Anyone who enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Blink or Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics, will likely be interested in The Wisdom of Crowds by the New Yorker’s business columnist, James Surowiecki. Surowiecki’s premise is that groups of diverse people can collectively come to a better conclusion than even the smartest individual. Like other books of pop economics, Surowiecki employs dozens of real world examples. Among the most interesting was a discussion of why “groupthink” led to the crash of the space shuttle Columbia. Another was Surowiecki’s persuasive argument that a “market” where the probability of terrorist attacks (or other threats) could be bought and sold, would be better at predicting those attacks than our current system of intelligence. Unlike Gladwell, however, Surowiecki fails to make his examples sing. Crowds is weighed down by long stretches of prose in which Surowiecki touches on one academic study after another, continually referring back to his premise, “the wisdom of crowds,” as if trying to drill it into his readers’ heads. Certainly, though, anyone with a passing interest in economics – and especially the behavioral aspects of economics – will enjoy the book, but it fails to compete with the genre’s better examples.
When I was in college, I became excited about some poets, Frank O’Hara, Tennyson, C.K. Williams, and some others. This interest stemmed from a poetry class and from hanging around too much in the local used book store. But I’ve never been grasped by poetry, there’s something too arbitrary about it for me. Still, Some poems by Williams in the New Yorker piqued my interest and I picked up his collection, The Singing, which went on to win the National Book Award. There are handful of very moving poems in this collection. Williams’ best poems are grounded by concrete imagery, and they are engagingly anecdotal. But there are too many poems in this book that aren’t tethered to earthly things at all, and it is difficult for the reader to reach them. He writes engagingly about growing old and about war. The best in the collection is called “The Hearth.” It can be found here.
Donald Antrim is perhaps the master of the novel in which men are crammed into confined spaces — a group of psychotherapists in a pancake joint (The Verificationist) or 100 brothers in a library (The Hundred Brothers). Chris Bachelder contributes a gem to the genre with The Throwback Special, in which a football team’s worth of men descend upon a hotel to conduct an annual ritual based on a football game that occurred 30 years ago.
The men loiter in “concentric arcs” around the hotel’s lobby fountain as they wait to check in, “not unlike the standard model of the atom;” they gather to eat pizza in a cramped room smelling of “sweet tomato sauce and warm meat;” and when they find another group of hotel guests descending on the continental breakfast station, they “[lurk] at the boundaries of the dining area, anxious about resources.” All this clustering is a prelude to the formation of a football huddle, “a perfect and intimate order, elemental and domestic, like a log cabin in the wilderness…they could perhaps sense in the huddle the origins of civilization.” (Zog, you go deep while Durc and Plarf sneak up on the mammoth from the blind side.)
Bachelder’s portrait of middle-class, middle-aged males revolves around football, in which we find a unique combination of brute force, obsessive strategic organization, and improvisation. Full disclosure: In my version of hell, scowling football coaches pace up and down the River Styx, their steady barking of martial commands only interrupted to consult their laminated sheets on which every possible variation on the off-tackle running play is written. My distaste for the sport’s phony militarism notwithstanding, Bachelder’s “football” novel is an eerie, witty work dissecting a modern-day sacrificial (sack-rificial?) ritual. Though the curious rite described herein takes place in a “two-and-a-half-star chain” hotel off of I-95, it taps into our ancestral roots; the novel’s epigraph is taken from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, a treatise on the “primacy” and “sacred earnestness” of play across cultures.
The group of men meet to recreate a famously disastrous, and violent, football play. (Bachelder’s first novel, Bear v. Shark, was structured around a more absurdist agon.) During a 1985 game against the New York Giants, the Washington Redskins attempted a flea flicker — quarterback hands ball to running back, running back tosses ball back to quarterback, who looks to pass the ball downfield. The trick was clumsily executed, the defense wasn’t fooled, and quarterback Joe Theismann was carted off with a career-ending compound fracture courtesy of the Giants’ Lawrence Taylor, the fearsome outside linebacker who seemed shaken by the bone-crushing damage he has inflicted. The TV commentator Frank Gifford warns his audience before cutting to the replay: “And I’ll suggest if your stomach is weak, just don’t watch.”
These men did watch as boys, and something about the play’s cataclysmic failure, the collapse of the best-laid plans of mice and offensive coordinators, lodged in their adolescent psyches. The novel opens on the 16th year of the men reenacting the snap. We don’t find out how these performers, who lead relatively humdrum lives devoid spectacular drama, established the group or found each other; illuminating the society’s origins, it seems, would dampen its mystery. The men are not really friends; socialization is confined to the reenactment weekend. Some of their familial or professional troubles are recounted, and Bachelder does flit in and out of their psyches, but in general the men, partly because there are so many of them, remain purposefully flat. It is the ritual that matters — the men’s role in it and their behavior leading up to it. The description of one man breaking in his new mouthguard tells you everything you need to know about him.
At times, The Throwback Special has the feel of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which itself explores the transporting thrill of re-creation. This pleasure lies in the chance to asymptotically “approach perfection” by getting closer and closer to the historical model; or in submitting to the play’s “choreography of chaos and ruin;” or in the suspense that all great drama, even when we know the outcome, generates: “He had liked the sense that anything at all might happen, even though only one thing could happen.”
A blend of comfort and tension lies at the heart of this ritual, faith in its power and anxiety about its stability. In Homo Ludens, Huizinga mentions the fragility of play, the ease with which its sustaining illusion can be shattered or its cordoned-off space violated. Though the men have at it for nearly two decades, one worrywart has the “anxious sensation that the ritual, seemingly so entrenched, was in fact precarious.” The conference room in which they usually conduct the lottery has been usurped by a vaguely-named company, Prestige Vista Solutions. (“They just despoil the environment and establish tax havens and seize conference rooms,” gripes one of the deposed reenactors.) The hotel fountain is initially dry. A jersey, and a player, is missing. There are murmurs that this will be the last year, which opens up the “ancient wound of seclusion” in some of the more insecure men. Each wrinkle contributes to a disturbing sense of impermanence, the fear that the mythic ceremony they have devised is not eternal.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how the ritual at once reveals and promises to assuage male neuroses. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lottery scene, in which the men draw lottery numbers from a giant drum to determine the order in which they will select their roles. Bachelder shrewdly anatomizes the various psychological types: those who find “nobility in ruinous failure” tend to choose a Washington player who is “essential to the calamity,” a member of the crumbling offensive line for example; others are drawn to the Washington offense “out of a keen, if unrecognized, identification with disappointment and culpability and bumbling malfunction;” the “aesthetes” opt for players based on some aspect of some sartorial accessory or distinctive posture; men who “craved the familiar comfort of anonymity and insignificance” yearn to play an insignificant role in the recreation — a retreating Giants cornerback for instance — but “overcompensate for their shameful desire by choosing the most significant player available.”
Regardless of one’s temperament or build, it would be almost sacrilegious not to pick Lawrence Taylor first. Derek, the one black man in the group, simultaneously yearns for and dreads the prospect of winning this first selection, which would force him to “[wade] into the psycho-racial thicket” of picking the star linebacker. In past reenactments, men have played him as a “with a kind of wild-eyed, watch-your-daughters primitivism,” profiting from the reenactment to indulge in a “transgressive racial thrill ride.” Derek wonders how his pick will be interpreted by the other men, and whether or not he could change things by adding some depth to the character:
Selecting Taylor — it was so clear — would not be an opportunity for racial healing and gentle instruction, but an outright act of hostility and aggression. He, Derek, would not control the meaning and significance of Lawrence Taylor’s sack. Centuries of American history would control the meaning and significance of Taylor’s sack.
(That one of the teams still clings to its offensive name adds another element to the “charged racial allegory.”) Derek’s ethical dilemma vanishes when another man wins the first pick and selects L.T., “beating his chest with his fists” and thereby signaling the kind of nuanced portrayal he is likely to produce.
Taylor’s partner and antagonist in the consummating sack is Joe Theismann: “By tradition the man playing Theismann and the man playing Taylor stayed away from each other, like a bride and groom before a wedding.” While failing to pick Taylor would signal weakness, no player is allowed to pick Theismann; the honor falls to the man with the lowest number. The quarterback is a kind of pharmakos, a sacrificial victim at once polluted and holy. While the other men share beds, “it was customary for the man playing Theismann to sleep alone…[a] mildly punitive…form of exile or symbolic estrangement.” Theismann himself, we are told, described his injury in Christ-like terms, his shattered leg bearing the sins of his bumbling linemen; the men who have played him all testify to the intensity of voluntarily offering up themselves to the rushing horde.
Theismann submits to the group’s channeled violence, which is a concentrated form of the scattershot, hostile humor that defines certain kind of male relationship and the “typical masculine joke, a crude homemade weapon that indiscriminately sprayed hostility and insecurity in a 360-degree radius, targeting everyone within hearing range, including the speaker.” One man arrives to the hotel and circles the parking lot in his car, “blasting his horn and shouting community-sustaining threats and maledictions.” This aggressive bantering masks an underlying sincerity: to insult is to love. As Bachelder writes,
…each man…was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting vast quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary.
That this passage happens to refer to the men’s feelings for an inanimate object — the much-maligned lottery drum — makes the men at once more ridiculous and more poignant.
If describing the admittedly silly ritual in such elevated ways seems bombastic, that is partly the point. Serious play depends on a complete adherence to the arbitrary nature of its established rules. Therefore, the reenactment seems puerile to anyone looking in from the outside, including the several Prestige Vista Solutions employees who witness it. These outsiders adopt an ironic stance, but their irony, along with the reader’s, fades when we finally witness the men’s solemn play.
Wait a second. No, seriously hold on. Just a few more minutes.Oh. Sorry. It’s you.I apologize for being late. Well, I only partially apologize. It is to be expected, really, with the Fourth of July striking and the World Cup ending.Yes. The World Cup. Sorry about my rudeness a little earlier – I’ve been busy for the past few weeks attempting to will my adopted club (England) to win (they didn’t) and commit my arch-enemies (Brazil, Argentina) to lose (they did).With all of these distractions, both footy-wise and not, it was difficult to get any books read this past month. Yet (you’ll be happy to know) I did complete a few. And while the most noteworthy book might have been Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn, I found that my favorite – my book of the month – was Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland’s The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup. By far.Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not some crazed soccer fan. Once every four years, I rediscover international soccer – primarily, the World Cup. And every four years, once the tournament is over, I promptly lose the love I had displayed just months before. I always mean to stay in touch once the World Cup is over, but I never do. I don’t know enough about European clubs and can’t find coverage of United States soccer, so I just lose it all together. But for a month and a half, I’m an expert.That’s what led me to buying The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup.Wait. What exactly does this “guide” entail? That’s easy. It’s 32 essays by 32 different writers about the 32 countries that participated in the 2006 World Cup Finals. And of the heavyweights showed up: the essays range from David Eggers’ gym teachers (who call soccer a communistic cesspool) to Aleksandar Hemon’s unfortunate mix of sex and soccer. Nick Hornby struggles with the choice between club team (London’s Arsenal, which employs a vast number of the French national team) and country (England, of course). Does he root for England? Or does he root for his Arsenal players? Sukhdev Sandhu thinks Saudi Arabia’s too soft, while William Finnegan laments the loss of Portugal’s best surfing spot – thanks to modern culture and, in part, soccer.But wait – there’s more! On top of 32 great essays, Franklin Foer (Jonathan Safran’s brother – any regular reader of this column knows of my fascination with the entire family) describes the government most likely to win a World Cup ala his book How Soccer Explains the World. And it’s got all the numbers – useful demographic information on each country, past World Cup winners and the records of current World Cup participants, and the likelihood of each team to win. It’s great for everyday soccer fans, and invaluable for the every-four-years fan, like myself.Amazingly, there’s a common theme outside of the typical “Go Team Go!” narrative. At the World Cup, everyone, regardless of country, has a chance. Once the ball is kicked off, all teams are on equal footing. No monetary means will secure your team a victory. Rich soccer teams can buy all the talent they want – AC Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea – but only citizenship will get you a World Cup championship. Just the allegiance to your country. And every country can build a team. All you need is a soccer ball and a flat pitch.It’s called the beautiful game because it’s the joining of athletics and the pure will to win. Sure, there will be 0-0 ties. But the defensive stops, the fight to get to the goal, the sheer determination that leads to a cross pass that is beautifully set up by some guy that wasn’t even there ten seconds before and then kicked into the back of the goal – that’s sport.And that’s why this book will continue to be a valuable addition to my library years after France (hopefully) beats Italy (boo!) tomorrow. It’s not just a guide to this World Cup, but it’s a guide to the desire of winning. The passion of being a fan. The ramifications of a single goal, of a clean sheet, or of a beautiful penalty kick. (Where are you now, David Beckham?) Most of all, it’s a beautiful synopsis of the game itself, of its strange gravity and powerful importance.Because this is more than just a game.”The joy of being one of the couple of billion people watching thirty-two nations abide by seventeen rules fills me with the conviction, perhaps ignorant, but like many ignorant convictions, fiercely held, that soccer can unite the world.”Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June
“I’m scared you’ll never forget, that you’ll remember all of the bad things forever,” Kate Moses’ brother admits to her just before she leaves for college. Luckily by then Kate knows she wants to be a writer, and her memory is the very thing that gives her purpose. Her new book, Cakewalk, is the fruit of her remembering—a memoir of life and baking, recipes included.
This plump book begins and ends with marriage. Though sprinkled with sweet recipes, the bitter moments are plentiful: as a child Moses is jammed between an overbearing, dramatic mother and a nonverbal, resentful father. With two brothers, her mother tells Kate (who she calls Cis) “We’re the only girls. We have to stick together.” Happy memories include a Coconut Layer Cake for her fifth birthday at the Howard Johnson’s across from Disneyland. But it isn’t long before her mother pleads “Cis you have to help me. You have to help me get out of this.” In the year that follows, her mother puts a deadbolt on her door, locks herself in and bails-out on her domestic duties altogether. “My father ate nothing but Campbell’s alphabet soup and toast for about a year . . . My mother hadn’t eaten in years, subsisting on Tab, cigarettes, thyroid medication, and over-the-counter diet pills. I baked.” For Moses, baking represented a brief reprieve from the relentless tension between her parents.
Finally, they divorce. After Moses’ nervous breakdown at college, the book really begins to motor and take shape as an energetic coming of age, with delightful stories of literary celebrities, romance, and freedom. Moses recalls this period in her life with such aplomb that her joy is immediately transferred to the reader. Her talent for lyricism and whimsy comes in handy as she describes falling in love with her college boyfriend’s family, particularly with his mother, Nell, a fantastic cook. “Nell had baked aromatic Bosc pears with curls of lemon zest and dots of butter, then served them in a pool of warm butterscotch sauce. Everyone at the table scraped their plates clean, moaning with happiness.” For her birthday, Nell bakes Kate a spiced pecan cake. At school, her college professor Arlen Hansen, takes her under his wing, encouraging her to write. “It wasn’t Paris,” Moses writes, “but between my weekends at Nell’s and sitting under the columns with Arlen, my life felt like a moveable feast.”
Meanwhile, her parents’ roles have flip-flopped. Her father apologizes to her and they move towards reconciliation. Her mother, on the other hand, slips into a reckless life of neglect fueled by psychosis. When Moses goes to visit and cleans out the refrigerator, her mother responds, “How dare you! How dare you touch anything that’s mine! I paid money for this food and it’s mine!” Though Moses tries to explain that the food was rotten and that she’s replaced it with new food, her mother throws her out of the house. As she leaves, Moses realizes she has to let go of any hope for a relationship. In her rearview mirror she sees her mother “In reflection—just as she had always seen me. And then I could see only the hillside of forgotten strawberries . . . I saw them there as I drove away: small clotted hearts struggling to survive, dangling on their stems among the weeds.”
While there are triumphs, picnicking at M.F.K Fisher’s house (including a recipe for her Persimmon Parfait with Walnut Black-Pepper Biscotti), at twenty-six Moses is devastated by a failed marriage and her new role as a single mother. “I honestly couldn’t remember who I had been before motherhood . . . Whatever accomplishment, talent, identity I’d finessed in the last few years had evaporated into thin air, leaving no trace.” Struggling to survive, she finds a job, but her income is so precarious she doesn’t eat when her son is with her husband for the day. No doubt Moses drew on this experience to write her last book, Wintering, on the final weeks of Sylvia Plath. She wonders: “Could you die from this? Could you die from being this afraid and lonely and forsaken?”
In these final chapters the message of the book reveals itself. Moses remembers the people who helped her, women from her neighborhood who baked her Blondies and dried her tears, striking up a friendship with her famous neighbor Kay Boyle, the man who would eventually become her second husband, walking through the door, ecstatic at the fact that Moses’ son is glad to see him. She forgives her father, who by now has begun a new family. At her wedding Moses remembers: “I turned from my new husband, flushed with a stunning joy, and there was my father. I saw him as if from behind the lens of a camera—the individual frames of his approach to me, his arms opening, his pale blue eyes glistening with tears, the roughness of his beard against my cheek.” Moses has captured a brilliant moment of forgiveness, which culminates in a recipe for “My Father’s Favorite Cheesecake.”
Though the book is a bit unwieldy and long, it is beautifully written. And while Moses’ story could certainly stand on its own as a straightforward memoir, the baking reflects her “struggle to find a way to redeem with sweetness those moments that left, however bitter on occasion, such a lasting taste in my mouth.” The presence of the pastries reminds us of the importance of experience, that through work and forgiveness, one can make life into something sweet.
It didn’t take long to discover that, as an introduction to Rick Moody’s writing, The Diviners is a poor choice, though at least I know that The Ice Storm, considered by many to be his best work and an exceptional novel in its own right, is still out there. I don’t have to give up on Rick Moody even though reading The Diviners was an exasperating, though occasionally exhilarating, experience.To sketch out the plot, we follow a cast of characters that are all connected, some loosely and some directly, to Means of Production, a New York based production company with a reputation for high-brow films, and its new, potentially blockbuster project, a miniseries called “The Diviners.” The miniseries itself is a cipher, the project has been invented out of thin air by production assistant Annabel Duffy and washed up action hero Thaddeus Griffin, but it is fitting and probably intentional that this novel is centered around a figment. At one time or another nearly all of the novel’s characters get excited about “The Diviners,” often viewing it as the solution for one work-related problem or another. The problem is, it is hard for the reader to get excited about the miniseries or, more importantly, the characters who are obsessed with it.There is something tongue in cheek about all this, obviously, a comment on a bloated culture seeing salvation in a bloated TV production – the novel’s main character, Means of Production head Vanessa Meandro, is quite literally bloated, if we missed the point, addicted to Krispy Kreme and mercilessly mean to boot. All of this action, which includes a number of side plots like an attack on a young gallery curator by a random brick wielding maniac and the descent of Vanessa’s mother into alcohol-fueled madness, is set in the days after the disputed Bush v. Gore election, when our boom economy was beginning to crack and the seriousness of terrorism and war awaited around the corner to put a stop to the frivolity.The problem is that Moody, in his excess — 576 pages, to be specific — comes off as one of those pleading killjoys, like a crusading vegetarian who is unpleasant to eat with or a person who doesn’t watch TV and tut-tuts those who do. Perhaps there is something compelling about the notion that our culture is vacuous, but really, hasn’t this statement been made so many times, and so much more subtly, before?Nonetheless, there is an unmistakable virtuosity in Moody’s writerly abilities. In every chapter he visits us upon another of his characters – some we visit two or three times or more – with set pieces that are inexhaustible in their creativity. One takes the form of a diary entry, another a police report, and another is the internal monologue of an autistic child.Perhaps most grandiose of all is when he alights again on nearly all of the book’s characters as they watch “Werewolves of Fairfield County,” a hit show in this alternative universe. He gives us nearly a blow by blow of this particular episode as we find that almost all of his characters can be joined only as they gaze at the television alone, together. And if that seems like a somewhat trite message, it felt that way too. For such complex, writerly book, the underlying message felt like it too should be complicated, not just one-note angst about our supposedly vapid culture.As the book ends most of the characters are all still chasing “The Diviners” and what it represents, deliverance from their empty lives. All through out the book, the diviner, that ancient holy finder of water, is returned to as a motif, and so it seems fitting that as the book nears its close, several of Moody’s creations are wandering in the desert, finding nothing.