When it comes to baseball, the mind is unreliable and selective in what it remembers. Games and seasons blend into to one another and most second basemen or relief pitchers fade from view forever soon after they leave the diamond for good. Old teams and players live on only as lines of statistics in massive baseball encyclopedias or deep historical databases. Lost, too, are the millions of moments that make up every game. But Roger Angell has been quite good, over the years, at capturing those moments and preserving them as though in amber. And so, in reading his collection of baseball pieces that span more than forty years, one feels a bit like the lucky archeologist who has stumbled upon magnificent specimens so exquisitely preserved as to seem positively lifelike. Angell writes with almost scientific precision: “With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low… Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat.” Angell is not just an observer; he is also the ultimate fan, rooting for childhood favorites or for a team whose story has caught his fancy that particular year. Game Time is laid out like the baseball year, with pieces about the languor and anticipation of spring training in the beginning and closing with multi-faceted recollections of several past World Series. The many pieces taken together are like one long summer spanning forty years, a summer when you went to the ballpark frequently but listened to most of the games on the radio on the back porch at dusk.
Football is the most popular sport in America. Baseball, basketball, hockey, and even sometimes that suspect endeavor known as soccer all have their adherents. But when it comes to true rallying power, no other athletic contest outside of the Olympics can reliably achieve critical mass like professional and college football. This is a truth rarely acknowledged. Football knocked baseball, that lazy and pastoral game of grass diamonds and poetic sinkers, off the perch sometime after the Second World War. Baseball is still referred to as the national game. But a glance at how the country comes to a nacho-sated halt on Super Bowl Sunday but barely misses a beat during the World Series tells the true story. Maybe that’s because Americans know there is something intrinsically negative about the institution of football itself. Maybe we as a country would rather think of ourselves as fans of baseball than football. Spectators at the Roman Coliseum, after all, knew there was something untoward about watching one gladiator sever another’s limbs, no matter how lustily they egged him on. Ken Burns will never make an 11-part PBS documentary on football. If popular sports constitute a feedback loop with society, each reflecting and influencing the other, it’s difficult to argue that football’s dominance is a positive thing. With the steady drip of grim news about crooked stadium deals, domestic violence, and the ever-mutating and worsening concussion scandals -- and that’s without even getting into college players who read at a 5th-grade level and the various high school team mass-rape outrages -- what’s a football lover supposed to do? How much should they care? What’s the ethical thing to do? Is it possible to simply watch and yet not be complicit? What, if any, are a fan’s responsibilities? Steve Almond wrestles with a swarm of similar quandaries in his short, lacerating new bar-argument of a book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. It isn’t an argument he was itching to have. Almond is a bone-deep fan of the game: “I am one of you.” This is a crucial bona fide for somebody churning up this kind of imbroglio. To describe with any authority what is truly awful about football, it helps to love it and to know it. In the first place, for all its seeming simplicity of quadrilateral lines and battle formations, football is a wildly complicated game studded with arcane rules that take some time to appreciate. Secondly, since football discourse’s tenor trends toward tribal defensiveness and instantaneous fury, any negative opinion about the game from a non-fan is dismissed even quicker than if said by a true believer. Like most of us, Almond thought he was immune from modern sports mania’s entanglements. We all know (and some of us resemble) the type, eyes scouring for the nearest screen showing SportsCenter, phones lit up by fantasy scores and trash-talk, ears always full of the angry drone of sports talk radio. No matter the mountains Almond would move to watch his Raiders lose time after catastrophic time, he thought he could stay above the fray. In the preface, Almond describes a newspaper article he pasted to the wall of his office, which contains a quote from running back Kevin Faulk after he took a head-rattling hit. Faulk’s words were clearly those of a man who had suffered a significant blow to the brain. Almond writes, “I thought it was funny:” I assumed, in other words, a posture of ironic distance, which is what we Americans do to avoid the corruption of our spiritual entanglements. Ironic distance allows us to separate ourselves from the big, complicated moral systems around us (political, religious, familial), to sit in judgment of others rather than ourselves. It’s the reason, as we zoom into the twilight years of our imperial reign, that Reality TV has become our designated guilty pleasure. But here’s the thing. You can run from your own subtext for only so long. Those spray-tanned lunatics we happily revile are merely turned-out versions of our private selves. The whores we hide from public view. Almond is disturbed by what he sees as a pernicious blend of unthinking brutality and fooling-ourselves mass consumption. There is the hypocrisy that leads thousands of fans in stadiums and TV rooms to first shout at their guy to take the other guy’s head off, then sit quietly once the poleaxed player is crumpled comatose on the turf, and then applaud in self-congratulatory fashion when he limps off the field. Wisely, Almond doesn’t spend much time on proving the concussion crisis; which is less a new crisis than an inherent part of the game that is only now considered a crisis because it is being recognized. After years of long-form newspaper investigations to Frontline's damning “League of Denial” excoriation from last year, there is little left to argue about, even as the National Football League’s minions fold, mutilate, and spin the truth like those Big Tobacco lawyers and lobbyists of old. The evidence gathered points to the average football player being, because they spend so much of their time slamming into large powerful men (who, thanks to specialized training and all those drugs the teams don’t know anything about, get larger and more powerful every year), more likely to die younger and have some kind of brain damage than the average citizen. Suicides, mental illness, depression, violence; it’s all the legacy of that slam-bang contest we fans cheer for. This barbarousness is allowed to continue in a civilized society, Almond argues, because of how the NFL has stage-managed the sport. Having the help of a lamprey-like “bloated media cult” certainly helps. To Almond, the spectacle of modern football means watching “aggression granted a coherent, even heroic, context.” That line will ring true to anybody enthralled as a child by the exploits of those gigantic, larger-than-life combatants. We are not meant to see mere athletes out there, but warriors. This sleight of hand is helped along by a few factors: the sport’s militaristic nature (coordinated units, tactics, maneuvers, lines of assault, blitzkriegs); those gorgeously snow-speckled and slow-motion Homeric epics churned out by the league’s “ministry of propaganda,” NFL Films; and actual military involvement. Fewer football games today are absent a visit from one branch of the armed services, not to mention the fluttering of flags on the giant display screens and even flyovers. Some games are so thick with patriotic militarism that it wouldn’t shock to see a procession of portable missile launchers being saluted, Soviet premier-like, by the good commissioner Roger Goodell. For an illustrative example of what Almond terms our “imperial decadence,” witness the scene from the 2010 de Tocqueville-lite BBC series Stephen Fry in America. The British wit is happily taking in the Iron Bowl (Auburn University vs. University of Alabama), only to drop in fright at the sound of jets screaming overhead. Being British, Fry didn’t understand that an American college sporting event couldn’t be properly enjoyed without a display of military might. Almond threads his critique of the Pentagon-NFL axis into a broader appraisal of how the American citizenry simultaneously valorizes and dehumanizes its heroes, whether on the football field or the field of battle: The civilian and the fan participate in the same system. We off-load the moral burdens of combat, mostly to young men from the underclass, whom we send off to battle with hosannas and largely ignore when they return home disfigured in body and mind. It is a paradoxical dynamic. After all, part of what it means to be a football fan is that we have a sophisticated appreciation for the game, and a deep respect for the players who compete at the highest level...But it turns out that our adulation...is highly conditional. As soon they no longer excel on the field, they become expendable. Almond stalks through his arguments against the modern state of football at a pace that is both clipped and highly personal. There is a lot of shame here, a discomfort with being complicit in that “system” lying at the root of his angry screed. Like many a blue-state fan, his liberal nature is offended by being complicit in the advertorial-spewing, money-mad agglomeration of celebrity and cruelty that is the NFL and its media courtiers. Some of Almond’s arguments tip toward a to-hell-with-all-that disgust. That sense is heightened in his vitriol against the league’s anti-labor practices and corporate welfare-piggery, which makes it all the more difficult to ever enjoy sitting in a stadium mostly built by public funds but the profits of which mostly go to whichever billionaire owns the local franchise. He doesn’t quite take it to the level of Noam Chomsky arguing in Manufacturing Consent that professional sports being just another way of “building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion...it’s training in irrational jingoism.” But he’s not far off. The book’s tenor becomes so heated, in fact, that when Almond executes a deft spin into a “what do we do with football?” epilogue that tries to address what fans can do to humanize the corporate monster of football, the whiplash is severe. There is something rushed in this book, as though it were powered out in a few heated marathon sessions. It leaves some of the book feeling thin. But this is a manifesto. It’s a broadsheet in book form meant to be powered by heat and what Almond refers to as his “obnoxious opinions.” As such, Against Football doesn’t have a strong and satisfying conclusion. No such piece written by a true fan likely could. Short of calling for abolition, there’s no easy way to resolve the issues raised here. Football is wired too deep into the national identity for it to be yanked out or wholly reworked without some pain. In 1947, E.B. White published a playfully predictive New Yorker two-pager called “The Decline of Sport.” He imagined a future in which “sport gripped the nation in an ever-tightening grip” and the workweek was reduced to three days, “to give everyone a better chance to memorize the scores.” The mania builds and builds until, at a game with 954,000 spectators, a deranged man shoots one of his team’s receivers dead after the player dropped a scoring pass. The bubble bursts: From that day on, sport waned. Through long, noncompetitive Saturday afternoons, the stadia slumbered...the parkways fell into disuse as motorists rediscovered the charms of old, twisty roads that led through main streets and past barnyards, with their mild congestions and pleasant smells. Against Football is a book that kicks and prods and fights with itself and ourselves. Almond is asking himself and us to drop the ironic distance, open our eyes, and truly look at the dangerous, vile, beautiful, fun, highly corrupted, and horrifically corrupting corporate behemoth we spend so much of our money and leisure time enraptured by, and know what it is that we are doing, and what we are supporting. Part of that process might be just taking a couple steps back, shaking off the spell. Maybe a few more drives down old, twisty roads would do us all some good.
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Grieving is such a basic aspect of human narrative that one might think, after a millennia, that there would be little new to say on the subject. That doesn’t stop new narratives from being recorded and published and read on every platform imaginable; poetry, memoir, and novels serving as the specific and personal record of some individual mourning. What causes me to appreciate this continual outpouring of writing about loss is how purely against articulation grief makes itself. What grows within you after you experience a deeply felt loss robs you of your ability to address it; the loss of the self that accompanies grieving serves only to create distance between you and those closest to you. Death not only silences the body of those it takes, but often leaves the witnesses mute as well. Vi Khi Nao may sense this as well, based on the route her debut novel, Fish in Exile, takes through language to illuminate loss and its multiform sorrows. It turns the world inside out, blowing up a suburban tragedy into tale that unselfconsciously aligns itself with the mythic without once utilizing it for melodramatic flair. As Padgett Powell once said, possibly misquoting his old teacher Donald Barthelme: “the more wacky the mode...the more heartbreak there better be or you're not going to get away with it.” Though strangeness or uncanniness may be better terms to describe the language employed here than “wackiness,” heartbreak is certainly abundant. The book opens in medias res, in the first person narrative of Ethos, who moves through the world detached and fumbling (In one fragment, Ethos wakes in the morning and walks “the frozen plate of [his] memory to the microwave.”) He and his wife, Catholic, have lost their children in an oceanside accident and are struggling to maintain the world they built as a family. Ethos responds by quitting his job, wandering around his own house like someone lost, barely capable of making his way through the day. Catholic responds with resentment towards Ethos, keeping him at arm's length after sleeping with the neighbor, Callisto, who, along with his wife, Lidia, seem to be the only friends the two have. The journey this couple takes through this novel rarely takes them physically to any location but their own gloomy home and the ocean, the scene of their tragedy. Their house is dark and swollen with shadows. Ethos makes inarticulate gestures to reach out to Catholic, but she in turn is bound up in her own pain and resentment. The loss of their children has decimated them both, but grief doesn’t have a rote path. Every book that doesn’t try to shoehorn complex, personal experiences of loss into the five steps of grieving is a mercy. Nao does little to push a cohesive narrative or propel her characters forward with plot structure, and the book is better for it. Instead, Ethos and Catholic feel their way along the darkened walls as their life, without consent, continues onward. Interruptions from their neighbors, a visit from Ethos’s mother. A planting of garlic bulbs leads to full-on dramatization of the Classical origin of seasons myth, complete with fully realized conversations between Demeter, Persephone, and Hades. Ethos erects wall-to-wall aquariums to house the dogfish that he buys, obvious attempts at replacing the lost children coiling of glass, fitting in the way they almost resemble their damp and shadowy owners. Death and profound loss are bleak subjects, but what is bleak is not always without humor. At one point, Ethos attempts to approach Catholic with a bouquet of flowers in his pants to replace the erection he cannot conjure. The entire section narrated by Ethos’s mother, Charlene, is dramatic and exasperating in the way only a mother’s visit cane be. Ethos and Catholic struggle to cover their fish with sweaters. At one point Ethos thinks that the “thing about suicide is, it’s a very selfish act. This is why only one should be done once in a lifetime.” The absurdity of the way that grief pushes the couple to their emotional and psychological limits isn’t just devastating, it’s often very funny. Everything in this book is framed in turns of life, death, and desire. Donald Hall once wrote in one of his many poems commemorating his grief over the loss of Jane Kenyon, his wife: “Lust is grief/ that has turned over in bed/ to look the other way.” The desire that mitigates the world between life and death is also what propels everything in this book. Ethos thinks, “my wife lies like a wound. The breeze lifts the curtain so it appears pregnant with air.” His grief is one of longing, where he sees his wife as a “window” into which he views the “shimmering undulating sea,” though he admits that it is not an insight, only “a literature” he stuffs “into her flesh.” Catholic attempts to root out her desires and end them. Though Ethos attempts to obstruct her, Catholic ties her tubes: “now that I can’t give birth anymore, I’m truly receding.” She finds herself disgusted by Callisto, with whom she had an affair in the aftermath of her children’s deaths, and his entreaties to want to “fuck everything.” By refuting all desire, she can disarm the life that has wounded her. There is a reckoning towards the end of the book. There is something like healing that happens as a result of forgiveness and acceptance, but, as with so many things, time is the only effective salve. The lives of these parents do not remain shattered, but they do remain broken. Fish In Exile is a book that never once attempts to explain itself, that immerses the reader in an aquatic underworld of pain and loss. Vi Khi Nao has created a meditation that splits open the numbing and disorienting problems of loss and mourning with language that breathes new life into an old suffering. This in turn brings about the kind of bewilderment one faces when the deeply familiar is made uncanny. In that, there is a kind of solace.
In the new millennium’s parlous second decade, many countries could compete -- should they care to -- for the status of world’s most troubled place. The collapse of the Cold War’s nuclear-bracketed stalemates and the spread of destabilizing force multipliers like social media and religious extremism birthed this new reality of ever-simmering conflict and anxiety. It isn’t just outright warfare of the internal brand being waged from Syria, Sudan, and Ukraine that threatens stability. It’s also corruption and chaos potentially knocking out the underpinnings of societies like the Philippines and Venezuela. Millions of people around the world could justifiably say they fear what the coming years will bring. Even so, Iraqis have a powerful claim on a horrendous past and frighteningly unclear near future. Since 1980, Iraq has spent more than 20 of the intervening years at war, whether the grinding and savage stalemate with Iran, a poorly picked fight with President George H.W. Bush and a devastating invasion by President George W. Bush, being ripped apart by the bloody Sunni-Shia civil war, or the current fight against ISIS. The end result of all these battles, ethnic cleansings, suicide bombings, and massacres is a people traumatized. It makes for a wretched reality but unfortunately rich topography for speculative fiction. Unlike almost every other book you will find out there about Iraq right now, the ambitious new short story collection Iraq + 100 has little to say directly about all the nation’s recent wars. This is somewhat remarkable. As noted in the introduction by the book’s editor, author Hassan Blasim (The Iraqi Christ), “Iraq has not tasted peace, freedom or stability since the first British invasion of the country in 1914.” Still, any opportunity for Iraqi writers to get together and write about something besides the wars, even if that trauma shadows each word in this book to some degree, must be seen as a kind of victory. That is not because there’s nothing more to say about the wars; it will be years, if ever, before that is the case. But with few exceptions, books published in English about Iraq -- novels and nonfiction -- have been about the horrors wrought there and the outsiders who wrought them. But for the odd refugee, interpreter, Baghdad politico, Shiite warlord, or Sunni chieftain popping in as secondary characters, the focus is usually on the foreigners. Iraqis themselves rarely have a voice. When they do, they’re often confined to whatever war or atrocity is then being waged. The guiding principle behind Iraq + 100 was for the assembled authors to write stories set in Iraq 100 years in the future. The tradition of science fiction in Arabic is relatively thin; Blasim blames this on “inflexible religious discourse” and an overemphasis on the Arabic poetic tradition, which has “weakened the force and freedom of narration.” To some degree, the stories in Iraq + 100 illuminate Blasim’s critique. With few exceptions, there isn’t much in the way of driving narrative to be found here, no pulp fiction adventures. But given that space opera or dystopic tales in the Star Wars or Mad Max vein have been so widely disseminated at this point, it’s a relief that what appears to be the first collection of Iraqi science fiction in English is filled with so many non-derivative voices. Blasim’s story is a case in point. “The Gardens of Babylon” creates a world where the old certainties no longer apply. In his future, clean energy has swept the globe, leaving “Babylon” a comparatively carefree technopolis run by the Chinese and rife with decadent entertainments. Like a Middle East take on Logan’s Run, Babylon is protected by great domes from the outside, which is all sandstorms and ruins: “a desiccated relic of a bloody past, a past that was steeped in religious fanaticism and dominated by classical capitalism.” Blasim spins his narrative off into increasingly surreal tangents after that which don’t quite cohere but leave a burnt sensation, as of a collective imagination trying to respark an entire artistic tradition. Although Blasim’s piece notes a desolate outer land, it has an optimistic angle in that at least religious extremism and fossil fuels (and fighting over both) seem to be a thing of the past. Most of the other stories here also steer clear of any fashionable dystopian scenarios. Zhraa Alhaboby’s “Baghdad Syndrome” is a magic realist piece festooned with florid storytelling and details like a weeping statue that directly draws on Scheherazade. It also makes for a powerful statement about the strength of Iraq’s horrific past, with its future society’s cheery sloganeering about erasing history: “Leave behind your names and live!” That cheery admonition is given a darker tinge in Khalid Kaki’s short and tart “Operation Daniel,” in which a Memory Office is there to “protect the state’s present from the threat of the past.” Anyone caught speaking in an old, prohibited language was duly arrested and incinerated. But still, ancient artifacts and old songs litter the characters’ lives, reminders of the joys they lost in the safe-seeking abandonment of their legacies. Some stories bound more carelessly about, like Hassan Abdulrazzak’s “Kuszib,” with its disposable “solar blade” transport, “terror-proof” trashcans, Soylent Green wine, and goofy security “robotic puppies” that seem like a Jeff Koons installation reimagined by a security contractor. Others have a quasi-utopian atmosphere, like Ibrahim al-Marashi’s “Najufa,” which imagine terrors from the deep past -- like that of the dreaded terrorist group CAKA, “the Christian Assembly of Kansas and Arkansas” -- now swept away in a peaceful and technologically advanced Iraq. Ali Bader’s “The Corporal” is a thoughtful, acerbic, Ted Chiang-like piece about an Iraqi soldier killed by an American who spends his waiting time in limbo in the peaceful city of Kut one century hence. Religion is no more, everybody lives in harmony, and the soldier watches in astonishment as the Iraqi president gives a speech about the war against religious extremism in America. Blasim writes that he coaxed the contributors into the project by telling them that “writing about the future would give them space to breathe outside the narrow confines of today’s reality.” There is indeed room to breathe in Iraq + 100, occupying as it does such a generally hope-filled and forward-looking universe. Given the reality of today’s Iraq, with its sectarian feuds and threats ranging from ISIS to the potential catastrophic collapse of the Mosul dam, conjuring up other, freer, less hunted lives -- realistic or not -- feels less like a writerly exercise and more like an exercise in survival.