Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On literary disappointment

I had a great literary disappointment this week - I had Amazoned Nicola Keegan's Swimming under the impression that I must be its absolutely perfect target audience, only to realize as I read that it is not at all the case.

To give Keegan her due, she is a very strong writer - I would put the book in the company of Marcy Dermansky's Twins and Gina Frangello's My Sister's Continent, two books I liked very much that have various things in common with this one. It is a testament to Keegan's strength as a writer that I even read the book through to the end, though, because I really didn't like it one bit!

It is written in an impressionistic and stylized voice that seems to me fatally ill-suited to render the thoughts of an Olympic swimmer. There's actually much less about swimming than the cover copy implies - yes, I know I am monomaniacal on the topic of swimming... - and I don't think the book persuasively creates a sense of its narrator as a serious athlete.

Here, for instance, is one of the passages that particularly irked me. I will give a longish extract so that I can explain what I don't like (we are at the protagonist/narrator's first Olympics, Los Angeles, 1984):
I discover the joy of the international relay. We stand in a huddle holding each other's shoulders. Babe says: Let's get the world on this one. Peggy nods. The world is ours. When I feel their eyes light on me, I try to think of something great to say that doesn't include swear words, nun-generated Latin phrases, lyrics from songs I can't put my finer on. I roll my hand into a fist, bend down low on one knee, close my eyes, and pump the air go go go go go go go go go go.

Peggy hops. She's yucking right; let's go.

Babe gets businesslike when she's nervous. Save it for the pool.

We put our palms together, six sweaty, two dry.

The crowd creates a disturbing rhythmic African sound: thick, melodious, and so intense it causes my skin to contract. I don't feel the starting block beneath my feet, don't see the watery sheet of glass as it opens before me, don't feel my own body cutting through air, the pressing buoyancy of lungs, the ropes of water twisting with convecting energy as I let them pull me through. The only tangible sensation is felt at the wall and that's when I touch it.

The Mankovitz catches my eye and nods and I know exactly what the nod means; the nod means now. I take my first Olympic gold.
So, I don't know, I have watched very little swimming in my life, it may be that "international relay" is in common usage - but it sounds slightly odd to my ear. (And why "discover"? Doesn't this have the ring of a sentence written for sound rather than meaning?) Is the emphasis on "international" just to accentuate the striking context of the 1984 Olympics? I would have thought either "medley relay" or "freestyle relay" would have been more apt, not least because - this is my main complaint about the passage - we are not really given enough detail to know exactly what event they are swimming, and which girl is taking which leg! I can guess that it is the 4 x 100 freestyle relay, and that Babe and Peggy swim the first two legs and that Pip swims the last one, and I do see that this sort of detail often does need to be trimmed down in a final polish of a piece of fiction, because information can bog down the narrative - but the question of which swimmer takes which leg is intimately related to character, group dynamics, etc. and it does not make sense for it to be so thoroughly downplayed here.

It is actually difficult for me to imagine any first-person narrator's account of swimming a number of events in the Olympics that does not provide all of the concrete details concerning events, times of day, etc., but let us say for the sake of argument that we can imagine a narrator whose priorities mean that she does withhold that information. In this case, though, I do not think it is working like that, just that the novelist herself has only a fairly vague notion of what's going on (Where does the coach's "nod" fit in the sequence of events? Is the implication that he cues Pip's dive start? Is that at all plausible?) - so that my real description of the problem I have with this passage is that I am thoroughly unpersuaded, at the end of it, that the novelist herself has nearly as precise a knowledge of her character's swimming as would be necessary to make the scene come alive. It is fatally blurry...

Others may enjoy it more than I did - there is an excerpt and interview at the Daily Beast (links courtesy of Sarah Weinman). But I would have to recommend Tessa Duder's In Lane Three, Alex Archer as an infinitely more compelling portrait of the training and racing life of a competitive swimmer.

(Really I want there to be a ton of books about swimming, so I should not be so negative about this one! I want one of these top female American swimmers to ghostwrite a trashy novel about swimming sort of along the lines of Naomi Campbell's ghostwritten novel Swan - and I want some new Dick Francis to write mysteries set in the swimming world as opposed to the horse-racing world - and of course I would not say no to there just generally being a huge horde of very good books about swimming, novels and non-fiction alike. There is room, as Sarah Weinman observes in an e-mail, for a good novel about East German women's swimming in the 1970s...)


  1. I think my favorite swimming books are still Tessa Duder's Alex quartet, particularly In Lane Four, Alex Archer (don't remember the original title).

  2. Doh! Read too fast and didn't notice that you'd mentioned the Alex books...

  3. Yes, it is a great book, isn't it? I am now reminded that I never tracked down the sequels - will do it soon...

  4. I am so sorry! Though it seems to me that this is useful for you in thinking about what swimming fiction SHOULD be like, in case, you know, writing swimming fiction ever came up on your agenda. As for Christensen, I found The Great Man (is that what it's called?) unbearable, but all these people I like and respect have been talking her up, so may need to try this one, though I must admit I'm skeptical.

  5. I was given a galley of "Swimming" by a Knopf friend a few months ago since she knew I was a HS swimmer and I tried reading it, but honestly I couldn't get past the first chapter.

  6. I love this. It's probably the same with all sports but once you've done any competitive swimming (even at just the community league or HS swimming level), you can't read anything less than accurate about the sport. International relay, indeed.