Saturday, June 7, 2014

#751: The twinkling of a dice

Robert Coover's THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION (1968) stars a pushing-60 accountant named J. Henry Waugh, whose day-to-day life is pretty boring.
But he has a wild fantasy life. At night -- thanks to three dice and a TON of note-paper -- he runs a whole fantasy baseball league, inside his head.
Henry knows this fantasy baseball league has nothing to do with his Real Life. He knows his few friends would never understand it, or why he does it. Henry isn't even a fan of real-life baseball.
But Henry knows that somehow the League -- its statistics, its history, its traditions -- somehow help hold him together so he can get through his Real Life.
Actually, slowly, Henry's game -- and game-playing -- are taking over his Real Life, getting in the way of what he has to do to keep his life going.
And when an unexpected disaster happens in the baseball league -- an accident Henry didn't see coming and can't counteract -- his life and his fantasy baseball league slowly fall apart.
THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION got some rave reviews back in the late '60s. I tried to read it a few years back and couldn't even get 50 pages into it. It was just too dry.
Didn't have much trouble this time. Henry's life and his obsession with his fantasy baseball league actually make pretty involving reading.
The world Henry lives in is stark and under-described, as dull as Henry thinks it is. Might be the late '50s -- everybody takes buses, radio is at least mentioned -- but it's a very different, much duller world than the Real mid-'60s. No wonder Henry repeatedly turns to fantasy to liven things up. Because things happen in Henry's baseball league that would never happen in Real Life.
I just wish Coover had done more with it. After Henry's fantasy disaster, you can see both his fantasy world and Real Life slipping out of his control, and finally fantasy takes over.
This is not as gripping as it should have been. The last 20 pages or so were a real chore to read.
Might be worth a look if you're a baseball fan. Or if you already have a really rich fantasy life.
There's also no reason the same basic idea couldn't be used with a music obsession -- something I'm trying to pull together right now, when I'm not writing here.
I have a pretty rich fantasy life, too.

Brian W. Aldiss has been berry berry good to me. His history of science-fiction BILLION YEAR SPREE told me about tons of great SF books to track down back when I was 15 years old, and his BRIGHTFOUNT DIARIES showed me how easy it would be to write a memoir.
His THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE (1994) is basically an expanded version of his writing-memoir BURY MY HEART AT W.H. SMITH'S -- only this time with all the marriage problems, psychological problems, manic depression, and chronic fatigue left in. I thought BURY MY HEART was too thin and surfacey, almost written as an afterthought between novels, though charming enough in places. TWINKLING is twice as long, nearly 500 pages.
Almost the whole first half is about Aldiss's experiences as a soldier for the British Empire in Burma in the latter days of and just after World War II. I admit I haven't read any of that -- I started with his experiences in the Oxford bookshop that led him to write BRIGHTFOUNT DIARIES.
Some of that book and BURY MY HEART are re-told here -- how his first Hugo Award arrived on his front porch wrapped in a newspaper, dropped off by his estranged wife; how fictionalizing his bookstore experiences led directly to writing his first book, etc.
There is lots more about writing, and about the demons Aldiss wrestled with while growing up as a writer and as a man. He also had lots of happiness, and through it all he wrote, no matter how weird things got.

Both of these books are about what a life MEANS, about getting at what it all MEANT.
The late Damon Rutherford in UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION would tell you -- it's not a trial, it's not even a lesson. It's just what there is.

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