So Many Olympic Exertions
(Kaya Press, 2017)
“My vocation,” writes the narrator of Anelise Chen’s So Many Olympic Exertions, “has all the features of a vacation for most people.” The narrator is enrolled in an American Studies Ph.D. program at NYU, where she is given a small but livable salary, which enables her to devote herself to the pursuit of her intellectual interests. She’s working on her dissertation, and has few other responsibilities; when not writing, she reads, meets friends for coffee or drinks, works out, checks the internet. This does sound like a nice life; but, as it turns out, things are not going well for the narrator. As the novel opens, she is in the seventh year of her program, at the limit of “normative time” for completion. Her mantra—“continue on the current course. Continue to function”—is starting to feel desperate. Her dissertation is a mess: she’s “drowning in research, and none of it is adding up.” If she doesn’t finish soon, she will lose her fellowship and have to quit the program. And as her dream job evaporates, she learns that her friend, former roommate, and ex-boyfriend Paul has committed suicide.
Chen’s novel takes place in an elite and very specific world that has lately become quite familiar. The young writer or artist chasing her dreams—or rather, anxiously stalking them on the internet—is the subject of much recent literary fiction (Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Tao Lin) as well as popular culture (the TV show Girls, for one). This indicates, among other things, that the bohemian fantasy has gone from an index of the desire to escape middle-class normality to an expression of the desire to achieve it. Chasing the American id led Hunter Thompson into a dark thicket of bikers and mescaline and guns; now drugs and yoga are techniques for lifehacking your way to clarity and wellness and a four-hour workweek. Here, as a purveyor of Brooklyn ayahuasca ceremonies put it, “consciousness is its own economy.” Countercultures are now subcultures, sources of untapped value rather than danger or resistance. And, as even Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, has noticed in a glowing review of Girls, the disappointments of these lives express problems that reach well beyond the privileged Brooklyns of the world.
The narrator of So Many Olympic Exertions, whose name is Athena Chen, is writing a dissertation about the role competitive athletics plays in American life; like the world of professional sports, the academic microcosm Athena inhabits is supposedly “fun” and yet brutally competitive, set off from practical affairs and devoted to “useless” activities that thereby put your whole being in play. These fields are emphatically “not real life,” and yet we imagine that they are where you go to learn the meaning of life, in other words what you’re made of: so many secular devotions. A central irony of the book is that trying to get out of the game is itself the game’s goal; to “drop out” you have to tune in. Facing the prospect of the end of her academic career, the narrator does the only thing she knows, namely more research, and she turns up a quote from Lance Armstrong, “living embodiment of this rule”: “Pain is temporary. If I quit, it lasts forever.”
Chen’s subtle, probing, and ambitious novel is about how this threat of loss and failure looms in the background of these all-consuming careers, and it works as a portrait of the strange, compelling, and competitive little worlds that build up around them. But it’s also about how these small worlds give us a window onto the larger one. It’s fitting that So Many Olympic Exertions comes out as sport and the academy have become again what they have always been at times of social and political upheaval, sites of protest: a reminder that deep questions about how we live together are at stake in these games. So Many Olympic Exertions makes competitive sports into an allegory for contemporary life: a kind of game in which the goal is simply to be your best self, but in which to lose is to find yourself asking, what if I don’t have a self at all? The novel follows the narrator as she tries to come to terms with the loss of the things that structured her life—her job, her friend. Can she make this loss the occasion for a new start?
When she learns of her ex-boyfriend’s suicide, “the news shakes for days, re-shifting every mental continent,” but the surface of the novel remains more or less undisturbed. Instead of emotion we get a controlled account of Athena’s attempts to maintain control; rather than move forward, the narrative treads water. The writing is an account of her consciousness, but it is descriptive rather than confessional:
We leave the café and join the throng of people rushing home. Looking toward Union Square, we can see a steady stream of people funneling down into the subway. I imagine grains of sand draining through a sieve. I decide to walk instead. The sky is a dome of lead. I walk slower than a saunter, slower than sightseeing, slower than indecision.
We get snippets of her research, tableaus of her daily life; slim paragraphs with generous pauses in between them, punctuated by historical photographs of athletes, abandoned pools, archival documents. As the paragraphs accumulate they build up an almost incantatory resonance, somewhere between the humbleness of prose poetry and the aphoristic precision of Wittgensteinian language games. Retreating to her hotel room after fumbling a presentation at a conference, the narrator watches as Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn careens off-course:
Win or lose, the spectacle is stirring. One can throw oneself confidently down a mountainside, willingly enduring years of training and monotony and hardship and unhappiness for the fulfillment of this one, deeply meaningful goal. If that’s where one has decided meaning lies.
Or later, sandwiched between a reflection on the eeriness of empty stadiums and an account of a trip to buy groceries, we get this paragraph:
I never wanted to be that kid way out in left field, blinking wildly into the sun. I wanted to play. I wanted to make believe.
The narrator tries to shake herself out of her routine. She starts going to the gym again (in high school, she was a competitive swimmer); she drinks more wine, now with “the pills my psychiatrist warned me never to take with alcohol.” She decides to have a party; she is “absolutely certain I don’t want to have a party, but if such a thought has popped into my head, there must be some part of me that, however subconsciously, must want to have a party. Why not have some fun?” She is trying to work on her dissertation, but mostly she is distracted.
This happens with increasing frequency: the more I need to get something done, the more I am compelled to check Facebook. I scroll with dread, as if I am prying my eyes open. We have aged with our statuses. Before, there were pictures of parties; now, there are recaps from TV shows, ailments, babies, jobs to quit, jobs to start. Political views to vent. Sciatica. Migraines. Here is the Eiffel Tower pinched between two fingers. Here is a coconut wearing sunglasses. Watch this panda riding a bicycle! … I scroll so long I am no longer reading the posts, just scrolling for the act of scrolling. I scroll, wait for the new posts to load, then scroll again, and this rhythmic pattern lulls me into a numb neurasthenia.
Much of the narrative consists of descriptions of this sort, detached and yet vivid. More or less clinical self-monitoring (“this happens with increasing frequency”) opens into weary irony (“Watch this panda riding a bicycle!”) and increasing anxiety, ending in a flat diagnostic mode (“numb neurasthenia”), where it started. The few major events that do happen over the course of the novel’s 220 pages of spare and generously spaced prose—news of the suicide, loss of the fellowship, a move back to her parents’ house in California— function more as a kind of track around which Athena’s narrative consciousness runs. She “works out” (is that still sports?) not to relax but to insure against insanity; a party becomes an obligation, not exactly to others but to her own potential, her own “subconscious” and the “fun” that it demands. Even the attempt to do something pointless ends up in compulsive feats of accounting. Scrolling endlessly through Facebook may make you numb, but at least it gives a name, and thus a purpose, to your behavior.
But So Many Olympic Exertions is not just pharmaceuticals and Facebook. Athena calls on athletics and academia, the good Greek forms of self-fashioning, and part of the pleasure of the book is that it offers its reader a pace borrowed from these latter, not as an escape from the real world but a different way of moving through it. The book is about quitting, but the narrative lingers, wandering through Athena’s wry and wide-ranging meditations on sports. Is this her dissertation or her life or something else? As she avoids work, drifting on the internet, we start to realize that something more than procrastinating is going on. Her friend’s suicide has shifted things into a new light:
The event proves that it’s not hard to pass from one state to another state. You cross the finish line—it’s a simple demarcation—and you go from moving to done. It’s as easy as craning your neck for the photo finish. It’s as easy as stepping through a door.
With loss, we expect depression; but for Athena it also feels like a release, or a possible one. “When I say ‘life,’ I mean the small wheel of routines I perform like a prayer.” News of Paul’s death cuts into this routine, introducing a “new thought into my repertoire: ‘I can’t keep up.’” “Pointless” devotions like endurance sports or academia depend on a cultish form of thought management: as soon as doubt enters, the whole rigorously constructed edifice starts to crumble. Or a door opens, a way out of the pointless rat race suddenly appears: the question is how to leave without giving up.
Athena moves back to California: back where she went to college, and back in with her parents. This is where her relationship with Paul fell apart, where her dead-end academic career began, where her immigrant parents live in a crumbling house while working 16 hours a day in construction, cruising expensive real-estate listings at night. These are dreams that are no longer hers. But this is also the portion of the book where the controlled focus of the narrative, which seems to limit itself almost to counting Athena’s daily life—her research, her daily routine—starts to reveal the depth behind it. Awkward dinners with her parents, waking up for swim practice, skinny-dipping with her friends in college in a pool in the woods: these memories emerge like flashes, lighting up Athena’s character and the social panorama that gives it meaning. A whole plot is here, lurking as the precondition of the novel: an immigrant narrative, a love story, a coming-of-age tale, a sports novel. These elements of realist narrative are not hidden by the theoretical musings, free-indirect self-help, and wry irony that make up the bulk of the book. The words as if swim on the surface of this narrative, or float. I’m reminded of Benjamin in The Graduate, back from college, in the pool in his parents’ backyard in Pasadena. On the surface these characters are “drifting.” But Chen’s book constitutes an argument for the value of stopping to think, or just spacing out and floating. It’s a pleasure to read this prose: precise, crafted, and a little bit anxious, like the lives it pictures, it still shows an easy grace. The narrator’s meditations on competition, keeping on, and giving up have the ring of wisdom, partly because they themselves are the product of both working and loafing, focusing and spacing out.
This is wisdom wrought from experience, but experience of a particular kind. If both sports and the academy have an either/or logic—win or lose, true or false—the narrator’s lingering within these exemplary modern worlds suggests a different way of inhabiting them. In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman “lean[s] and loaf[s]” in Brooklyn, imagining himself “both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.” It may be that only a fictional self, like Whitman’s omnipresent “I” or Chen’s Athena, loafing in a digital Brooklyn, can live in this limbo. Chen’s novel, joining a chorus of other recent ambitious art and literature, reveals contemporary life as a strange kind of game, one that makes real artificial worlds, from sports to academia to Facebook, grow drastically in importance even as their purpose dissolves. But the goal is more than simply to give us a picture of our world as it is. By working philosophy and sports, autobiography and fiction, history and reflection into a cohesive narrative form, writing like this tries to imagine something else, a space in that world for something like true diversion.