Mark Athitakis Newsletter #3

Mediocrity, Prague, LSD, and more.

Front Matter

Earlier this week I finally accepted that my baseball team, the Washington Nationals, has no hope of making the playoffs this season. Sensible baseball observers came to this conclusion at least a month ago. But fandom is hell on sensible thought: For weeks I've squinted at the standings and schedules and imagined all manner of unlikely scenarios. Well, maybe the Nats will pull off an eight-game win streakThey're due! Maybe the Braves will get swept by...hrm, lets see here...the Mets. Despite my magical thinking, the Nats remained stubbornly mediocre---too talented to crater, too hobbled to contend.

This hasn't gotten me thinking about baseball books, really---though Barry Svrluga's The Grind is a fine one, covering an earlier failed Nats season through the lens of off-field-but-baseball-relevant activities (scouting, travel logistics, trades, etc). No, my beloved jammed-in-neutral team has got me thinking more about books about mediocrity. As somebody who helped research a book about business failures, I can assure you that books about failure and hubris are abundant. And contemporary fiction offers no shortage of opportunities for uplift. But books about trying hard and not quite hitting the target? That's more rare. I mean, imagine the pitch meeting.

This isn't quite the same thing as books about Proustian lassitude, about stepping off the field entirely. "Bartleby the Scrivener" might be the most famous example of the genre in American literature; sheaves of Beat literature explored life off the grid; more recently, Ottessa Moshfegh, in her excellent new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, imagined a woman who was so ground down by grief and everyday demands that she assembled a pharmacopeia to address it. The novel is not a study in depression so much as a fable about the anxiety of everyday living these days, when to open Twitter is to immediately wish for a nap.

But seriously trying and seriously falling short—-that’s the stuff of modest bookshelves. The book that most immediately comes to mind thinking about this is John Williams' much-celebrated 1965 novel, Stoner, which follows a hardworking academic who pursued success and never quite achieved it, experienced love but never quite claimed it. For William Stoner's students, Williams tells us on page one, "his name...is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or there careers." 

Some legacy. We resist---OK, OK, resist---the feeling that our lives may not add up to everything we hope for, which is why Stoner doesn't have a whole lot of company, tonally. But it also perhaps helps explain why the novel has become such a phenomenon, holy writ for victims of circumstance. Next month a Williams biography is coming out, with the title The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel. That's an outsize assessment, exploiting sensible critics who've used the one adjective that sensible critics shouldn't use. But there's a bit of irony in calling a novel about mediocrity perfect---here, finally, is a portrait of the world as it truly is, honestly expressing how most of us are destined to fall short. If you follow one of the 29 MLB teams that will not get to the promised land in October, you may find it a perfect baseball novel.

Concierge Desk

Wm Henry Morris writes:

I'd like to take advantage of this service and ask if you have any recommendations for novels that capture the experience of young Americans traveling/living in former Soviet/Iron Curtain states in the early-to-mid-90s. I read Prague by Arthur Phillips and found it not that satisfying/interesting.

So much for that peace dividend, huh? For a sliver of time it seemed like American literature had the opportunity to be defined by the experiences its citizens had outside the U.S. borders, instead of the more typical reverse. And, perhaps, those stories might have helped shed that Ugly American label. Worldly-wise gen-Xers weren't going to be fooled, no sir, not by the manipulations of government, of media, of the tired conservatism of their Boomer forebears that we were in no way doomed to imitate, of the....

Ah, well. Anyway, the book you want is Caleb Crain's 2013 novel, Necessary Errors, a hefty, erudite, Jamesian novel that follows a group of American expats in Prague in 1990. It's a time when the market economy hasn't completely taken hold and everybody enjoys being untethered to the old rules, while sensing that the good (i.e., uncapitalistic) times wouldn't last. Here the city's somber path to maturity runs parallel to its characters'. “It was after all a country full of people who expected to become hateful as they learned to do things for money,” Crain writes.

Though the timing is more contemporary, you might also try Andrew Ervin's Extraordinary Renditions, a triptych of novellas following three characters in Budapest and reckoning with racism, anti-Semitism, and art, an imperfect way of sorting through the aftermath of the Cold War. And if by chance you want to give Phillips another try---I couldn't get far into Prague either---his 2011 novel The Tragedy of Arthur is intellectually lively metafiction that does the only appropriate thing to be done with Shakespeare authorship squabbles---mercilessly satirize them.

The Concierge Desk takes requests. Email me at mathitak@gmail.com, and let me know if it's OK to use your name.

What I'm Reading, Essay Dept.

Julie Schumacher's "Five Reasons to Keep Track of Every Single Book You Read” is a worthy listicle about the ways that keeping a reading log serves as a kind of proxy diary. Bradley J. Birzer celebrates the power of Willa Cather's My Antonia on its centennial. (I'm more of a Song of the Lark person.) Joshua Cohen's interview with Harold Bloom becomes a bit of a mutual admiration society meeting, but it's also an enjoyable tribute to the age of great American Jewish writers. Joyce Maynard wonders how her experience of being manipulated and dismissed by J.D. Salinger might have been received in the current #MeToo era. (Also, Salinger books are getting reissued, but those new Salinger books we were promised a few years still aren't coming.) Lyz Lenz's profile of Tucker Carlson is a piercing chronicle how of a not-unsensible thinker became toxically submerged in the hollow screamfestery of prime-time cable news.

End Notes

In honor of the early 90s and weird baseball moments, here's the S.F. Seals' "Dock Ellis," a tribute to Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis, who in 1970 threw a no-hitter while under the influence of LSD.

Thanks for reading. Send correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.