part because I don't think she could have positioned those characters any other way without it seeming like she wanted to poop in the punchbowl. Also, duh, this is what literature is all about.)

Posted: October 30th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: