Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968)

I first read Robert Coover's insane meditation on a solitaire baseball game played with dice for probably the wrong reason, involved myself at the time in a similar activity. Mine happened to be Strat-O-Matic (which I see still publishes and updates the board game, though it has long since also been adapted to computer play), whereas the hero of Coover's novel, the titular J. Henry Waugh (a name some have interpreted as a variation on Yahweh, which may offer some idea of the dynamics going on here), essentially invented his own from scratch—players, teams, umpires, league administration organizations, and all. It was a little unsettling for me to see how completely nuts our main character Waugh actually is, a middle-aged man living alone in a tiny apartment above a storefront who, at the time with which the novel is concerned, is in the process of blowing his livelihood as a low-level accountant/bookkeeper to his strange preoccupation. There's little need to attempt recreating the plot points that bring him to the pass. They are deeply embedded in the game he has invented, which has enabled him to build an entire alternative history within the confines of his head. You might as well enjoy them in the reading, because they are intricately complex, devilish clever, and incidentally offer the jumping-off point to the real action of the story, which seems to be the entry of a mind into a psychotic break. That's the point Coover lost me originally. I wanted, of course, some kind of literary imprimatur for the lark on which I thought I had embarked. And still, even prepared for what happens, it hasn't been much easier the second or third times through. For me, Waugh remains the most interesting point of contact here, and once we seem to have lost him, entering his world entirely and no longer with any familiar external referents on which to cling, it comes to seem a little dull—the colorful characters and their colorful nicknames, the dugout camaraderie, the folk tales and the endless songs, the recitations of lore and unmatched statistical feats. Dull, at least, until one stops to ponder how we came to occupy this world, at which point it becomes almost terrifying, as if suddenly plunged into a simulacrum whose origins we are not intended to know, but do. It is like the moment when a reality we understand only as reality briefly and flashingly pixelates. How did we get here? We can't remember—except, in this novel, Coover pries open a very slight and often disturbing aperture into the memory.

In case it's not at the library.

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