Absent World Cup withdrawal this mid-July, the chances of my picking up David Peace’s Red or Dead, an epic novel about the rise to glory of the red-clad Liverpool Football Club in pre-Thatcher England, would have been precisely zero. I played soccer as a kid, but prior to this year’s Cup, like millions of other oblivious Americans, I had not watched or much thought about the sport as an adult. I knew Liverpool was the Beatles’ hometown, but otherwise it meant nothing to me, and I knew Peace only as the author of the four novels on which the BBC Red Riding trilogy was based. I watched Red Riding soon after The Sopranos and The Wire finished their runs but before it was clear that the golden age of TV was never going to end. The Peace/BBC cycle has since gotten lost, for me, in a sea of high-quality antihero and “dead girl” crime dramas.
Also, I distrust sports stories. Sporting events themselves can be beautiful, but it’s a beauty so intimately bound up with the unrepeatability of specific moments that art can only ham-handedly gesture at it. Sports stories, meanwhile, tend toward the criminally banal: David and Goliath, triumph over adversity, hard work pays off. And world-class athletes out of uniform are invariably less interesting than ordinary people, at least until age thirty-five or so, when their real lives begin.
Red or Dead, as I learned only after I had started reading it, is Peace’s second soccer novel. His first, The Damned Utd (a reference to the Leeds United Football Club), was made into a movie and clearly has fans in Great Britain. It is a well-crafted, visceral book with a terrifically alive protagonist, the foul-mouthed alcoholic manager Brian Clough. Clough built two championship teams out of thin air in the 1960s and 1970s, at Derby County and Nottingham Forest, but Peace dramatizes his disastrous 44-day stint with Leeds United in 1974, a powerhouse team whose every player and stakeholder, give or take, he managed to alienate. Though it is a book about sports, The Damned Utd is really about a single, vividly exasperating human in a situation that does not fit him. Put a character like Clough in the corner office of an accounting firm, and you’d have a similarly absorbing novel.
Red or Dead’s central character, Bill Shankly, is likewise based on an actual British football manager who came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. The two books’ protagonists are contemporaries and competitors who grudgingly respect one another. Each is a significant presence in the mind of the other, and in both novels they exchange semi-aggressive congratulatory words on the post-game touchline. There is even a scene, a high-profile ceremonial game at Wembley Stadium, that appears in both, but with a markedly different meaning from book to book. In terms of ambition, however, there is no comparison. Red or Dead is the more ambitious novel by miles. It is big—715 pages as published in hardcover by Melville House—and it takes big stylistic risks in the pursuit of big ideas.
Though I would urge patience with Red or Dead’s narrative voice, I have no doubt that some readers will be immediately and irretrievably put off by it. On first encounter it calls to mind Rain Man, or a slightly buttoned-up Gertrude Stein:
In the winter-time, in the night-time, they remembered him. And then they came to him. In the winter-time, in the night-time. Not cap in hand, not on bended knee. Not this sort. But still they came. Here to Leeds Road, Huddersfield. Here on October 17, 1959. They came—
In the winter-time, in the night-time.
Winter-time, night-time—got it. Aside from this portentous litany, there is only the coming of a certain “they,” qualified with clichés (“cap in hand,” “bended knee”), proper nouns, and a date. As an opening, this would be laughable if the book continued on in a more conventional style. Instead, it quickly becomes clear, repetition is the novel’s basic structuring device, dominating nearly every paragraph, paragraphs themselves repurposed again and again with only slight variations. Though I’d begun the book hoping to prolong my immersion in the world of elite football, within ten pages the nuttiness of Peace’s style—nutty, at least, in terms of the book’s marketability in the United States—became my primary reason for reading. What on earth was he after? Was there any chance he could pull it off?
“They” are the directors of the Liverpool Football Club, and “him” is Shankly, who was hired away from a smaller town’s team in 1959 and remained Liverpool’s manager through 1974, by which point the team regularly competed at the highest levels of British and European football. Here he is arriving at Anfield, the Liverpool stadium, to begin his first season:
In Liverpool, at Anfield. Bill walked around the ground with Arthur Riley. Bill looked at the turnstiles and Bill looked at the stands. Bill looked at the seats and Bill looked at the toilets. Bill looked at the dressing rooms and Bill looked at the tunnel. And then Bill walked out onto the pitch. The Anfield pitch. Bill stood on the pitch, Bill stamped on the pitch. Once, twice. Bill shook his head. Once, twice. And Bill said, How do you water this pitch, Arthur? Where do you keep your watering equipment?
The repetitions (“Bill walked,” “Bill looked,” “Anfield,” “Once, twice”) create a sort of spiraling effect, the narrative moving through time but incessantly circling back, as though afraid of having missed something. This is plainly, on one level, a means of rendering Shankly’s mental patterns on the page (he speaks in much the same way), showing us the problem of soccer as he sees it and solves it, via obsessive attention and methodical progress from subject to subject, looping back before moving on, as though to double-check that he has overlooked no specific sub-problem.
But psychological realism is not Peace’s brief. He is interested in the textures and results of Shankly’s mental processes, without being interested in Shankly’s consciousness per se. We know the general laws of Shankly’s mind’s movement because we walk and look with him, and because we hear what he says once he has made a decision. We do not, however, experience his decision-making process from the inside, and his emotional life is almost entirely implied. His wife’s coughing upstairs in her sleep while he plots strategy downstairs at night lets us know, over the course of years, that Shankly is growing increasingly concerned about her health, and that this is affecting his calculation about when to retire from his job. When Liverpool’s directors sell a reserve player without his consent, we accompany Shankly as he types a letter to them, but neither the word “resignation” nor any idea connected with it is mentioned until later, when he discusses the possibility with a confidante. Likewise, I read Peace’s complete avoidance, beyond that first paragraph, of third-person pronouns—the most potentially insufferable of the affectations an unsympathetic reader might accuse him of—as signaling his desire to interfere with the default assumptions of psychological realism. The incessant repetition of “Bill” and “Bill Shankly” may reflect the textures of the man’s mind, but it also incessantly estranges us from him, lets us know that we are not, in fact, in his mind.
This may sound archly paradoxical: a novel whose style and structure correspond to the idiosyncrasies of a particular character’s mind, even as we sense that we are not, in fact, immersed in that character’s mind. And it would no doubt be archly paradoxical, if Red or Dead weren’t a novel about team sports. Because the book is built on Shanklyesque repetition, we require several cycles of repetition, several football seasons, before the other dimensions of the novel’s style begin to resolve.
In his second season at Liverpool, Shankly devises a proprietary training method, the “sweat box,” to ensure that his team never loses for lack of conditioning. The sweat box is a ten-by-ten, eight-foot-high wooden square placed on the practice pitch, inside of which players take turns kicking and trapping and kicking the ball again:
Two players in the box. And a ball over the top into the box. The first player shoots against one board. First time. Ball after ball. Every second, another ball. Into the box. Every second for one minute. Ball after ball. Into the box. Then for two minutes. Ball after ball. Into the box. Then for three minutes. Ball after ball. Into the box. Again and again. Ball after ball. Into the box. Every second. Shot after shot. Every second. Inside the box. Every player. Player after player. Into the box, inside the box. The players working in the box, the box working on the players.
The sweat box paragraph recurs repeatedly across the novel as the team reassembles each July to train for the upcoming season, and we come to expect and look forward to its reappearance. The team will get the proper conditioning, we know, so long as they stick with the sweat box. We likewise know that, once they have finished with the sweat box, they will not work on set pieces or intricate strategy of any sort. They will simply play, squaring off against each other in scaled-down scrimmages, Shankly himself taking part in these scrimmages, “Bill Shankly laughing, Bill Shankly joking,” three-a-sides and then five-a-sides, “Bill Shankly laughing, Bill Shankly joking,” seven-a-sides and then eleven-a-sides, “Bill Shankly laughing, Bill Shankly joking.” Football is repetition, and Bill Shankly’s mind—the most important part of it, anyway—is football.
In addition to training, of course, there are games. Descriptions of Liverpool games occupy perhaps half of the novel’s pages, but notably, given that the book is devoted to the rise of a championship team, the action in each game is summarily catalogued rather than dramatized:
On Saturday 7 March, 1964, Ipswich Town Football Club came to Anfield, Liverpool. That afternoon, thirty-five thousand, five hundred and seventy-five folk came, too. In the forty-first minute, Ian St John scored. In the forty-eighth minute, Roger Hunt scored. In the fifty-fifth minute, Alf Arrowsmith scored. In the seventieth minute, Peter Thompson scored. Two minutes later, Hunt scored again. And in the eighty-third minute, Arrowsmith scored again. And Liverpool Football Club beat Ipswich Town six-nil. At home, at Anfield.
This paragraph, with variations pertaining to dates and numbers and players’ names, appears hundreds of times in the novel. There are minor flourishes that signal the importance of one game relative to another, but these flourishes are embedded within the strict, recurring pattern of sentence construction, as though reminding us that, no matter how decisive or memorable a game might be, it is still only another game:
On Good Friday, 1964, Liverpool Football Club travelled to White Hart Lane, London. That Good Friday, the gates at White Hart Lane were closed an hour before kick-off. That Friday, fifty-six thousand, nine hundred and fifty-two folk came to White Hart Lane, London. And on Good Friday, 1964, just before the half-hour, Liverpool Football Club broke out of defence. Quickly. The long pass to Arrowsmith. Quickly. The square flick to Hunt and an error by Henry. And quickly, Hunt scored. That Good Friday, just after the hour, Byrne passed to Arrowsmith. Quickly. Arrowsmith passed to Thompson. Quickly. The flick to St John, the chip over the defence. And again, there was Hunt. And again quickly, Hunt scored. That Friday, three minutes later, the deep centre into the box from Callaghan. Quickly. And again, there was Hunt. And again quickly, Hunt scored. His third, his hat-trick. And on Good Friday, 1964, Liverpool Football Club beat Tottenham Hotspur three-one. Away from home, away from Anfield.
There will always be another game. Each game is as important as the next.
In the rigidity of its music as well as its focus on the “combat” of team sports, Red or Dead calls to mind no book so much as The Iliad. Peace courts this comparison and, astonishingly, is not diminished by it. The Iliad is, among many other things, an exhaustive catalogue of who killed who in the Trojan War, and how. Homer’s cataloguing is subject to rigid compositional patterns, countless people speared “beside the nipple” (in the Fagles translation) and countless others taking spears to the skull. Death arrives, again and again, as a dark swirl or mist across the eyes. Though scholars convincingly show that the demands of dactylic hexameter largely explain the patterning of the repeated phrases and epithets in The Iliad, repetition also answers an elemental problem of representation. In trying to render the experience of war, it is necessary to convey the sheer volume of killing, the fact that one irreplaceable life after another is lost. But there is a drastic mismatch between the number of deaths and the possible ways of describing them. Repetition, in this context, is simply sane.
Peace reckons with a similar problem, goals scored and games won or lost being the equivalents of men killed and skirmishes won or lost. To dramatize each of fifteen years’ worth of games, let alone each individual goal, would be an absurd task. Still, a season is nothing if not the total of goals scored and games won or lost, and Shankly’s career is largely the sum of those yearly totals and the titles they brought the team. The relentless cataloguing, the embedding of statistics (drawn, as Peace acknowledges in an appendix, from the incredibly exhaustive Liverpool FC stats site) in a kind of latter-day prose equivalent of dactylic hexameter, allows him to forego drama without sacrificing immediacy. The highly patterned prose works on the brain like music you can’t get out of your head, so that you begin to experience the rhythm of a season itself. The result is tension as gripping as that of any detailed scene, though it is a tension that spans large expanses of narrative summary. The music bends us to the team’s movement through a season, the attempts to climb the league standings and stay at the top, to advance in the FA and European Cup tournaments, to overcome injuries and the aging of key players, and to play in all manner of awful English weather.
What Peace finally seems after, then, with his peculiarly repetitive, rigidly structured style, is the experience not of being Bill Shankly but of being part of Bill Shankly’s team, its step-by-step construction over the course of whole seasons and careers, the relentless energy required to maintain its place near the top of the British First Division (today’s Premier League). Red or Dead’s narrative voice reflects not simply Shankly’s individual consciousness but a group consciousness that he has painstakingly assembled, methodically but with no small amount of guile. To construct a team capable of regularly competing for championships, Peace suggests, is indistinguishable from constructing such a consciousness. To be inside such a consciousness, he persuades us, is the highest experience in sports.
The Liverpool FC consciousness extends, furthermore, beyond the collective experience of the players and coaching staff. When Shankly benches one of the team’s longtime stars, center-forward Roger Hunt, toward the end of the 1968-69 season, Hunt lashes out at him: “And I thought you had more respect for me. After all the games I have played for you, after all the goals I have scored for you. I thought you had more respect for me than to take me off, than to substitute me.” Shankly answers,
I believe you are one of the greatest centre-forwards I have ever seen, son. I believe you have played in some of the greatest games I have ever seen. I believe you have scored some of the greatest goals I have ever seen. But it is not about me. And it is not about you. You did not play in those games for me. You played in those games for Liverpool Football Club. For the team. And for the supporters of Liverpool Football Club. For the people. Not for me, son. And not for you. Every single decision we make, every single thing we do, is for Liverpool Football Club. For the team. And for the supporters of Liverpool Football Club. For the people. Not for you, not for me. For the team, for the people.
Shankly’s sentiments about the people of Liverpool may sound banal when stated baldly out of context, and it is hard to take them seriously given how regularly today’s most narcissistic athletes and coaches hold forth in a similar vein. But with Shankly, it is different. What might sound banal in isolation has the force of true insight when stitched into the looping weave of a style that embodies those very sentiments. We live the Shankly consciousness, the Liverpool FC consciousness, and we know in our spine that it is not bullshit.
And there is another, historically specific context in which Shankly’s commitment to “the people” goes beyond familiar sports bromides: he is the son of a Scottish miner and a proud socialist—a red—who considers his position as a football manager the primary forum for enacting his politics. Throughout his managerial years he speaks of his socialism as indistinguishable from his emphasis on the team over the individual and his unshakable commitment to the working-class fans of Liverpool. He answers every letter he receives from fans (even the petulant requests for tickets to sold-out matches), he plays pick-up games with kids when they ask, and he gives innumerable unpaid interviews in retirement. Late in the novel, after his career has ended, while interviewing the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson for a radio show, Shankly maintains that “our football was always a form of socialism” and that “You are born what you are. And I think that a man is a socialist at heart.”
The equation of professional sports with socialism may sound, to American ears, far more preposterous than any of Peace’s radical stylistic choices. But then again, if I learned anything playing youth sports, it was the importance of subsuming my individual desires into a larger team consciousness. And it is precisely the corruption of the concept of teamwork in the age of $100 million contracts and totalizing corporate sponsorships that has kept me from caring about professional sports as an adult. British football has been contaminated by these forces as surely as American sports (Liverpool FC is currently owned by the American financier and Boston Red Sox owner John W. Henry), and Red or Dead might be seen as an elegy for that period when the game was played by and for the working classes and perhaps even seemed an authentic expression of their collectivist sensibility.
It’s important, too, that Shankly’s socialism owes less to Marx than to an illustrious fellow Scot, Robert Burns, who wrote nothing at all about revolution but whose work testifies to great sympathy with the ordinary people among whom he lived. The socialism of a Burns or a Shankly, consisting primarily of concern for the everyday struggles of working people, is ultimately hard to distinguish from what used to be called common human decency. In writing an elegy for Bill Shankly’s world, then, Peace suggests that what has been lost goes far beyond sports. Or to put it another way, he shows us ourselves in soccer. A month ago, I would not have believed that this was possible.
No one knows why we have brains. We take for granted the brain’s associated functions—emotion, contemplation, special awareness, memory—and yet the reason some life on earth has a brain and other life doesn’t is an unanswerable question. Daniel Wolpert, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, theorizes the fundamental purpose of our brains is to govern movement, something necessary to humans but which trees and flowers can live without.
Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is a brief and pithy recounting of Foer’s exploration of the fuzzy borders of his brain—a marveling at how and why it’s able to do something quite unexpected. Foer is a science writer and enthusiast of curiosities who’s worked for Discover, Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Esquire. Moonwalking with Einstein is a chronicle of his year training to compete in the U.S. Memory Championships—an arcane competition among adherents to the method of loci, an ancient memory technique that makes it possible to retain great volumes of random information.
According to the theory, more commonly known as the Memory Palace, the human brain is capable of retaining huge amounts of information subconsciously. Details about color, texture, light, smell, and spatial arrangement are all absorbed in an instant, whether or not we’re aware of it. But we lose all the less immediate information, even when we want to remember: telephone numbers disappear, faces lose their names, and the year the Mexican-American War is irretrievable.
According to the method of the Memory Palace, first formulated by the Greek poet Simonedes, hard-to-retain facts can be pinned in place by transforming them into visual icons in an imagined location. Each fact would become a representative image–the more bizarre and lascivious the better. These images would be placed in a childhood home or a college dormitory, any intimately remembered location. In this way memory becomes a process of traveling through a non-sequitur mental landscape instead of a flailing for disappearing facts.
In mid-2005 Foer was a struggling, young writer living in his parents’ house in suburban Washington D.C. trying to make a living as a freelance writer. After a chance visit at the Weightlifting Hall of Fame, Foer started wondering if there was a Hall of Fame for smart people. Some cursory searches led him to the U.S. Memory Championships, where a small and eccentric group of mental athletes compete at memorizing long strings of two-digit numbers, the order of cards in a deck, and matching 99 faces and names after five minutes of exposure.
Ed Cooke, a confident young British competitor with a roving imagination, tells Foer that these seemingly impressive feats are within anyone’s grasp. Even Foer could become a competitor. Foer decides to test the theory and accepts Cooke’s tutelage. As he begins his training routine, picking locations for his own memory palaces and building a network of imagery to associate with various playing cards and number combinations, Foer also intersperses a survey of the brain’s biology and some of its strangest outliers.
He starts with the Greeks who considered memorization an essential part of human learning. “The great oral works transmitted a shared cultural heritage held in common not on bookshelves, but in brains,” Foer writes. One literally internalized philosophers’ arguments, histories, and poems. Knowledge didn’t come through exposure but through rumination and concise mastery born out of recall. Today we know where to look for answers, but the Greeks carried the answers within as instantly recallable memories.
The extent to which we’ve delegated the workings of memory to Google prompts a scary question about our culture. “What we’ve gained is indisputable. But what have we traded away? What does it mean that we’ve lost our memory?” It’s a sensational question and Foer–wittingly or not—proves our memories are mostly constant, and there isn’t actually a dramatic difference in mental capacity between memory champions and everyone else.
Before beginning his memory training Foer visits K. Anders Ericsson, a professor and researcher at Florida State University’s Department of Psychology. Foer describes Anderson as the “expert expert,” most popular for his theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field, an idea Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize in Outliers. Anderson and his aids spend three days studying Foer before his training, and again a year later after he has set the U.S. record by memorizing the order of a deck of cards in 1 minute and 42 seconds.
While Foer’s ability to recall numbers has increased more than two-fold, his functional memory—the everyday process that’s not given the luxury of palaces and non-sequitur burlesques—remains largely identical. In fact, Foer recalls taking the subway home after a dinner in downtown D.C. with friends to celebrate his achievement. Upon getting back to his parents’ house he remembered that he’d actually driven to the dinner and had left his car parked downtown without any further thought.
One of the overarching questions in Moonwalking with Einstein, then, is not whether we’ve been impoverished by the fleeing of memory techniques, but rather why memory masters don’t seem to gain any irrefutable benefits from leading their field. Indeed, Foer describes a few people with brains predisposed to having powerful memories in dysfunctional terms.
There is S., a Russian journalist in the late 1920’s who never took notes in editorial meetings and still remembered addresses, names, and instructions perfectly. He was the subject of a seminal neuropsychological study on the brain and memory, and yet he had trouble holding a job and experienced many of the same traits that would later be ascribed to autistic savants.
Then there is Kim Peek, the Utah man who memorized phonebooks and was the inspiration for the movie Rain Man. Peek’s memory didn’t need the rigorous training and discipline practiced by mental athletes. And yet he required a caretaker (his father) all his life and never held a job or moved beyond the thrill of memorizing town populations and mountain elevations.
Foer acknowledges the perversity required to take a normally functioning memory and force it to work more like Peek’s or S’s. At one point he has to stop using the image of his grandmother in his card memorizing routine because the vulgar actions he subjects her to are too disturbing. Cooke similarly excised his mother from his practice, preferring instead celebrities and sports figures who can be contorted, defiled, and penetrated without rippling any darker waters.
In order to memorize faster and in greater volume, one has to push one’s brain to the outer limits of incoherence. To create a record of external order the memorizer must make a non-sequitur carnival of their inner orders, connecting a 5 of Clubs to the image of Dom DeLuise karate kicking Pope Benedict XVI, or a queen of spades to Rhea Perlman anally penetrating ex-NBA star Manute Bol. What rescues these discrepant fantasies is the tie to a rather dull system of real world meanings, which might not have been worth remembering in any case.
What’s most interesting about Foer’s book is not its value as an idea exploration—he well documents how the Memory Palace has already been exploited by salesman and self-promoters—but in the kernel of a confession about his own life. Foer describes Moonwalking With Einstein as participatory journalism, but he never gets very far in describing who he is and what lay beneath the ordered surface of his account as a grown man living with his parents, trying to make a career out of writing stories about the country’s largest popped corn kernel, whilst privately carrying on a year-long project of memorizing random number strings aided by a pair of blackout goggles.
Foer writes in a conversational but distant vernacular, like someone telling a curious story at a cocktail party and all the while talking around the less entertaining truths below the surface. His describes Perlman’s and Bol’s encounter as a “highly explicit (and in this case, anatomically improbable) two-digit act of congress.” It’s belabored for comic effect, but the obfuscation deadens the image itself, scandalizing something that is a natural product of Foer’s creativity.
In this regard, Moonwalking With Einstein fits handily inline with the recent tradition of “big idea” books that take a breezy survey of scientific inquiry and discover some general truisms. In place of George Plimpton’s lyrical self-awareness it has Gladwell’s impersonal concision and Steven Johnson’s sense of portent without quite proving anything. Given enough time, all science writing—no matter how casually or clinically it is presented—winds up being wrong. Likewise, any work of participatory journalism that finds the undertaking more interesting than the author is bound for obscurity. What endures is the record of the human experience not the best scientific explanations our generation—and one’s past—could come up with.
Foer is moving all around some of the most personal ideas in human experience–the intersection of the erotic imagination, nostalgia, lust for new experiences, and the tiny electrical impulses that accompany them. When Foer wonders if the loss of poetic immersion once common in antiquity is debilitating today, I immediately think of Lolita. “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”
As with Wolpert’s theory that the brain is necessary for movement, Foer describes the idea that everything we understand in the world is built on the recorded images of the past. This is how we can all have such different experiences of fixed historical events—the election of a president or two hours in a movie theater. This is why both the places that form the locus of memory, and the ghostly signifiers that populate them, are unique to the holder of the memory–always a childhood home or school. And yet all we are ever doing is moving from one place to the other, creating muscle memory for a neuron to send out an electrical pilgrim from one place to another.
When I criticize Foer for being impersonal, it is a product of my own confessional instincts. My own writing is the kind of memoiristic turning of the embers that has become a cliché in an age of blogs and self-published novels by thrift shop dilettantes, who seek to prove themselves by bending the non-sequitur memory into something sensible; an image that will survive with or without its associated deck of cards.
In the same way that science writing winds up being wrong in some way or another, few of my own scraps of memory have been true. There is always some detail wrong. I once described an ex-girlfriend with black hair. “I have brown hair,” she wrote me after reading it. I’d moved across the country for her so hair color was a painful thing to get wrong. Likewise, the details of my childhood, travels, career, who was there during big events in my life—these details are all less there than I think. So too Foer’s mnemonic Greeks, who remembered The Odyssey in the broad strokes but varied the details and line orders while still thinking they had it syllable for syllable.
When I try and pull a specific image through the blurred depth of field time sets in between, I find the need to invent something becomes instinctual, almost thoughtless. This is the spirit moving through Foer’s book, the Albert Einstein who moonwalks down an empty suburban hallway—a figure that never was, now a memory that can’t be erased.