Enthralled by Systems

Enthralled by Systems

1998-07-01
Passing Off
Passing Off
The Permanent Press, 1996. $22.00.

Chris Messenger reviews Tom LeClair’s first novel, Passing Off (1996).

Of the three major American team sports (Basketball, Baseball, Football), basketball is the only one that is wordless. Baseball is interpreted by language through an umpire’s balls and strikes, football sent into violent collision of bodies by a quarterback’s arcane jargon. Basketball, however, is the sport that at present remains a mystic’s communion, somewhere between a violent ballet and a transcendent praxis. Because of its silence, basketball has attracted only a fraction of the novelists (Updike in his Rabbit series the most prominent) who have memorialized baseball and football in the past few decades. That team roster is large and cuts across a popular and elite sampling of contemporary American fiction (Malamud, Roth, Coover, Charyn, Kinsella, DeLillo, Whitehead, Gent, Jenkins). Furthermore, basketball’s symbology and social relations have been almost totally appropriated by an African American standard of play, excellence, and cultural relevance, stipulating that white American authors must work out their own meaning now in a residual and somewhat tangential sense.

Into this liminal play space comes Tom LeClair’s Passing Off, an example of a critical intelligence adapting a deeply-loved sport to his own philosophic and fictional concerns. LeClair is best known for his In The Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel (1987) which, a decade after the further great DeLillo successes of Libra, Mao II, and Underworld, remains the most comprehensive introduction to DeLillo’s work. With Passing Off, LeClair, in the spirit of the best postmodern copying, has written a lively homage to DeLillo’s fictional achievement. Beginning with John Barth’s essays on self-reflexive fiction three decades ago, contemporary fiction has a rich history of some of its most important practitioners becoming writer-critics both within and without their own texts. Thus Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants (1969) is still a fictional and theoretical benchmark. Such stories as Barthelme’s “Brain Damage” with its dictum: “I could describe it better if I weren’t afflicted with it,” comment most tersely and centrally on postmodern fiction’s tense relaxation into the milieu that produces it. In LeClair’s case, the writer-critic has found the free flow and circular structure of basketball (ball and hoop) to loop perfectly into a meditated view of his major concerns in Passing Off - those of DeLillo as well: the “ecology” which contains both sport and terrorism and which becomes the larger subject.

LeClair is enthralled by system; In The Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel revealed it everywhere in the formal similarities and differences among DeLillo’s systems of notation. LeClair found systems theory to be enabled rather than crippled by linguistic relativity. He stated that the themes of systems theory are the master subjects of literary modernism, namely process, multiplicity, simultaneity, and uncertainty. Thus the connection of these themes across a narrative exchange leads LeClair to find that systems novelists (all of the now-canonical white male experimentalists) “learn the processes in which they participate rather than dictate circumstances,” that they try to understand information rather than cause events to happen (literary In The Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel 17).

LeClair’s master teacher-learner of systems is the basketball playmaker, one Michael Keever, a competent, steady white guard, an American of Irish descent passing as Greek-American, whose career odyssey has taken him to Greece in one more try at chasing the game as a professional basketball player. Keever’s role on the court is to stand in the middle of all systems while he creates within them. Of all major sports position players, the playamker is most analogous to the novelist. No one has more effect on the ensemble or the unfolding game action, no one may influence the individual fates of teammates and narrative chronology as the playmaker who may create to the pattern in his mind. As in the most creative sports fiction, LeClair has found in the playmaker his author manque and indeed the book is “passed off” as “Passing Off: A Season in the Greek Basketball Association” by “Michael Keever,” published by “The Full Court Press.” The game on the court is bracketed within the game that this novel, any novel truly is, creating a narrative where one has not existed before.

On the level of a sports novel’s basic pleasure, Keever has the full complement of the fictional athlete’s empirical jock wisdom. Everything is to be arrayed and displayed against his physical experience. Such rhetoric is one of the last unassailable masculine reserves in our time. At the other extreme, Keever is captivated by video tape for he believes “injected into cartilage and marrow, tape was the white player’s substitute for soul” and that once his coach “put me into tape, “I’ve been kind of disappointed with life off the court” (9). Language seems to be for the times between games when “there wasn’t much to tell anybody” (11). Tape becomes Keever’s mantra and expressive medium for “over and over [he] ran the tape, looped and looped again through the recording, blocking out the words most coaches use for analysis” (8-9).

LeClair thus recreates in Keever’s insight his own from In The Loop to understand processes rather than dictate circumstances. Such is LeClair’s deep structural intimation that runs through both criticism and novel. Keever in Greece is a fine travel writer, observing customs and local mores, taking us into the texture of a foreigner’s contemporary Athens, the hum and buzz of street life. LeClair is surely paying debts to DeLillo in Passing Off for he states in In The Loop that he first went to Greece in 1978 (where most of In The Loop was written) and interviewed DeLillo who was living there and writing The Names (1982), that he “looped back and forth, literally and intellectually, between the United States and Europe, DeLillo’s criticism of America and his love of Greece in The Names ” (xiii).

What saves Passing Off from being a footnote to both DeLillo’s novel and LeClair’s criticism? LeClair’s Keever is nothing like DeLillo’s rather inert James Axton in The Names. He’s more like Gary Harkness the metaphysical football halfback from DeLillo’s End Zone but more positive, less death-haunted. LeClair’s athlete does not brood. Even as he becomes implicated in the DeLillo-like plottings of international terrorism, the machinations of a Greek-American girl fronting a plot to perhaps blow up the Parthenon, Keever intends to control the plays and retain his ability to distribute the ball, to reward himself and punish his antagonists.

The second half of the novel does appear more contrived as the terrorist plot seizes control of Keever’s (and LeClair’s) narrative. There’s a quality of the dreaded relevance as well as a breezy internationalism to Eleni Epimenidakis and her evil agenda. Unfortunately she sounds more like a grad student than a terrorist - or is it that most grad students share pedantry with terrorists? LeClair can’t quite decide (or I can’t) whether he’s doing a send-up of a terrorist thriller or an example of it, perhaps further proving Barthelme’s point. But a forced seriousness does begin to deflate the basketball scenes, perhaps akin to many DeLillo novels which lose their narrative drive but why should LeClair follow his master here? Perhaps because any avowed “systems novel” is not very interested in any pleasures as mundane as pace and closure? LeClair is more effective when he takes Keever on some memorable road trips and depicts his very colorful teammates. There’s more inside basketball stuff for the aficionado than in any such novel I know about; even the minor figures are perfectly chosen. What other basketball novel would exactly reference a journeyman point guard such as John Bagley (56) to make a point (no Isiah Thomas or Magic Johnson here). Thus I can trust LeClair on the minor nuances as well as on the philosophical extrapolations about his sport.

Keever’s wife Ann wants him to want something beyond basketball but Keever himself can’t see it. Even the thermal inversion that hangs over Athens like the “airborne toxic event” in DeLillo’s White Noise, the terrorist plan to de-construct the “tourist site” of the Parthenon, never quite becomes the center of the novel to any purpose. LeClair had written rapturously about The Names and felt it to be DeLillo’s best book, a sentiment not shared by many critics. What LeClair championed in DeLillo: ” The Names first seems to obey the codes of domestic realism, but it broadens to a multinational systems novel” (In the Loop 204) is what he has tried to simulate in his Greek theatre of basketball but like so many other novelists coming to sport in this century, he has not quite believed that basketball could carry its own weight, to stand adequately for what needs to be represented.

Yet at times Keever stands his jock ground against the evil internationalists with only his sporting doxa to protect him. “Athletes are bodies that can’t avoid the facts, says Keever as tough guy-sentimentalist…. When Eleni retorts, “you play with yourselves,” Keever says, “You plot. We play…. We are nature…. We’re bodies and they don’t lie” (142). Such is sport’s empirically powerful answer to a host of postmodern controls from the death of the subject to technological power. The athlete is one of the few people who may use this counter-statement and make us believe in it. His role, night after night, is positively existential in comparison with almost anything else in contemporary simulacra. Keever, playmaker (“protector of the rock”), becomes in LeClair’s favorite pun, “protector” of the Parthenon itself that clings to the Acropolis brooding in disheveled postmodernity over the remains of a logos that can barely account for a befouled Athens.

Finally LeClair has come round to sport via DeLillo, literary criticism, and Greece, completing the loop which began with his own journeys to Greece, his critical principles, and sporting enthusiasms. He would not disentangle this system nor would I wish him to. Basketball in Greece itself is a totalizing view, the individual consciousness knowing itself (“I have my game”) within the middle of something bigger, more sublime at the heart of the West’s origin myths. It’s those moments Keever plays for; LeClair, too.