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DeLillo, Lethem, and the Seductive Sentence

 In November of last year I was invited to speak at a symposium on the work of Don DeLillo. I chose the title for my talk — “Don DeLillo and the Sentence” — without really thinking too much about it. It was only after I’d fired off this title to the conference organisers that it occurred to me to wonder why it had suggested itself so readily And I realised that for me — and perhaps for a plurality of DeLillo’s readers–this is what DeLillo’s work chiefly means. For many of us, to read fiction of Don DeLillo is primarily to encounter a series of extraordinary sentences. 

At various points in my life I’ve taken apart DeLillo’s sentences, to see how they worked. I’ve tried to write sentences like them. I even went so far as to publish a short story, ten years ago, that amounted to a pastiche of the DeLillo manner. This story featured a glazed and helplessly ironic narrator recounting events in what I then took to be a coolly postmodern style. (The subject-matter of the story was not, I should say, especially DeLilloesque: it was about a group of college students on a sex-and-drugs holiday in Majorca.) That story now languishes in deserved obscurity. I mention it now because it illustrates something essential about my own relationship, as a reader, to DeLillo’s work. He is, for me, one of the reigning monarchs of the sentence.   

As I drafted my talk. I decided to perform an experiment: I wrote down as many Don DeLillo sentences as I could remember without looking them up. There were quite a few:  
Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the sombre renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. – Great Jones Street 

Weapons have become godless since then. – Running Dog 
It is all falling indelibly into the past. – Underworld 
They got him for his speed. – End Zone 
Tides of ash-light broke across the spires. – Great Jones Street 

For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis. It daunted me, that sombre rock. – The Names 
He mastered the teeming details of bird anatomy.” – Cosmopolis 
That I could remember these sentences wholesale isn’t just a testament to my superhuman powers of recall (though it is also that). I know, from speaking to other DeLillo readers about his work, that they, too, have their personal anthologies —  the DeLillo sentences that still loiter in the memory, long after the books have been closed. Looking at my own list of DeLillo sentences, I was struck by how few of them were gnomic epigrams. Epigrams, of course, are designed to be memorable: the epigrammatic writer, from La Rochefoucauld to Oscar Wilde, is the quotable writer, and DeLillo has always been a diligent epigrammatist. From The Names: “What ambiguity there is in exalted things. We despise them a little.” From Amazons, the novel DeLillo published in 1980 under the pseudonym Cleo Birdwell: “If a man’s name sounds right whether you say it forwards or backwards, it means he went to Yale.” There’s no knack to recalling epigrams; they are designed to be recalled. So, I remembered “Weapons have become godless since then” from Running Dog — firmly in the epigrammatic mode — but I also remembered an apparently trivial sentence from Cosmopolis: “He mastered the teeming details of bird anatomy.” The reason I remembered this sentence – the reason I find so many of DeLillo’s sentences memorable – is, I think, because it appeals to what T.S. Eliot called “the auditory imagination” in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) :  
What I call the ‘auditory imagination’ is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilised mentality.
“He mastered the teeming details of bird anatomy.” What’s memorable about this sentence is its deployment of assonance: the way the ee in details picks up the ee in teeming, seeming audibly to multiply those myriad details – the sentence is elongated by those long, rhyming ees; but this elongation is bracketed by two sharp As: mastered and anatomy. Aurally speaking, this sentence is choreographed to perfection; and visually, it is perfectly balanced: the act of mastery, and the crisp mention of the thing mastered, contained between them those unruly “teeming details,” so that the sentence itself enacts Eric Packer’s mastery – and enacts, also, his larger mastery, of the mysteries of global finance.   

You can do this sort of thing with any number of DeLillo sentences. Look at the opening lines of The Names: “For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis. It daunted me, that sombre rock.” I could note the Proustian echo in that “For a long time”; I could note the heavy, ponderous assonance of “daunted,” “sombre,” and “rock” that aurally mimic the physical presence of the Acropolis. These sentences are memorable because they have been engineered with precision: they are elevated into the range of the epigrammatic because they are densely packed with extractable ore, and designed to awake a response in the auditory imagination by penetrating, as Eliot puts it, “far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling.” To read DeLillo at the level of the sentence – as I have done and continue to do – is to encounter a level of linguistic sophistication we rightly call poetic. Rereading Great Jones Street while I was writing this paper, I was struck afresh at how purely original DeLillo’s sentences are. Like Melville – like Bellow – like surprisingly few writers, even those generally accounted “great” – DeLillo has fashioned a prose idiolect of quite striking sophistication and range. His sentences are works of art in themselves; they reward close study; they give enormous aesthetic pleasure.   

I am not, of course, the first person to observe that Don DeLillo writes great sentences. Even James Wood, in his sceptical review of Underworld (published in The New Republic in 1997) describes DeLillo’s prose as “richly exact.” And Wood, in fact, is sceptical of DeLillo’s work, in part, precisely because of what he sees as its focus on smaller units of fictional composition – the sentence, the setpiece, the purple patch. For Wood, Underworld – and DeLillo’s work in general – amounts to “a collection of lavish fragments, set down in a maze.” And Wood, I think, awakens us to a curious risk inherent in admiring DeLillo chiefly for his sentences. In a fascinating essay, “Half-Against Flaubert,” originally published in The New Republic in 1999, Wood presents a case against the kind of sentence-fetishism inaugurated, as Wood sees it, by Flaubert. Prose that lavishes attention on each of its sentences enforces, for Wood, “the tyranny of the detail,” and gives rise to a prose “broken into units of hard sensation, and merely swiping at life.” And I think there is an aesthetic risk that comes with valuing a writer chiefly for his sentences – the way I value Don DeLillo. Works of literature are, of course, made up of sentences – there isn’t anything else – but there are other units of composition, from the paragraph to the chapter to the form of the novel itself; and the valuing of sentences tout court can, I think, very easily confine us within a rather claustrophobic, New-Criticism-type box – can leave us blind to other spheres of aesthetic and ethical experience. In other words, there are risks as well as pleasures, in responding to an author in this way (as merely a purveyor of marvellous sentences).  

This is precisely the theme of a short story by Jonathan Lethem, first published in The New Yorker in December 2007. In “The King of Sentences,” the narrator and his girlfriend, Clea, are aspiring writers who work in bookstores (as the narrator puts it: “We worked in bookstores, the only thing to do.”) Clea and the narrator are sentence-fetishists in embryo:  
This was the time when all we could talk about was sentences, sentences—nothing else stirred us…Punctuation! We knew it was holy. Every sentence we cherished was sturdy and Biblical in its form, carved somehow by hand-dragged implement or slapped onto sheets by an inky key. For sentences were sculptural, were we the only ones who understood? 
They central joke of the story is that Clea and the narrator persist in understanding sentences in terms that go beyond the aesthetic – to the political, the ethical, and even the sexual:  

A good brave sentence (“I can hardly bear your heel at my nape without roaring”) might jolly Clea to instant climax. We’d rise from the bed giggling, clutching for glasses of cold water that sat in pools of their own sweat on bedside tables. The sentences had liberated our higher orgasms, nothing to sneeze at. Similarly, we were also sure that sentences of the right quality could end this hideous endless war, if only certain standards were adopted at the higher levels. They never would be. All the media trumpeted the Administration’s lousy grammar. 

There are a lot of sly things going on in this passage – I pause to note the hidden joke about Roland Barthes’s concept of jouissance (reduced, here, to its most absurd essence: a sentence that literally makes you come). We might also note that this story about sentence-fetishism is itself composed of sentences that are frequently bathetic, or anticlimactic – a nice irony. “The sentences had liberated our higher orgasms, nothing to sneeze at” – this sentence, fairly typically, scales rhetorical heights before collapsing into cliché.  The central joke, of course, is the idea that scrupulous attention to sentences can carry profound political and ethical consequences – a fine parody of one of the unspoken ideas animating the work of I.A. Richards and the New Critics, but also, of course, a joke about idealistic young aspiring writers, who value literature – and literary sentences – so intensely that they are gripped with missionary zeal. At this level, “The King of Sentences” is a satire on the blindness of a certain way of reading – a way of reading that is passionate, incoherent, fetishistic, and focused almost exclusively on the sentence. And I recognise this as one of my own ways of reading – more specifically, I recognise it as one of the ways in which I read Don DeLillo.  

Idealistic young writers are, of course, prone to the exaltation of their chosen writers above all others, and this is very much the case with Clea and her boyfriend. They worship one writer and one writer only: the man known as the King of Sentences.  
Others might hail kings of beer or burgers—we bowed to the King of Sentences. There was just one…The King of Sentences gave no interviews, taught nowhere, condescended to appear at no panels or symposia. His tastes, hobbies, and heartbreaks were unknown, and we extrapolated them from his books at our peril. His digital footprint was pale: people like that didn’t care about people like him…In the same loft where we entangled, Clea and I drove ourselves mad reading the King of Sentences’ books aloud, by candlelight, when we ought to have been sleeping. We’d tear the book from each other’s hands for the pleasure of running his words like gerbils in the habitrails of our own mouths.  
There are a couple of obvious models for the figure of the King of Sentences. He might be Pynchon. He might be Salinger. But I don’t think so. There are a few clues that lead me to believe that, a few biographical and bibliographical details aside, the King of Sentences is Don DeLillo. We know, of course, that Lethem admires DeLillo – that as a younger writer, he learned to write in part by imitating DeLillo’s sentences. Lethem’s third novel, As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), is, in fact, a carefully-wrought DeLillo pastiche. And from what we learn about the King of Sentences, he bears a striking resemblance to DeLillo – particularly to the elusive, publicity-shy figure DeLillo cut in the decades before Underworld was published. Here are some clues. Clea and the narrator discuss the various editions of the King’s books that they have collected:  
We owned his titles in immaculate firsts and tattered reading copies and odd variant editions. It thrilled us to see the pedestrian jacket copy and salacious cover art on his early mass-market paperbacks: to think that he’d once been considered fodder for dime-store carrousels! 
There are indeed some early mass-market paperbacks of DeLillo’s books (Running Dog, End Zone, even Ratner’s Star) that display “salacious cover art” – the mass-market paperback edition of Amazons, from 1981, shows a woman naked from the waist down, attired (left foot) in a hockey boot and (right foot) a slingback shoe. Lethem, an avowed collector of mass-market paperbacks, would know these editions well. There is also Clea’s name, which may or may not allude to the pseudonym DeLillo chose when he wrote Amazons – Cleo Birdwell.  

Of course, whether or not the King of Sentences is DeLillo is only tangentially important.  DeLillo’s presence hovers behind Lethem’s text because, I think, DeLillo is so famously and distinctively a writer who appeals to sentence-lovers, with all their blindnesses, hubristic ideals, and narrow-minded cerebrations. What’s centrally important is Lethem’s sophisticated assault on the pieties and pretensions of his sentence-fetishist protagonists. At length, overwhelmed by their obsession, the narrator and Clea track the King of Sentences down to Hastings-on-Hudson, a small town in Westchester in Upstate New York (which is, according to a profile published in the Daily Telegraph in 2003, more or less where the real Don DeLillo keeps a home). They stake out the King’s Post Office box – and, just as expected, the King himself arrives. Their conversation, naturally, is disappointing: 
“Let me be clear. I have nothing for you.” 

“Take us home.” 

“Not on your life.” 

“We came all this way.” 

He shrugged. “When’s the next train back?” 

The sentences that emerged from his mouth were flayed, generic, like lines from black-and-white movies. I tried not to be disappointed in this stylistic turn. He had something to teach us, always.  
Nonetheless, the King does deliver the occasional extremely DeLillo-like line of dialogue (“I eat only what my housekeeper prepares. A disproportion of sodium could murder me at this point.”) Eventually, the narrator and Clea follow the King of Sentences back to a room in the local hotel, where, in a budget room, he asks them to strip:   

We stripped, racing to be the first bared to his view. I’d lose the race either way, for Clea had rigged the game: she had written a sentence on her stomach in blue marker. The sorcerer lately couldn’t recall whether he was a capable sleeper or an insomniac. Brilliant, I thought bitterly. The King stared. I saw Clea’s pubic hair through the eyes of the King. Clea’s bush was full and crazy. I thought, I will never see it again without seeing the pubic hair at which the King of Sentences once glanced. The King said, “Insomniac, I believe.” 

Once the two are naked, the King of Sentences shreds their clothes, in “a weary frenzy of destruction,” and walks out the door. As he leaves, he says: “That’s all, you ask? Yes, that’s all. That’s more than enough.” And in the story’s final sentences, the narrator remarks that now he understands “just what it takes to be King. How much, in the end, it actually costs.” 

This is, I think, a brilliantly dark and amusing fable about the risks inherent in making grandiose aesthetic, ethical, and political claims about what are, after all, only sentences. (It is also, I think, a riff on Henry James’s famous line, from “The Middle Years”: “We work in the dark, we give what we have…The rest is the madness of art.”) Significantly, we never get to read a single sentence written by the King of Sentences; we meet him only as a bland avatar of white American masculinity – with an accompanying sexual rapacity, or interest in crude sexual power, that we might see as typical of a certain generation of white male American novelists (though not, I should think, of Don DeLillo). Lethem’s interest is in exposing his young literary idealists to the enigmatic textures of the real – the real, in this case, being that which goes beyond mere sentences, into realms of ethical experience that they have only begun to explore.  

For me, “The King of Sentences” is a warning about a certain narrowly passionate way of reading. No matter how marvellous the sentences, Lethem reminds us, we should be careful to see beyond them. We should look at what a sentence points towards, as well as at what it does. It is, I think, the kind of lesson that DeLillo’s work itself repeatedly teaches – or would teach us, once we begin to look beyond those carefully engineered, verbally rich, instantly unforgettable sentences.

Sports and Narrative: Looking for the Great Basketball Novel

During this hoops-rich period, the frenetic Madness of March having transitioned into the more austere months-long slog of the NBA Playoffs, I found myself fruitlessly poking around for a good basketball novel.  I’m both a writer and great fan of the game — my podcast, Fan’s Notes, pairs the discussion of a novel with a discussion of basketball, usually the NBA.  My podcasting partner and I tend to find no shortage of cultural and metaphorical linkage between the two art forms, yet modern literary fiction seems to harbor no special love for this great game.

Football has A Fan’s Notes, End Zone, The Throwback Special, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  Baseball has The Natural, Shoeless Joe, Underworld, and more recently The Art of Fielding.  For Christ’s sake, hockey yet has another Don DeLillo tome, the pseudonymously written Amazons.  Where, I find myself wondering, is the great basketball novel?
 

First of all, no, The Basketball Diaries is not a basketball novel. It is a memoir, and it is about heroin — it features precious little actual basketball.  John Updike’s Rabbit and Richard Ford’s Bascombe books both involve hoops to varying degrees, but not as a central concern or dramatic focus.  Under the Frog, by Tibor Fischer, is a very good book about basketball players, but it concerns 1950s Hungary, the titular frog being the regime of Marshal Tito.  What else is there?  Walter Dean Myers wrote several young adult books that revolved around basketball; there’s also Sherman Alexie’s YA novel Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and the Blacktop series by my friend L. J. Alonge — interestingly, most books about basketball that come to mind seem to be YA written by men of color, while Big Sports Lit is very, very white.

There is not, as far as I can tell, a big work of literary fiction for adults that is “about” basketball, in the same sense that Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding is “about” baseball.

Perhaps this has to do with the particular character of these sports. Baseball, with its mano-a-mano pitcher-hitter duels, is perfectly congenial to narrative — is itself comprised of a series of mini-narratives involving protagonists and antagonists (one way or the other depending on your rooting interests).  There is really no moment of solo heroism in any other major sport comparable to the walk-off home run (or strike out) to end a game; there is likewise no greater sporting scapegoat than Bill Buckner and his ilk.  In less dramatic terms, a baseball game is comprised of hundreds of discrete individual plays:  someone throws a ball, someone hits it, someone fields and throws it, and it is caught again by the first baseman for an out.  This is how traditional narrative is structured, a series of explicable interactions between a cast of characters that mount in importance and conflict until a crucial, deciding act that resolves the plot.  Even the structure of baseball’s gameplay is writerly, with its nine innings constituting nine tidy chapters inside the larger dramatic arc.

Football, too, though tritely metaphorized as violent, armed combat — marching up the field, a war of attrition, a massacre, etc. –is constituted by many clean moments of contest, various plot points interspersed between the interminable commercial breaks.  American football is American in character, pairing a love of mayhem with an equal love of bureaucratic fussiness.  The game’s horrifying ultraviolence is committed within the parameters of a rulebook thicker than a Cheesecake Factory menu, meted out in orderly skirmishes, and broken up by five minute replays to determine the spotting of the ball within a nanometer or two.  We want war, but we want a safe war, a manageable war in which the actors stay within their prescribed roles — in which no one, in effect, goes rogue (few things are more pleasurably disconcerting than a broken play and the ensuing spectacle of a four-hundred-pound lineman hurtling toward the end zone).  Again, this is very compatible with traditional storytelling, placing maximum visceral conflict and chaos within neat scene and a hyperrationalized narrative structure.

In contrast, the narrative possibilities of basketball seem somehow European in character, closer to futból than football (or as a British student of mine liked to call it, handegg).  Inbounds are approximate, as are jump balls.  Except in certain key situations, there are no replays and refereeing occurs on the fly.  Mistakes are routinely made, lamented, forgotten.

Superstar players — the protagonists of the game, so to speak — are coveted, but the play itself is supremely team-oriented.  Unlike baseball and football, in which individual statistics are iron-clad and fetishized, basketball stats are the subject of endless arguments regarding context.  It is curiously difficult to disentangle the individual moments that contribute to an orange ball falling into a hole.  Yes, someone shoots it, and yes, often someone assists on the shot, but a hundred other smaller actions, essentially unquantifiable — screens, shooting gravity, secondary assists, etc. — go into it as well.  And even the countable stats are the subject of debate.  Scoring twenty-eight points in a game sounds good until you look at how they were scored, with what efficiency, and giving up how much on the defensive end.  Quants — that is, stat nerds — regularly put forth the case that a player like Andrew Bogut, a low-scoring defensive bruiser who sets vicious picks, is as valuable than a shooting threat like Isaiah Thomas.  There is no comparable ambivalence in the record books of, say, baseball:  a homerun is a homerun is a homerun.

All of which is to say that there is, inherent to basketball’s play, an indeterminacy that may not lend itself to conventional narrative.  Moby-Dick versus Heart of Darkness, to throw a strange but perhaps productive analogy at the fridge (and thereby further mix metaphors), are like baseball versus basketball.  One is about a majestic, doomed assertion of individual will; one is about ambiguous forces clashing in a mist of doubt and dread.  Occasionally a basketball player comes along who is great enough to totally clarify the terms of the game:  LeBron James, for example.  But these players are surpassingly rare, generational.

If the orderliness of baseball and football lends itself generally to narrative, it lends itself specifically to retrospective narrative.  In much the same way that we often imagine our lives as a series of cruxes (and model that imagining in our fictions), a football game can be broken down into a series of botched or successful plays, good or bad calls.  These sports are almost built to be post-mortemed, in their perfect state only when finished.  It seems consonant, then, that big literary sports novels are typically about a character looking back at former greatness and lost innocence — either personally or culturally, or both.

And this type of literary sentimentality, in turn, pervades the cultures of football and baseball, which are forever backward-looking, enshrining and nostalgiazing moments, sometimes as they still happen.  Memorable plays are almost immediately assigned names as historically pungent as World War II battles:  “The Immaculate Reception,” “The Shot Heard Round the World,” “The Catch.”  Even the bungled plays have immortal names:  “The Fail Mary,” “The Butt Fumble.”

There aren’t really similarly fetishized moments in basketball.  Its fluid and complex play does not invite the same kind of nostalgic retrospection, and indeed, it is unsentimental about its history to a degree that routinely enrages former greats.  Basketball could never serve as a good metaphor for America’s glorious past, or even its fallen present (football still serves admirably here:  see Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) but it might be just the sport for a more skeptical and circumspect twenty-first century, an era when we need a literature of certainty less than ever.

The End of the Self Is the End of the Universe

“Isolation, solitude, secret planning,” Don DeLillo once prescribed. “A novel is a secret that a writer may keep for years before he lets it out of his room.” DeLillo’s description of his plot for Great Jones Street strikes a similar note: “a man in a small room, a man who has shut himself away, and this is something that happens in my work — the man hiding from acts of violence or planning acts of violence, or the individual reduced to silence by the forces around him.” Mao II, Libra, even DeLillo’s misunderstood football novel, End Zone, include characters who have receded from the world to be reborn.

Some might call that paranoia. When the public world fails to reveal its meanings to us, we retreat into our private rooms, our private minds, where there are infinite schemas and explanations. We are the only skeptics of our own souls. A secret is only as good as its ability to be exclusive, and yet a conspiracy theory is only as good as its ability to be inclusive. Whereas his contemporary Thomas Pynchon might share these sentiments, Pynchon has chosen to be a jester, while DeLillo has a deadly serious endgame.

Years ago, a Jesuit told me that he had the same journalism professor as DeLillo when he studied at Fordham. The professor showed the Jesuit one of DeLillo’s term papers. I never asked about the paper’s content or style; it felt like I had been given a slice of a secret, and that was enough. It turned out to have been an open secret: the professor, Edward A. Walsh, had kept the paper to show budding writers. Yet the tension of a secret that somehow can also be easily found captures the DeLillo mystique. He writes but he does not teach. He gives interviews, but they are clipped and often vague. He lives in the city but seems to somehow live outside of it. He is not hiding, but he is certainly not trying to be found.

Zero K, DeLillo’s newest novel, is like one of those open secrets. To say that it is not groundbreaking would be to misread the purpose and progression of his canon. The major constellations of DeLillo’s work are White Noise and Underworld; the former for its ability to capture his culture’s paranoid moment, and the latter for a son of the Bronx to finally, and fully, examine the place of his birth and youth. Zero K is an extension of DeLillo’s developing themes, but it places a darker color upon them.

Billionaire Ross Lockhart, his second wife, Artis, and his son Jeff are the three central characters of the novel. Ross says “everybody wants to own the end of the world.” It soon becomes clear that he means the end of our own world, but for a man like Ross, the end of the self is the end of the universe. Artis, much younger than Ross, is terminally ill. Ross has been financing a mysterious project that includes “cryonic suspension,” something he admits is not a new idea, but one “that is now approaching full realization.” The project is called The Convergence.

Reading DeLillo without understanding the themes and concerns of a Jesuit education is like walking onto a basketball court thinking you can run the ball without dribbling. DeLillo joked that he slept through Cardinal Hayes High School, and that the Fordham Jesuits taught him how to be a “failed ascetic.” This is exactly the type of thing an Italian-American from the Bronx would say (I would know). One of DeLillo’s running influences has been Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, whose concept of the Omega Point posits that the universe is evolving toward an ultimate convergence of systems, a perfect consciousness. DeLillo examined the concept in End Zone through the obsessions of narrator Gary Harkness. As Stephen J. Burn notes, DeLillo returned to Teilhard’s writings for Ratner’s Star, and even considered titling four other novels Point Omega (the inversion means the same) — Mao II, Underworld, The Body Artist and Cosmopolis — before using the title for his short 2010 novel.

This is not to say that Zero K is a Jesuit or Catholic book. Zero K might be DeLillo’s most agnostic novel, a work that takes Teilhard’s superstructure and strips it of God and Christ and other signifiers. If anyone portends to be God in Zero K, it is Ross, or the mysterious Stenmark Twins, whose philosophies about war, death, and the afterlife put flesh on the skeleton of the Convergence.

If Ross needs men like the Stenmark Twins to offer a narrative to his cryonic project, he needs his son to bear witness. Jeff soon realizes that Ross wants him to be there with him when Artis dies. It is a strange tinge of vulnerability for a man who left Jeff and his mother when Jeff was 13: “I was doing my trigonometry homework when he told me.” Jeff has never quite forgiven him, but is able to keep both his mother, Madeline, and Artis in high esteem.

The facility is full of screens that lower from the ceiling and play silent images of destruction and suffering. This is another of DeLillo’s trends: the screen as projection for the man in his small room. Players opens with a screen: the showing of an on-flight film, which includes golfers attacked by terrorists. A 24-hour gallery repeat of Psycho opens Point Omega. Then there is the metaphorical screen of End Zone, the canvas blinds that are wrapped around the Logos College practice field so that Coach Creed can hide his players.

The desert facility is otherwise described in spare terms, which does make for a rather slow first half to the novel. Patient readers are rewarded when DeLillo develops the dynamic between father and son, which is surprisingly refined by Jeff’s relationship with Artis. She seems unafraid of her unknown future, and that unsettles Jeff. An archeologist, she thinks of finding her own self at her reawakening. Artis, in a true way, needs the Convergence to give her a second chance. Others opt for Zero K, a “special unit” of the facility” that is “predicated on the subject’s willingness to make a certain kind of transition to the next level.”

The same method that slowed the first half of the book gives a surreal quality to its second half. As Jeff describes it, the Convergence facility exists outside of time, “time compressed, time drawn tight, overlapping time, dayless, nightless, many doors, no windows.” I have always thought DeLillo is at his most masterful when he starts changing our atmosphere, when he puts us in the “dense environmental texture” of the supermarket in White Noise. It usually happens halfway through is novels, and Zero K is no exception. At the midway point we realize that Ross has a deeper plan for the Convergence and his son, and its drama pushes the book toward its conclusion. Sadness might seem too sincere an emotion to ascribe to a novel written by a postmodernist, but Zero K pushes its readers to feel. It is almost impossible to not. With its confluence of screens, strange artwork, empty rooms, long hallways, and shaved hands of those soon to be frozen, Zero K creates an experiment, and we, its subjects, feel pulled to interact.

A man in a small room, obsessed with the present and yet somehow existing outside the scope of time: this is DeLillo’s concern. “Isolation is not a drawback to those who understand that isolation is the point,” one character says in Zero K. DeLillo’s new novel, particularly its end, is a slight pivot for the novelist. Yet when a writer is able to capture so many of our anxieties on his pages, a pivot can be profound.

Difficult, Dated, Frustrating, Prophetic: Teaching Thomas Pynchon

1.
In a 1978 debate with William Gass at the University of Cincinnati, John Gardner said the fiction of Anthony Trollope is rarely taught “because it’s all clear.” In contrast, “every line of Thomas Pynchon you can explain because nothing is clear.” The result: “the academy ends up accidentally selecting books the student may need help with. They may be a couple of the greatest books in all history and 20 of the worst, but there’s something to say about them.” Gardner warned that “The sophisticated reader may not remember how to read: he may not understand why it’s nice that Jack in the Beanstalk steals those things from the giant.”

Neither Gardner nor any other single critic is the final word on what belongs in a classroom, but I admit some deference to his voice. His books The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist were influential to me as a young writer, and his playful debate with Gass has been invaluable in showing my students the tension within American fiction during the late ’70s. Yet Gardner’s polemical On Moral Fiction soured me a bit. He opted for a bullhorn where a flute might have been more appropriate. Gardner’s critical shouting was a show, a way to carve out a niche for his own literary identity. In a later interview with The New Orleans Review, Gardner is more measured: he calls Pynchon “a brilliant man, but his theory of what fiction ought to do is diametrically opposed to mine, and while I think he’s wonderful and ought to be read — besides which it’s a pleasure — I don’t want anybody confusing him with the great artists of our time. He’s a great stunt-man.”

I end my senior AP Literature course with the stunt man. The first text I give my students is Gass and Gardner’s debate; we finish with The Crying of Lot 49 by Pynchon. Between Gardner and Pynchon, the students read a significant amount of poetry, as well as novels by Graham Greene, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, William Faulkner, and plays by Eugène Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. I end with Pynchon because his fiction is difficult, dated, and frustrating: exactly what my students need to read before they go to college.

2.
Difficult, dated, and frustrating requires some explanation.

Pynchon is difficult because of his syntax. Consider the first sentence of The Crying of Lot 49: “One summer afternoon, Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.” Pynchon’s sentences are labyrinthine and recursive: full of noise. As his sentences become paragraphs, and his paragraphs span pages, the novel becomes a whirlwind of paranoia; a test of a reader’s endurance and patience.

Pynchon is dated. The novel’s first chapter contains references to The Shadow and Lamont Cranston, parodies of television legal dramas and ’60s local radio station DJs, and Timothy Leary’s consciousness-bending theories. The next chapter introduces Miles, a manager of a local motel, who is “maybe 16 with a Beatle haircut and a lapelless, cuffless, one-button mohair suit,” whose band is called “The Paranoids.”

Pynchon is frustrating. Although my students read difficult books, ranging from Morrison’s layered representation of trauma in Beloved to DeLillo’s absurd mash-up of linguistics and football in End Zone, each previous novel builds toward a resolution. Pynchon tricks, trips, and nearly pummels the reader with herrings of every color. Oedipa’s search is continually diverted with distractions, and that’s before she learns of The Tristero or Trystero, the multinational, historical conspiracy that has culminated in an underground postal system, W.A.S.T.E.

Pynchon has written six novels since The Crying of Lot 49, so why teach this early book that Pynchon himself said was a work “in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up till then?” Because I know that students, pushed by a teacher who believes in them, will rise to the difficulty of the material presented.

3.
We read Pynchon for the same reasons that others might not.

Pynchon’s difficult syntax forces students to juggle two methods of reading: reading for language, and reading for content. That previously quoted first sentence has a lot of noise, but it is not cacophonic. Pynchon’s convoluted syntax mirrors Oedipa’s increasingly chaotic world. His sentences force students to rethink their assumptions about the purposes of not only traditional prose, but also experimental language. I do not intend Pynchon’s work to convert them to more postmodern interests in literature; rather, Pynchon’s fiction is like a literary workout that forces them to build from the ground up as readers. When students read easier works of literature, they might become deluded into thinking that all language is employed in the service of clear communication. Pynchon’s paradoxes make them return to other, non-literary texts with a bit more skepticism and independent thinking.

Although Pynchon’s references and comedic timing within The Crying of Lot 49 might feel dated, the novel helps students understand mid-’60s American fiction, particularly work from the West Coast. One might update the curiously self-deprecating band The Paranoids for our present as Big Data, a Brooklyn-based act founded by Harvard graduate Alan Wilkis. In a recent interview with NPR, he spoke about his “paranoid electronic pop project,” and how “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Internet.” Big Data’s great debut album, 2.0, leads with “The Business of Emotion,” a send-up of the “Facebook mood experiments:” “Feel good, make you feel good / I’m looking for emotion so I know just what to show you.” Students realize that, more and more, they are becoming Oedipa, buried in data: “They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.”

Finally, student frustration with Pynchon evolves into curiosity. Rather than becoming angry at Pynchon’s lack of linear progression and profluence, students are often intrigued by his parlor tricks. For years they have been taught to unearth and discover meaning in texts — English educators love to use manual labor metaphors, but don’t always want to get their hands dirty — yet The Crying of Lot 49 makes students consider what happens when a work of art might not have any traditional secrets to reveal. The movement toward skills-based education in the humanities has also created an effort-return mentality: the expectation that a text can, or should, be distilled into a single sentence. Don’t we want students who know how to handle messes?

4.
There are many other difficult novels that could fit the aforementioned criteria. What is special about Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49?

Published in 1965, Pynchon’s novel fits nicely within the decade of media theorist and “electronic prophet” Marshall McLuhan’s essential works: The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), and The Medium is the Massage (1967). As Mark Greif notes in The Age of the Crisis of Man, his excellent consideration of American fiction between 1933 and 1973, “Pynchon [puts] a TV set in every room of his fiction — often to drive the action.” McLuhan’s “electric light” illuminates Pynchon’s fiction.

Oedipa is the protagonist that McLuhan might dream of, a woman thrust into an electronic world she did not create but is forced to understand. Early in the novel, Oedipa and Metzger, her part-time lover, part-time legal mentor, visit The Scope, a nightclub on the outskirts of Los Angeles with “a strictly electronic music policy.” A “hip graybeard” explains “They put it on the tape, here, live, fella. We’ve got a whole back room full of your audio oscillators, gunshot machines, contact mikes, everything man.” As Oedipa drives through San Narciso on a Sunday, “She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit.” Oedipa’s world is wholly electronic; in fact, considering Pynchon’s sensibility as a jester-Catholic, holy electronic.

My students watch McLuhan’s 1976 appearance on The Today Show and are entertained by his dissection of the presidential debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. “I never saw a more atrocious misuse of the TV medium,” he quips, and calls the moment when the sound cut during the debate a “rebellion of the medium against the bloody message.” If the bloody message is linear, progressive, and climactic storytelling, Pynchon’s novel is rebellion through performance. Greif notes that “‘Man’ as a being and a concept is put into jeopardy for Pynchon, not first by high-technological machines or weapons but by the use of ordinary materials and the creation of mundane objects — the changing status of the parts of men, and the insertion of inanimate things into their bodies and daily habits.” I don’t want students to smash their iPhones, but I do want them to think twice about what type of data they offer their devices.

At its worst, Pynchon’s prose is a beautiful failure. At its best, Pynchon’s prose is revelatory. I agree with Greif that, in the end, The Crying of Lot 49 and Pynchon’s canon as a whole are concerned with data: “whether remains are transmitted beyond each individual communication, buried in the material facts of the founding of the system of communication, and whether this residue may shadow and smudge the prospect of those who join such a system, without them even knowing it.” Not a bad lesson for students to learn, somewhere between thinking of giants, beanstalks, and other noise.

A Year in Reading: Nick Ripatrazone

This was the year in which I first became aware of my annual Holy Trinity of reading: End Zone by Don DeLillo, Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen, and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass. Whatever happens to me during any given year, these are the three books I re-read, front to back, like ritual. But this year those books began to speak to each other during my reading experience. Perhaps appropriate to their respective content, I read End Zone during the summer, sufficiently inspired to do sprints on wooded trails during thick July afternoons. I settled into Gass’s book, particularly “The Pedersen Kid,” while the snow piled and piled. Hansen’s story of a stigmatic novitiate was fodder for Lent. This year I noticed that each book values atmosphere over plot, mystery over clarity. Those books are likely brothers.

I returned to The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. I still wonder over the narrative economy of “The Way It Has to Be.” Perhaps moved by similar nostalgia — I began reading Pancake as an undergraduate, around the time I spent most mornings fishing — I read The Art of Angling and Fishing Stories, two rich pocket books with words that will reawaken the souls of even the most cynical anglers. Not to mention that you can find a poem by Ron Rash about a fisherman who hooks his own eye: “My hair sweeps back like an evangelist’s, / as I cross the heart of the lake / toward Swaney’s Landing where I will testify / to those sunburned old drunks / of careless moments that scar us forever.”

I was able to review a few books this year for The Millions, and they are certainly worth revisiting in future years: Its Day Being Gone by Rose McLarney, Hold the Dark by William Giraldi, The Second Sex by Michael Robbins, 300,000,000 by Blake Butler, and Fat Man and Little Boy by Mike Meginnis. Each left a mark on me.

My reading year ended with two gorgeous new books of poetry, both debuts, both formed in the shadow of Roman Catholic culture and thought. Reliquaria by R.A. Villanueva offers shades of parochial school and the Meadowlands and how “my brother told us about the Cemetery of the Holy Sepulchre, / cut in half by the Parkway.” Villanueva’s volume is a lyric documentation of, among other themes, Filipino faith, a belief absolutely bound in the corporeal. Saints populate this book. Bodies, living and dead, real and imagined, are broken. It is also a book of the venial dissensions of childhood: a botched biology class dissection that turns heretical, and when the narrator dares a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out at Christ’s face.” Any book authentic to the Catholic tradition will have its eye toward ashes, and Villanueva’s elegiac moments are sharp: “When you bury me, fold / my arms, neat // over the plateau of a double-breasted suit”; “I promise my ghost will find you / should you want someone else to love.” Villanueva’s book wonders about childhood, family, the distance from original culture, and of things eternal: “So what is it we’ve saved? Skull? Soul? Vulture? / Maybe this earth, turned in on itself and made.”

The second book, Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson, is well-paired with Reliquaria (what minor miracle of publishing that two secular presses — University of Nebraska Press and Milkweed Editions — release exquisitely crafted, meditative books about God and absence during the same year). I’ve been a fan of Johnson’s verse in literary magazines for some time; her poems have the ability to clear the air, to pause the mind. I am preternaturally disposed to love a book that begins with an epigraph of that wracked, devoted disbeliever, Ingmar Bergman. I thought of Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf while reading many of her pieces, including “Deer Rub.” A deer rubs its forelock and antlers against a tree, and the “velvet that covers the antlers // unwinds into straps, like bandages.” And then she manages quite the poetic turn; rain falls, “washes the antlers / of blood, like a curator cleaning the bones // of a saint in the crypt beneath a church / at the end of a century, when the people // have begun to think of the bodies / as truly dead and unraiseable.” This is why I read poetry: to see how words transfigure, how associations bring new life. By the end of the poem, the deer is dead. The bark has regrown. But the scene has a permanence “long after this morning / when the country wakes to another way, // when two people wake in a house / and do not touch each other.”

Johnson’s poems feel like a series of engravings discovered in an abandoned cabin deep in the forest; each is its own folkloric song. In “Confession,” one of the few prose poems in the book, a dream becomes a myth: “I hide under a thought of light, not incineration. The thought is a cloak I wake into gently; it is cold in the room, and I am hungry but whole.” I thought also of “Sea Psalm,” which begins so powerfully: “Lord, this is not your world. I am not yours / but also not mine. Not your passenger. Not your saint at the helm, the machinery // of my hands turning like clocks.” These moments of distance become full when the collection ventures further and further into the cold, as in “Letter from the Ice Field, January,” which is beautifully grotesque, Catholic gothic: “I stopped, and walked down into the crypt, knowing a saint had lain there for centuries. Her mouth lay open, as if to ferry over the word of a messenger. The saint had my face. The saint woke and rose from her coffin, and gave me her skin, which is a map of the earth, and her eyes, which see every planet. I took out my eyes and put hers in, then climbed into her empty coffin, my body glowing as hers had: like a femur in a fire, its marrow burning across the length of me.” The poem ends “Inside me you have learned to speak impossibly.” Bone Map was a reminder of how it felt to be devastated, made new by poetry. I can’t expect much more from a book.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

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Free Rides: Writing and Reading on Trains

In local parlance, a “free ride” means riding New Jersey Transit without buying a ticket. For years, that trick was easiest on the Morris-Essex line, with the double-decker trains going westbound from New York City. A free ride from Newark Broad Street to Dover was possible on the 8:19 pm train, using the following method. Step 1: enter the train in the midst of a crowd, far from a conductor. Step 2: move two cars forward. Don’t stop to peek at someone’s text, and don’t settle for an empty three-seater with a fresh copy of The New York Post. Step 3: choose a car with a clean-check: when the conductor brushes through upon boarding, collecting tickets but not clipping, giving receipts but sticking no slip in the flaps above seats. Step 4: Catch an open spot in a two-seater; pencil in hand with an open book is the best disguise. If an overzealous conductor somehow reaches your car, avoid eye contact. If I were caught, this would be my Step 5: show the conductor my monthly pass, apologize, and explain that I am a fiction writer.

I would never steal a free ride, but would gladly accept one if New Jersey Transit, or Amtrak, offered. I am not the only rider willing to accept that gift. Consider the social media frenzy that erupted when writers recently discovered Amtrak’s free writing residencies. The Wire’s coverage of the story’s background was the single-most shared literary link I’d ever seen. What writer, laptop on a folded-down food tray, or notebook on knee, doesn’t wish they could spend hours drafting on those rails? Dream evolved into reality because of a December 2013 PEN America interview with novelist Alexander Chee, where he says trains are his favorite place to write: “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” Jessica Gross read Chee’s interview and tweeted her own desire for such a residency. Amtrak offered her a free “test run.” She accepted, and took a round trip on the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago: “thirty-nine hours in transit — forty-four, with delays.” At The Paris Review, her romantic description of that residency’s spartan, utilitarian space would entice any writer interested in solitude: a 3’ 6” by 6’ 8” sleeper cabin with a window, “two plush seats,” a sliding, chessboard-topped table, a sink, cups, towels, soap, and curtains that can be drawn over two windows facing the corridor. As Gross notes, “I’m only here for the journey.” She was “ensconced” in order to write.

Gross shares how other writers love the schedule of train travel: “Anne Korkeakivi described train travel as ‘suspended impregnable time,’ combined with ‘dreamy’ forward motion: ‘like a mantra, it greases the brain.’” Even writing about writing on trains feels natural. Gross refers to Emily St. John Mandel’s fine essay here at The Millions, which describes a very different type of train: the New York City subway system. There she “scrawl[ed] fragments” of her third novel on “folded-up wads of scrap paper, using a book” as her desk. Mandel notes that reading is ubiquitous on the subway, but writing is rare. That’s understandable. Subways are about connections and changes, quick closing doors and an absence of conductors roaming the cars. Trains are longer commitments, more conducive to settling into one’s seat, tuning out, and letting the steady ride transport the mind.

I have done my fair share of writing on trains, but prefer them as places to read. My train reading is associative: one book leads into another. Lately I’ve been riding the train most often in summers: hour-plus routes that begin in Netcong and Dover and end at the Broad Street, Newark station. I teach a sport literature course at Rutgers-Newark that runs July through August, so one such train-reading litany began with Don DeLillo’s End Zone. The refrain of “hit somebody, hit somebody, hit somebody” complimented the repetition of my ride: run, slow, stop, start. End Zone sent me to a more recent DeLillo, Point Omega, which is a thinner read, but more directly engages the evolutionary theories of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. My edition of Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man fell apart when I reached page 36, which ends with this sentence: “In such a vision man is seen not as a static centre of the world — as he for long believed himself to be — but as the axis and leading shoot of evolution, which is something much finer.” I had to reach under the seat in front of me to grab the pages that broke from the bitter spine.

Teilhard’s thought is recursive, so I then chose to re-read On Being Blue, William Gass’s 1976 treatise on that color, emotion, and concept: “a random set of meanings has softly gathered around the word the way lint collects.” Gass sent me to The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Was there ever a writer more syntactically appropriate for the train? “As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story” might be inscrutable, but it is still a literary ride. I admit to not finishing Stein’s collection, and other books, that I begin on the train. My relationships with books might last for an entire afternoon, one half of a round trip, or only between stops. Stein’s wordplay inspired me to revisit Patrick Madden’s excellent essay collection, Quotidiana. His short but packed essays are a perfect fit for trains. One essay, “Remember Death,” moves from the band Rush to Montaigne to Mr. Lamb (one of Madden’s high school English teachers that I also had — we are from the same hometown) to Sts. Jerome and Anthony. I moved from the breadth of an essay collection to the depth of a memoir: Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia by Blake Butler, which now reads like an elegy for his late father. Butler’s labyrinthine prose made the train car feel comfortably claustrophobic.

After a helping of non-fiction, I longed for the escape of fiction again. James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is never so romantic and heartbreaking as when it is read on a train. The longing in Paul Lisicky’s Lawnboy felt perfectly metered across multiple stops, and painfully final when the train pulled into the yard at Dover, out of service. I often return to the underappreciated James Alan McPherson when thinking writers, trains, and endings. McPherson worked as a dining-car waiter on the Great Northern Railroad in 1962. Then came Harvard Law School and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but a life on the rails never left him. He edited Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture with poet Miller Williams, and also wrote two train-related stories, “On Trains,” and my favorite, “A Solo Song: For Doc, ” an elder dining-car waiter’s advice to a new hire. These words might have been spoken to McPherson himself: “There’ll always be summer stuff like you, but the big men, the big trains, are dying every day and everybody can see it. And nobody but us who are dying with them gives a damn.”

I prefer prose to poetry on the train, but there’s a place for verse in transit. Tyehimba Jess’s development of persona in Leadbelly metaphorically matches the transformative aspect of travel, the possibility that we might be reborn in a new place. I’ve read and prepared reviews for Maybe the Saddest Thing by Marcus Wicker, Fables by Sarah Goldstein, Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie by Joshua Harmon, Copperhead by Rachel Richardson, and browsed poems in Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, and Poetry. My favorite single poem to discover on the train is, coincidentally, “Love Train” by Tomás Q. Morín. I first heard it discussed in a Poetry magazine podcast, but read the full poem on the actual page. A woman asks for “Earl Grey cookies / sandwiched around buttercream or marshmallows / made of chocolate,” but her husband returns from the dining car with his “bowl brimming with pretzels, / the snack you wanted least.” That’s not the only problem: “When I came bearing the salted and twisted news, / the room was empty but for a heel.” He’s forgotten their room number on the train, so he opens every door “marked with threes and eights,” waking strangers “like a beggar, no, an angel, / a begging angel who has written on his heart / WILL WORK FOR LOVE.” Frustrated, all he finds are “row upon row of couples asleep,” or riders “staring out the windows like zombies,” unsure what to do “once the newspaper is well-thumbed, / the tea has gone cold, and the conversation is dead.” He finally discovers his wife “in a cafe / in a city we didn’t know, where she is “slowly eat[ing] / a dish of whipped cream and bananas.” Hearts broken and healed, in transit.

At The New Yorker, Vauhini Vara wonders what will happen when the romantic excitement for Amtrak’s residencies subsides, and we get down to dollars and cents. She also makes a smart comparison with David Foster Wallace’s sideways glance at Frank Conroy’s “essaymercial,” “My Celebrity Cruise, or ‘All this and a Tan, Too,’” which Conroy was paid to write. Amtrak’s social-media director, Julia Quinn, told Vara these writer residences are “the most organic form of advertising for us — different people on our trains and exposing their audience to what long-distance travel is like.” The key word here is audience: “We are a for-profit organization, so we are definitely determining when the best time is to send these people. I’m not going to send all of the residents in May, June, and July during our peak system, when we could be selling those tickets.” No one expects Amtrak to offer these residences without any strings, and certainly writers are not the demographic that needs charity the most. But this might be a good time to dull the cynical blade and embrace optimism. I hope Amtrak develops these introductory residencies into a full program, and that these writers are inspired to create new work, breathe life into old drafts, and maybe even enjoy some good reading.

Image via p_x_g/Flickr

The Fictional Lives of High School Teachers

In a recent Bookforum essay, Natasha Vargas-Cooper argues that we should stop teaching novels to teenagers because she hated reading novels as a teenager. Her first example is The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. It took her a decade to understand Jake Barnes’s condition because she, “like most high school sophomores, had no frame of reference to tap into the heady though subtle emotions that course through Hemingway’s novels.” She found Jake and company boring. She was a “hungry” teenager “starving for stimuli,” so “trout fishing in Spain did not cut it.” Hemingway wasn’t the only snore. Add F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with the “damnable Brontë sisters [who] were shoved down my throat.” She traded Bless Me, Ultima for mediums that were more “vital and urgent,” like “movies, musicals, and plays.” Those visual narratives “gave me large and instant rewards for spending time with them.”

The real villains were not stodgy novels, but her public school teachers. “Brutally inept teaching of The Pearl” almost soured her on Steinbeck. Most of her teachers “were as inspiring and provocative as the Great Expectations Word Search they handout out the first day we started Dickens.” Those teachers were “largely well-intentioned adults who don’t have the resources, or sometimes even the intellectual vigor, to make emotional landscapes of the western front, nineteenth-century London, or Pamplona very real to sixteen-year-olds.” In the hands of these insipid instructors, novels weren’t “the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers.” Her proposed solution: students should read non-fiction.

Her potential reading list includes memoirs, creative non-fiction essays, meditations on language, and journalism. It’s a good list, but the problem is that Vargas-Cooper thinks she’s discovered the groundbreaking secret “to spark a love of reading, engage a young mind, and maybe even teach them how to write in a coherent manner.” Non-educators who write about education often make breathless suggestions that have already been used in the classroom for decades. Many of the writers and works who appear on Vargas-Cooper’s list are commonly taught in high school classrooms, and are suggested as independent reading selections for summer work: David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, George Orwell, Jon Krakauer, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and others. Here’s a small sample of non-fiction from my own classroom: Wallace’s “Shipping Out,” “The Essay Vanishes” by Ander Monson, “Listening for Silence” by Mark Slouka, “How to Make Collard Greens” by Megan Mayhew Bergman, excerpts from The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, and essays from Brevity.

Like many sweeping proclamations about high school education by those who have never done the actual work of guiding and caring for a classroom of students, Vargas-Cooper’s essay doesn’t pass scrutiny at the line-level. She wants the same supposedly banal educators she attacks earlier in the essay to now teach Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” and Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion. She then follows with a confounding sentence tandem: “Maybe the classroom is not the best setting for children to have profound literary experiences. Give the kids something they can relate to, immerse themselves in, and even copy!” I assume this means that teachers should give students non-fiction, but this transfer and experience must not happen within a classroom. Even parodic prose needs clarity.

Although I remain befuddled by her unawareness of high school reading lists, I am not surprised that Vargas-Cooper chose to begin her complaint with Hemingway, a writer often reduced to his myths. The Sun Also Rises is particularly well suited to misreading because of its unreliable, love-drunk narrator, Jake Barnes. Many of my own students have enjoyed Hemingway’s novel. I don’t say all, because no one other than a first-day teacher — or writers of thin commentaries on education — expects all students to enjoy every assignment, or even to read every book. But if Vargas-Cooper is looking for a “thought-provoking excursion into themes of empathy, human responsibility, and folly,” Hemingway delivers. I’m fairly certain that a novel about a man in love with a woman who would rather just be friends might connect with a teenage audience.

Students also enjoy The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, a literary thriller suffused with theological complexities. An unnamed “whiskey priest” is on the run in 1930s Mexico after a regime based on the real-life governance of Tomás Garrido Canabal has outlawed Catholicism. Priests can either forsake their religion, or die. The whiskey priest chooses faith, but that faith is tempered by pride. He is no exemplary priest; in fact, he is a terrible man. He has abandoned the daughter he fathered out of wedlock. Anyone in his presence is in danger of arrest or execution. Another unnamed character, the lieutenant, considers the whiskey priest a symbol of all that is evil within the Church: gluttony and hypocrisy. The lieutenant wants to eradicate all vestiges of Catholicism, and he will use all means necessary.

I teach at a public school, not a parochial school. Most of my students have a vague cultural knowledge of Catholicism, but they are a world away from the Mexican province of Tabasco. Some students miss the double meaning of “father.” Others don’t understand why the villagers would risk death to receive the sacrament of confession. And others still will not read the book at all, either because of disinterest, or because they are overwhelmed with other classes and commitments. But I do not want to live or teach in a country that asks students to only engage experiences similar to their own. I look to create comfortable dissonance in the classroom. I want my students to recognize that they are geographically and culturally different than the characters in Greene’s novel, and then to consider their shared humanity with these fictional characters. I ask them to do the same with the Bundrens in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or with Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. They spend a season with the brilliant, maniacal football team at Logos College in Don DeLillo’s End Zone. And I pray that they will never know pain equal to the men and women in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but they benefit from seeing the world through such scarred eyes.

We should continue to teach novels in the high school classroom. Fiction has a home there. But we should stop writing fiction about high school teachers within essays about education. Vargas-Cooper’s ribbing is playful compared to the stereotypes cast by politicians who hope to siphon funding from education. Teachers don’t enter this profession to relax. Teachers are women and men who work themselves exhausted.

Let me be clear: we public school teachers are not martyrs. We get paid for what we do. Whether that pay is acceptable or not is for another discussion. In America, teachers are either seen as angelic or caustic, saviors or sycophants. These stereotypes enable politicians to convince the public to support the latest education fad or slash needed budgets. The reality is we teach because we love to help kids, and we think literature is a way to examine and understand our complex lives. We do our best to help students inhabit the world of novels. The worlds of those texts might be imagined, but the emotions are palpable and authentic. We do real work in public schools. That, I can assure you, is not fiction.

Image via Thomas Favre-Bulle/Flickr

End Zones: On Football, Sports Scandals, and Don DeLillo

1.
I teach a course on sports literature and culture at Rutgers-Newark, and we will have a lot to talk about this summer. Unfortunately, our subject will be close to home. The continuing debacle at the New Brunswick campus saddens me. I have stopped revising my syllabus: I simply cannot keep up with the hourly developments. A school that is home to Nobel laureates, National Book Award winners, dedicated faculty, talented students, and nationally recognized programs has become a punchline. The Providence Journal’s Jim Donaldson quips that we are rightfully the Scarlet Knights, since we should be “red-faced with embarrassment.” NBC Sports calls our athletic department a “disaster.” Even Inside Higher Education, a publication devoted to the academic and administrative sides of university life, calls the recent developments “downright shocking.”

Yet former governor Tom Kean says politicians should “shut up” about Rutgers. Governor Chris Christie claims “absolute confidence” in Rutgers President Robert Barchi, who in turn assures that Julie Hermann, the controversial incoming athletic director, is the right person for the job. They all need to watch a replay. The recent athletic drama has been nearly Shakespearean: Mike Rice, the basketball coach with an abusive style, was merely suspended rather than fired. That is, until video of his actions were televised on ESPN. Athletic director Tim Pernetti resigned, but is now championed to return by loyal supporters. Replacement basketball coach Eddie Jordan, advertised as a Rutgers alumnus, did not actually graduate from the university. And Julie Hermann is haunted by her own coaching style, which caused her entire volleyball team to write a scathing letter of criticism. That letter led to her resignation from her position at the University of Tennessee.

That would be enough for the final scene of Hamlet, but not Rutgers.

Members of the search committee for the new athletic director have voiced their concern with the rushed process, which included a $70,000 background check that failed to check Hermann’s background. They missed her role in a 2008 sex discrimination lawsuit during her tenure as a senior athletics administrator at the University of Louisville. Now the university has spent $150,000 on crisis communications to deal with this mess, and Hermann arrives at campus this week. Rutgers is set to join the Big Ten conference, the final step in a decade-long ascension to the national athletic scene. More importantly, the university is in the midst of the largest merger in the history of American higher education, as Rutgers joins with the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey. And yet Dick Vitale is right: we have become a national “soap opera.” I certainly will not claim that I predicted this, but I think Don DeLillo did.

2.
“Hit somebody, hit somebody, hit somebody”: a refrain spoken by Emmett Creed, head coach of the Logos College football team in End Zone. Don DeLillo’s metafictive, surreal novel has always been the central text of my sports literature course. It is a wild story, with an overzealous, abusive coach who leads his team to victory at all costs. As I re-read passages in the cement-walled classroom of Conklin Hall, my Rutgers students know that I love this book. There is a tension in loving and writing about sports, and football exploits those opposing pulls, particularly in the hands of a stylist like DeLillo. His prose pops with the terse language of the gridiron, and these words are blasted through a bullhorn from a tower high above the practice field. Other coaches, and even the linguistic-majoring players, appropriate Creed’s words and cadence. His influence is not surprising. An archetypal leader in the tradition of Amos Alonzo Stagg and a former B-27 pilot, Creed was born “in either a log cabin or a manger.” After a brief career with the Chicago Bears, Creed coached at another college before he broke the jaw of a second-string quarterback who “said or did something he didn’t like.” He was famous, though, for “creating order out of chaos”; for resurrecting programs and careers.

End Zone is a metafictional satire in the DeLillo tradition. Absurd scenes are paused with parenthetical asides. Americana is skewered, and DeLillo, even in 1972, recognized that football had replaced baseball as our nation’s metonymic sport. Yet for all his sarcastic snipes, DeLillo sounds in love with the “autumnal rhythms” of football. He prefaces the reader with a critique of extended game sequences in fiction before devoting nearly 30 pages of End Zone to a play-by-play of a game against rival Centrex. Such self-awareness is certainly a hallmark of metafiction in the style of John Barth, but it is done so lovingly. DeLillo, it seems, wants it both ways.

As do I. One of my goals in teaching the sports literature course is to help students unpack the culture of sports in America. Reading DeLillo helps them examine the economic inequalities within Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, which in turn causes them to reconsider how the bodies of collegiate and professional athletes are owned by their coaches and institutions. Yet DeLillo’s novel shows why sports are so complicated: it is easy to bemoan and simultaneously enjoy the world of athletic decadence.

Coach Creed cancels a Friday workout before his team’s all-important game against rival Centrex. He “suggested” that the captains lead a “beer party” that night, with simple parameters: “no coaches, no females, no time limit.” DeLilllo eschews even a paragraph break before documenting that night’s action. Beer pounding led to fights, “mass vomiting,” and group singing. A defensive end punches his way through a door while others compete in a “pissing contest,” going “not for distance but for altitude.” Men wrestle, jump, spit at each other’s shoes, eat hamburgers, and chug ketchup. Gary Harkness, the novel’s sarcastic, self-aware narrator, admits the party “was the most disgusting, ridiculous and adolescent night I had ever spent.”

Yet such debauchery was decreed by the team’s patriarch. End Zone is a hyperbolic novel written with the care of a writer in love with elements of football, yet who clearly sees that culture’s surreal moments. The party was a night of male bonding without female distraction; women can be cheerleaders, they can be conquests for postgame parties, but football is a man’s world. DeLillo gives a window into this absurd boys’ club, but fogs the glass with his metafictional prose.

Another, later scene also appears soaked in hyperbole, but actually reveals DeLillo’s care in representing the minutiae of pregame pageantry. The Centrex game is now a reality. Nervous players feel out the Centrex stadium during an easy morning workout. They have an early meal of beef consommé, steak, and eggs before returning to the stadium. They warm up, mimicking the short and controlled bursts they will later employ in the game, and then convene in the locker room. The players smack each other on the helmets, grunting “Awright” and repeating mantras: “We hit, we hit.”

The chants are broken by a request for silence, and Coach Creed, arms crossed over chest, hand solemnly holding a baseball cap, avoids a long pregame speech. He instead delivers a single sentence: “I want the maximal effort.” The team explodes out of the tunnel, making “hard fast rhythmic sounds” as they are born to the audience: “Americans on a Saturday night.” The fans, the band, the cheerleaders, the uniformed young men on opposing sides, the football waiting to be kicked: they all compliment and channel the charged moment. Helmeted, these players are anonymous, yet dynamic members of a honed, single unit. I might smirk at DeLillo’s metafiction, but I am right there with him, with them, ready for this war.

3.
I have never played football, but I have lived football. My father was an All-American in high school and a running back for Holy Cross, playing against Jim Brown; my brother Mark was a fullback for the University of Delaware, and my brother Mike was recruited by Syracuse and Yale before an injury sidelined his career. They were never the type to volunteer replays drenched in nostalgia, but I asked to hear stories about long August double sessions with no water, blocking drills where they pushed players into the ground while churning their own cleats into the grass, and Gatorade-dumps on shocked coaches.

My father was the apex of all this football folklore. People in northern New Jersey know my surname because of my father, and still remember his rushing accolades at Dover High School in the early 1950s. Middle school janitors asked him, already a fully-grown man, to help move furniture; in high school he was the unofficial bouncer at our family’s bar and restaurant. He was fast, strong, and played both sides of the gridiron.

Yet my father has never fit any of the stereotypes about tough male athletes. He is caring and compassionate, and never once pushed any of his children to play sports, although he supported us every moment we participated. Now in his 70s, his biceps are still like rocks, but he is a gentle soul, more interested in building a ramp for my shed than bragging about past touchdowns.

By not playing football, but instead experiencing it through story and observation, I was able to cultivate a personal mythology of the sport without seeing the darker sides. I ran post patterns in my backyard, diving to catch Mike’s well-timed passes. I rushed into an imagined end zone bordered by bushes. I created notebooks full of imagined Saturday afternoon collegiate results. But I never played a second on the football field. My brothers attended a local Catholic school, but I went to a public school, where soccer was king. The football team struggled. The main draw of our Pep Rally was the soccer team’s shutout streak, not the football team. I’d seen photographs from my sister’s years at the school, when Pep Rally ended with a bonfire that smoked to the clouds, the football players flexing in front of the flames. That past seemed so distant it felt fake. I wonder if it felt the same way even then.

4.
Most would not consider what is happening at Rutgers a “football” scandal, but it is football that has driven Rutgers to pine for national athletic glory. Former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano was our savior, but when the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers poached him for the big time, we thought Rutgers athletics would survive. It was our time. We would become national power at football, but the exposure and money would seep into other sports and programs, and, God forbid, our academic departments.

On the surface, the Rutgers scandal is certainly different than the sexual abuse nightmare at Penn State. Yet the subject of the scandal is not often the key to understanding: rather, hyperbole is endemic to top-tier collegiate sports. In the world of Division I athletics, the unreal becomes real. Football is the center, the epitome of this world. Football is a sport centered on masculine bodies: the collision of those bodies, the dynamic movements of those forms. Football is men — often large men — moving at high speeds, making quick cuts, threading passes between the outstretched hands of cornerbacks, kicking long field goals under incredible pressure. Regardless of the tongue-in-cheek attempts of NFL Films and their slow-motion, Sam Spence scored game panoramas, football is a game grounded in control.

The coaches at Logos College want nightly prayer sessions, but Gary realizes that “people don’t go to football games to see pass patterns run by theologians.” These attempts at emotional control are only in service one endgame: victory. In DeLillo’s novel, Logos College loses handily to their rival, Centrex. The next day, the university hires an energetic sports information director, Wally Pippich, who admits that he doesn’t “know squat about football.” But he claims to know about entertainment, and about money. Pippich tells the novel’s troubled narrator that he’ll stick up for him, no matter his mistakes, because “next season we make it big.” No athletic sin is without the penance of victory. Although Logos College is full of brilliant students, sports are king on that campus. I wish this was fiction; instead, the novel is a microcosm of Division I college athletics at their worst.

I can poke fun at Pippich. I can note how Gary Harkness describes the man’s voice as “an animated cartoon,” a fake whose “mouth seemed to invent the words as well as speak them.” But the machine of college football, of American athletics as a whole, would not exist without people like me: people who complain about the world of sports, but who still play. People like me, who forgive the sins, who forget the scandals, because of innocence, ignorance, or both.

5.
My wife and I run at a local trail system. Running together has been a tradition since we met on the Susquehanna University track team. We usually wait until evening, but the summer sun still heats the air. We part after stretching: she runs distance for speed, and staying with her would be a miracle. I go to sprint. After a short warmup, I stretch again and ready myself for accelerations or hill repeats. A middle distance runner in high school and college, I don’t have the mental endurance for distance. I like short bursts, knowing that rest and recovery are near.

I love running in the heat. My muscles warm quickly, unlike those miles in cold where I feel stiff. I run myself drenched, and then I do a cooldown along a shaded, cinder trail that leads to the parking lot, where I am again baked in sun. I take a towel to the treeline and do push-ups and sit-ups until my stomach and shoulders tighten, and then I sit for a few minutes until my wife finishes her run.

I do this to stay healthy, but some days, especially the hottest ones, when my mind is massaged into imagination rather than reality, I think about playing football. After a sectional race in 1999, on the long bus ride home, one of the high school football coaches asked if I wanted to play wide receiver for the team the next year. A throwing coach, he didn’t realize I was a senior. He shrugged, but I was more disappointed: I wanted to play football. Not for wins or cheerleaders or other short-lived glories, but because my father and brothers played, because I ran down-and-out patterns against imaginary cornerbacks. Even then, I had compartmentalized football into manageable, safe parts. I like a good hit, but I love an open field run, a pattern cut to perfection, or a quarterback’s decision to leave the safety of the pocket. I can do that, because I remain on the outside of the sport. If I am so fascinated by a sport, a game, a culture of which I am an ancillary member, what of those who train and play it?

I don’t want to re-enroll in high school and play football. Something else is happening: the ritual of football culture, of athletics, has settled into my soul. I am a 32-year-old man sprinting down the hot roadway of a state park, and I have safely appropriated elements of football into my own mythology. I might do this with my idiosyncratic Catholicism; I suspect everyone does it with some element of their lives. We mold our beliefs into palpable forms, knowing that we fear their uneven shapes. I think about this now, but under the heat that weighs on my shoulders, I am thinking of sneakers pounding on asphalt, of some athletic burst that exists in a world where sport is pure and pain is temporary. It is only afterward, walking back to my car while sweat cools me under the wind, do I wonder if we are all fooled into racing toward our own end zones.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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