Universal Baseball Association

In the next edition of my apparent series of reviews of books that are in one way or another about sports, I made my way through another novel that I’d heard a lot about and knew that I would probably like. Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. was something I’d come across in a few different places. Books about baseball, books of an existential or philosophical nature, postmodern novels, important American novels of the twentieth century, there were many lists on which Coover’s novel might have appeared that I read and subsequently noted The Universal Baseball Association as a book I needed to read. Motived by finally reading A Fan’s Notes or perhaps because I finally got my hands on my Strat-O-Matic baseball board game from back home, or just because we’re beginning the Major League Baseball season, I felt the push and decided to finally read Coover’s most famous novel.

The novel focuses on the life of the Henry Waugh of the title, a man who has created a dice-based baseball game. But his creation hasn’t stopped there as he’s created a league of players, an entire history that has goes back many years, and the lives of these players that they lead when they aren’t on the baseball diamond. There are families and rivalries and traditions and events that exist beyond the boundaries of the novel. We first encounter Henry in the middle of one of these games, in which Damon Rutherford (who is the son of Brock Rutherford, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of this game he’s created) pitches a perfect game. Henry is filled with a certain kind of joy and elation in the wake of this accomplishment for one of his players, a player who has a pedigree within this game, and thus elects to pitch him again the day after pitching that perfect game. In that game, he ends up on the Extraordinary Occurrences chart and Damon is hit by a pitch and killed. The “death” of this fictitious player causes Henry’s life to go out of control and affects him much like a “real” death would and we witness the crumbling of Henry’s life as a result of this incident. He could just ignore the results of the game or make a change to prevent Damon from being struck and killed, but that would destroy the rules that bind the game and make it “real.”

That’s probably all we need in terms of recapping of the plot and background information because, perhaps not that surprising for a postmodern novel, it’s not the most important thing. The content of the novel, the characters and the conflicts and situations, are more of a device for Coover to explore themes and ideas as opposed to trying to depict something. While it’s not as absurd and surreal as some postmodern novels and somewhat concerned with realism, it’s not as “realistic” as other non-postmodern works. Regarding the thematic and conceptual aspects of the novel, one can see that there are very postmodern notions of what is real versus what is constructed and ontological questions present that arise from Henry and his life. Questions about free will and destiny emerge through Henry and his game, as well as issues of the divine and omnipotence as  Henry is in a godlike role with the world of the Universal Baseball Association that he has created and the ways in which his actions (at least that he is the one rolling the dice). There’s even some sound play going on here with J. Henry Waugh and YHWH, one of the Jewish names for God. As Wilfrid Sheed writes in his review of the book for the New York TimesBaseball and theology might seem to make strange bedfellows. But like a medieval schoolman who could make theology out of just about anything, Robert Coover has spliced the two together and produced a species of baseball scripture. His God is a lonely middle-aged accountant who has devised a dice-game that approximates the probabilities of baseball. That is all. Upon the void he projects the laws of chance, the percentages, what managers call, ‘the book.'”

What makes this such a great novel is the way that it is all of the aforementioned things as well as a depicting of what it is like to be passionate about sports or a game or something like that (in a somewhat similar vein to novels like High Fidelity or The Moviegoer). It is one of the great books that is “about” baseball. Well, let me clarify– it’s not about baseball in the same way as novels like The Natural or Shoeless Joe are about baseball, but baseball and the attendant fandom/fanaticism play a big part in the narrative of Coover’s novel. Postmodern novels are often overwhelmed by their postmodernness to the point where what is happening in the story is totally lost. The subject of the book itself does not matter as much as the theory or philosophy or concept that is being explored. The Universal Baseball Association, by contrast, does all those things and is still at its heart a book that’s about baseball. For someone who does not enjoy postmodernism as much as others but who loves baseball (and the baseball games like that which is depicted in the novel), this makes Coover’s novel both a palatable experience with the postmodern as well as one that reflects my experiences as an occasionally obsessive baseball fan. And while it is a novel, like so many of the best ones, that I feel like I need to read again another time to really pick up everything and appreciate it, I enjoyed that first reading and am looking forward to picking up The Universal Baseball Association again.

Some Notes on A Fan’s Notes

Fansnotes_cover When I was an undergraduate and getting started in the world of proper literary study and scholarship, I was pretty insufferable with my love and appreciation for Jack Kerouac and his novel On The Road. It was something akin to one’s first love. Well that’s not entirely true, because there were many, many books that I loved that I’d read before reading On The Road. But its effect upon me was great and it lead me down this path (writing, literary study, seeing the study at literature as something like a vocation, etc etc). And throughout college, my friends and professors would, with the best of intentions (at least some of the time, the actions of some people I knew did feel a bit disingenuous) suggest books I should look into given my feelings about Kerouac’s novel. One of those books, suggested by one of my favorite English professors, was Frederick Exley’s 1968 novel A Fan’s Notes. I picked up a copy from Bookpeople, the best bookstore in Austin, perhaps the best bookstore anywhere. And, in a sad admission of reality, it sat on my bookshelf. It sat in Austin. It sat in two apartments in Winston-Salem. It sat in Tallahassee. But after all those years of having it recommended to me, I finally decided it was time I read this book that I felt like I should.

It was a bit surprising that I hadn’t read this book as, for many reasons, it is one that I was perhaps destined to enjoy. It is a novel  (or perhaps we should say memoir, as the main character is named Exley and the subtitle to the novel is “A Fictional Memoir,” but I’ll talk more about that later) that is in part about the narrator’s interest in, obsession with, the NFL’s New York Giants of the 1950s and specifically their star running back Frank Gifford. As one who is obsessed with football, and sports in general, it was certainly something that resonated with me and to which I could relate in much the same way as I did to Nick Hornby’s memoir Fever Pitch documenting his life as an Arsenal fan.

But if Exley’s book were just a documentation of what it meant to be a fan of sports, to worship an athlete, to find something in fandom, it would be something that was nice and fun to read but that would be it. It is the ways in which the novel goes beyond that makes A Fan’s Notes much more interesting and why those comparisons to Kerouac are a bit apropos. Quoting from the New York Times‘ review of the novel in 1968, John Sisk writes “the book deserves comparison with the baseball novels of Bernard Malamud and Mark Harris. It is not about pro football in the sense that George Plimpton’s ‘Paper Lion’ is, yet it is inconceivable without the passionate experience of that sport–that ‘island of directness in a world of circumspection.'” Football and its attendant fandom plays a large and central role in the novel, and yet it is not just about that. As a depiction of depression and mental illness, I found it to be profoundly affecting. Spending time in and out of psychiatric institutions, being subjected to electroshock therapy, Exley depicts both the experience of being in those institutions along with the feeling and experience of depression, making me think of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar.

But what lies at the heart of this novel are two issues that have often been the central subject of great literature and art– the American Dream and its viability as well as questions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. Exley questions the possibility of realizing the American Dream that we are presented from all sides in our modern American culture as well as wondering whether one can find some kind of satisfaction in those things that make it up. In his search for a career and employment, Exley questions whether or not this is worth it and whether achieving that “dream” will bring any kind of happiness and fulfillment. In that regard, the comparison to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby seen in the blurb on the back cover from Newsday is profoundly apropos. Exley is shining a light upon the things that we have been presented, as a society, that will make men feel fulfilled and happy and the hollowness at the heart of those things. Exley also investigates masculinity and what exactly that entails, particularly in his depictions of relationships and commentary regarding sex, though much like how Gatsby links romance with questions of the American Dream so too does A Fan’s Notes though in a much more realistic way. Thinking about other books of that time that addressed these issues such as Percy’s The Moviegoer and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road amongst others, A Fan’s Notes stands among those as a strong diagnosis of this malaise that affected those living at that time.

What separates or distinguishes A Fan’s Notes from those aforementioned novels is its claim to “real life,” its status as a “fictional memoir” with the memoir part being very foregrounded. Exley is a character in his own novel and it is a book that, whether he intended or not, makes some kind of claim to being a depiction of something that “actually happened.” I enjoyed this quality and, as one who is interested in memoir and creative nonfiction, found it to give the novel a deeper and richer character. It doesn’t matter to me whether or not the story is true, it doesn’t mean that the claims it makes are somehow invalid, but  as a work that is or presents itself as memoir-ish, it provides and interesting model for what one can attempt to do with the memoir/creative nonfiction genre.

Based on what I’ve written, you can tell I did rather like A Fan’s Notes. I felt it to be akin to many of the novels that I love, many of them mentioned in this post. But what Exley does and how he engages with this big ideas that so much American fiction ends up grappling with is what sets it apart and makes it unique, both in terms of its status as a “fictional memoir” as well as in the more “down to earth” or “gritty” way these ideas are explored. It’s even interesting to think about this novel and the way in which it uses and depicts fandom in the context of our own time, where being a fan has become an even greater and more elaborate thing and when we’ve become much more removed and disengaged like Exley throughout the novel. This gives the novel a greater resonance and defines it as something that should be read by today’s audiences.

Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering

Though it came and went from theaters without much (relative) critical fanfare and impressive box-office numbers, the film I was 4459most excited about from late 2016 into 2017 was Martin Scorsese’s Silence, an adaptation of the Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name. Any Scorsese project is going to grab my attention, but Silence was one in which I was particularly interested as it was a long-gestating passion project for the famed American director. In the run-up to the film’s release, I came across a book by the painter Makoto Fujimura entitled Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of SufferingI’d heard about Fujimura from a couple different people, both that he wrote this book and he was holding a discussion with Martin Scorsese to discuss the film (you can find a video of that discussion here).

Silence and Beauty is an interesting work to try to talk about because it does not fit neatly into one specific category or genre (making my trying to appraise it a very difficult task, but I digress). It is not solely about Endo’s novel nor Scorsese’s adaptation of the film yet it is constantly returning to that primary text. It is not a work of literary criticism in the traditional sense, yet it reveals and helps one to better understand the novel. It is not a memoir, but Fujimura draws very much from his own life and experience. It is about Endo’s novel but it is also about art, both Fujimura’s own art as well as Japanese art in general. It provides an interesting window into much of the history of Japan yet the history does not dominate and it is not interesting solely as an account of a country’s history. It is all of those things and yet not solely that, it is certainly a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The book was described in this way by its publisher:

Endo’s Silence took internationally renowned visual artist Makoto Fujimura on a pilgrimage of grappling with the nature of art, the significance of pain and his own cultural heritage. His artistic faith journey overlaps with Endo’s as he uncovers deep layers of meaning in Japanese history and literature, expressed in art both past and present. He finds connections to how faith is lived in contemporary contexts of trauma and glimpses of how the gospel is conveyed in Christ-hidden cultures. In this world of pain and suffering, God often seems silent. Fujimura’s reflections show that light is yet present in darkness, and that silence speaks with hidden beauty and truth.

I think the word “reflection” is particularly apropos in this instance and does a good job of explaining what exactly this book is. Fujimura uses Endo’s Silence as a beginning point, reflecting on what was said and depicted in the novel and then using it to explore aspects of his life, his art, his faith, and Japanese art, culture, and history. It is not really a thesis-driven work, one trying to make a specific point or argument about the text upon which Fujimura focuses, but rather it uses the text as a window into these different arenas. It displays how one can meditate upon a great work of art (in whatever medium) and use it as a means to consider the most important questions and concerns one can have.

The sections of the book that were particularly interesting to me were the sections that focused on Japanese history and culture. Part of it was because I just did not know all that much about the history of Japan.  What Fujimura provides here is a window into what constitutes Japanese culture and why it is that way, particularly as it relates to the themes and topics that emerge from Endo’s novel. The idea of the insider culture versus the outsider, the fumi-e and the specifics surrounding that, Fujimura illuminates those ideas and topics so that a novice such as myself can better understand their importance and relevance to Endo’s novel. However, the history does not overwhelm the reader as Fujimura is sure to focus on the things that are relevant for the “narrative” he is trying to tell in this book. It certainly made certain aspects of Silence much more clear or meaningful to me as a reader while also giving me a better sense of a culture I knew next-to-nothing about and that now I wish to understand even better.

But what I responded to the most in Fujimura’s book was the way in which he engaged religion and religious belief. Fujimura depicts the mind of the believer and provides a window into it as a way of considering one’s thinking. One sentence really stuck with me and stuck me (though that is not to say that there weren’t many more throughout the book that did, but this one was far and away my favorite): “Doubt is not the opposite of faith but only an honest admission of our true condition, wrestling against the fallen world in which God seems to be silent.” It is this idea that Fujimura returns to throughout his book and what he puts forth as perhaps the most central component to understanding Silence. Though the narrative of Silence takes place in what seems like (and in many ways is) a whole other world, Fujimura brings out this point that is still relevant to the world we live in, one that sees doubt and questioning as a rejection of faith and belief and that values certainty to the point of rigid and unchanging ideology. This is where Silence and Beauty becomes more than merely a reflection upon Endo’s novel. Fujimura engages with questions about what does it mean to be a believer, a Christian, and how does this manifest itself in one’s life. What Fujimura does is to bring to the light the deep and rich faith that is hidden in Silence. It is not faith as we might initially conceive of it or that we understand most easily and directly, but it is something that is strong and lasting and powerful. I certainly know that Fujimura’s conception of faith and the way he describes it is very much in line with what I believe and how I see myself, and thus it was something that greatly resonated with me.

Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering is a fascinating book. It provides helpful context as well as illuminative readings of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence (as well as Martin Scorsese’s recent film adaptation). Fujimura also addresses art, faith, and Japan in a way that goes beyond a mere discussion of Endo’s work. As an accomplished artist, a Christian, and one of Japanese descent, he is perhaps uniquely qualified to discuss and examine these topics and he does so effectively and thoughtfully. Silence and Beauty provides a focused reflection upon a novel and film adaptation that is still relevant in our world today, and that we all would benefit from considering the lessons of that novel and reflecting on its meaning in our own lives. It is definitely something I would recommend, not just to those who have read Silence or seen Scorsese’s film adaptation (though it certainly helps) but to anyone who is interested in thinking about the larger and important questions as well as man and his place in the cosmos and relative to the divine.

Let Us Begin

Welcome to “I Am Lost in the Cosmos,” a blog I’ve created that will focus on 20th century literature and culture, religion (with an eye specifically towards Catholicism), existentialism, and other issues of a literary/philosophical/cultural nature (I’m casting a very wide net).

The title of the blog comes from a yoking together of two things I rather enjoy. Walker Percy, specifically his book Lost in the Cosmos, and Chris Bell (from Big Star) and his song “I am the Cosmos.” But beyond being two things I like that share the word “cosmos,” there’s a way in which these things all speak to the ideas and concepts I’m interested in as a scholar and writer– man’s place in the universe, man’s search for meaning, man’s nature as a quester/wayfarer/pilgrim/searcher, existential questions, the idea of the divine– being considered in literature and “popular” culture.

I’m currently a doctoral candidate, finishing a dissertation on mid-twentieth century American Catholic writers (specifically Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Jack Kerouac, and Martin Scorsese). My interests, more broadly, lie in twentieth century literature with an emphasis on American literature and I’ve written and presented papers on authors such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Philip Roth, as well as on Matthew Weiner’s television show Mad Men. For more information about these things I would encourage you to check out my website.

What I envision this blog being is an ongoing discussion of those things that engage with and relate to the themes and ideas that someone like Percy raises. Sometimes that will lead to a focus on literary content, other times it will be more religious, while in other instances it will be more broadly “cultural” (here I’m thinking of popular music, film, and television). But everything will return to questions like “who am I and what is my relationship to the universe and to God and to the world in which I live?,” questions those midcentury American Catholic authors so rigorously considered, and those works (either contemporary or from the past) that engage with those questions in once way or another.

I hope you’ll join me for the journey and the discussion that will follow.