book review: Kerry Howley’s Thrown

I really need to thank Alyssa Rosenberg for her sympathetic, helpful review of Kerry Howley’s new book. Because for weeks, I just did not know what to do with this book, guys. I guess I will give you the tl;dr version upfront: this is a project that I admire, in many ways, that I frequently hated reading. I suppose anything that comes  after that will sound disingenuous, but if you’re inclined, you can keep reading.

I had been looking forward to Howley’s Thrown for a long time.  A work of creative nonfiction based on several years of deep research in the world of semi-professional, regional mixed martial arts,  the book received extremely positive advance coverage, which has been followed up by rapturous reviews. In the book, Howley follows the career of Sean, a talented but inconsistent fighter who has the ability of a mid-card UFC fighter but the career of a guy tromping from one state fair to the next. At its heart, Thrown is a record of the petty, dispiriting  trials that Sean faces, and an argument for the inherent dignity of what he’s attempting in the face of all that indignity. I’m on board with that project. It’s the way Howley gets there, in terms of character and of style, that I can admire but not enjoy.

I am a long-time but lapsed mixed martial arts fan. I closely followed the UFC from 2006 until the UFC 151 fiasco, a planned event that was scrapped due to an injury to Dan Henderson, an MMA legend who was scheduled to fight Jon Jones in the main event. For years now, Jones has been the alpha dog of the entire MMA world, an impossibly gifted fighter whose only loss came via disqualification in a match he was dominating. Following Henderson’s  withdrawal, Jones and his managers were put in a no-win scenario, expected by UFC brass to fight career journeyman and professional clown Chael Sonnen on almost no notice. That was a fight with essentially no upside and plenty of downside for Jones. When he refused to take the replacement fight, the UFC dragged his name through the mud, canceling the event and telling the other fighters that Jones was to blame. That was the last straw, for me– not the only cause but the proximate cause, one in a long string of annoyances over the UFC’s management and the petty indignities of the sport. I’ve kept half an eye on things since then but my days as a committed MMA fan appear to be over.

I suppose the first thing to say about Thrown is that it’s an effective portrayal of this reality of MMA: no matter how much he’s making, the fighter gets fucked.

Since I maintain a lot of love for the actual sport itself, I was eager to read a book about it by a writer I knew to be talented and diligent. In particular, I felt sure that Howley would avoid a pitfall common to too much contemporary sports writing, particularly about combat sports. Howley was far too savvy to fall into the obvious trap, the Norman Mailer trap, the one where a subject of ostensible coarseness and brutality is “elevated” through wordiness and theoretical excess. I knew that Thrown could not occupy that awkward, clumsy space where academic types seek to elevate the brutal or the coarse through a studied, willful pursuit of transcendence. And I particularly felt sure that it wouldn’t pose that pursuit as somehow nobler or truer than the lives of the rest of us. This, more than anything, was Mailer’s failing: he was forever writing arias about those parts of life that he found more noble and real than the world of us squares, but ended up sounding like some shitty beat poet, so insistent on finding the sublime in the ridiculous and the beautiful in the brutal that he forgot to find the ridiculous in the ridiculous and the brutal in the brutal.

The worst part of sports is Shoeless Joe and His Holy Cornfield. That’s the worst: the constantly mythologizing, the vast efforts invested in reminding everyone involved that there’s more to the game than the game. Baseball might as well be filmed in sepia tones. The affect that I’m talking about isn’t quite that — the people who embrace it are too savvy for that kind of unalloyed sincerity — but it is a way to reconstruct it for the cool kid set.

For a long while, I was convinced I had been wrong about Howley avoiding this useless tradition. That seemed to be exactly what Thrown was doing.

Things don’t start off well, from that perspective. At the beginning of the book, Howley’s narrator, Kit, engages in the kind of clumsy anti-academic signalling that I see all the time, being an academic myself. Kit sneaks away from a philosophy conference, contemptuous of a conversation about Husserl, and finds herself enraptured by an MMA match. If this is intended as a parody of the self-hatred at the heart of current intellectual culture, it could not possibly be more brutal, the stark obviousness of the contrast so clumsy in its signalling that only the truly self-absorbed could fail to register it. Worse, as so many people I know in real life do, Kit derides the pretensions of the academics around her while preserving their language and their privileges. A page after complaining about the academic conference, she’s invoking Artaud, and that strikes me as the central conceit of today’s educated caste: I begrudge you your Husserl, but I get to keep my Artaud. I have to confess that I read Thrown from the perspective of someone who has been embedded in academia for the past six years and so knows armies of post-academic academics. When I read Kit, I think to myself “I know this person,” and it’s the power of that portrayal that mostly determines my attitude towards the book. It’s an immensely effective piece of writing that is too effective for this reader, given his perspective.

This is where I owe Rosenberg: my first run through the book, I could not see the parts of Kit that are parodic, couldn’t give Howley the benefit of that doubt. I’m not sure why. I suppose it’s emblematic of Kit’s almost impossible self-possession and self-seriousness; doubt is an alien creature in this book, both within Kit and most of the characters she interacts with. Or it’s because of Howley’s frequently exquisite control. I resisted the satirical reading because Howley is very, very careful, never outwardly mocking when she can just quietly portray. I think at times the scales tip too far; Rosenberg is right to find it deeply gross when Kit suggests that what she wants for Sean is somehow deeper or more transcendent than what Sean’s girlfriend wants, or what Sean wants for himself. But generally, Howley’s touch is light. Or perhaps it’s simply that Howley has clear affection for the character. She named her Kit Howley, after all, and it’s clear that there is much of Kerry in Kit. If she frequently lays out just how predatory and thoughtless Kit’s critical gaze is, she is also careful to show the real intelligence and profound passion at the heart of the character.

Ultimately, your own relationship to Kit is going to go a long way towards determining how you feel about Thrown. I can definitely imagine many people who take to her, who are forgiving of her pretensions and charmed by the fervent way she pursues the ecstatic feelings she is sure hide in an MMA match. I will freely cop to it: I am frequently incapable of enjoying flawed protagonists, which is a very unsophisticated way to operate as a reader. I like a lot of books that are accused of willful “difficulty,” whatever that is, but there are some protagonists I can’t really get behind. Here, it’s largely an artifact of my cultural and social position. Your money may vary, and I hope it does, because there’s so much of interest here that I’ve been recommending the book to lots of friends.

If I can’t get along with Kit for obscure personal reasons, though, my issues with the prose in Thrown are less obscure. Howley’s style, here, is a Grade A, no foolin choice, a High Style with the most capital of capital letters. Here, again, my resistance is a resistance to the intentions of the author, not her execution; Howley is attempting a prose style so mannered and deliberate that it verges on the manic, and achieving it. Whether you like it or not is up to you.

Behold:

Now this situation–a warm-blooded yawning daemon utterly controlling a figure made in his image–had some Cartesian implications, as you will have already surmised; for who was to say that some still greater game-player was not directing us; that flesh-and-blood Erik, not to mention flesh-and-blood Kit, were not in fact being played by some greater god being watching by a greater spacetaker on a more elevated, presumably cleaner, futon?

Who indeed!

Look, you’re either along for this ride or you’re not. I could have pulled dozens more quotes just like this one. It’s not just that Kit’s writing is the Spinal Tap amp that goes to 11, it’s that she’s also removed 1-6. What Howley’s doing here is willful, complex, layered, syntactically and lexically rich, allusive, dense, and utterly conspicuous at all times. It’s gutsy, in a culture that disdains anything but the supposedly pretension-free affect of blank minimalism which is really the most pretentious of all. It’s brave, in a literary world so terrified of appearing snobby that most authors sprint from the barest appearance of difficulty or obscurity. I hate books that put out their lips to be kissed, and Thrown absolutely does not care if you like it. I admire that. I just also absolutely hated reading it. I suppose I just felt, if you’ll excuse me,  bludgeoned. When Kit goes to 11 to describe the most mundane encounters she witnesses, it’s hard to summon any extra emotions when she goes to 13 for the really important moments in the lives of these fighters. But again, you might love it. I think you’ll know in the first 25 pages. This is not a book that will inspire a lot of ambivalent reactions, and that’s worth your money, I think.

Within all of this, there’s a deeply researched, tightly plotted piece of reportage, a no-bullshit deeply informative book about regional MMA. There’s lots of perfect moments and genuinely penetrating observations, and they are most effective at those times when Kit is not enamored of herself for making them. I always had a sense of the deep strangeness of regional MMA, but this book has a lived-in vibe that makes you feel like you’ve really been there. From the promoters who fake heart attacks to skip out on paying fighters to the funny-but-scary conditions of the cages in which they fight, the many intricate details of the people who occupy this world, you may find that there’s more than enough going on to give the benefit of the doubt to Kit, to her prose, and to Howley.

We’re living in an interesting, troubled time for what we clumsily call “the life of the mind.” There’s never been more of what we call criticism or analysis, as endless thousands of keyboard chatterers like myself churn out reviews, think pieces, hot takes, and blog posts. Simultaneously, in many disciplines, the opportunities to do this professionally, to make a living taking culture seriously, taking thinking seriously, have been drying up rapidly, as our society convinces itself that there should be no job other than coding, or teaching a kid to code, or teaching a robot to code so that the robot can take the job of the kid you taught to code. Sadder still, there’s this deep unhappiness about the very idea of being the kind of person who thinks about such things. Right now, it is permissible to overthink things but not to research them; it is considered entertaining to use Foucault to examine Teen Wolf but ridiculous to write a dissertation about him. These impulses should inform and support each other, they should be siblings, but instead they work against each other, as the type of people who spend all day teasing out the Freudian implications of Star Wars despise the people who tease out the Freudian implications of Freud. People are desperate to appear smart but terrified of looking like an intellectual. I know lots of writers, living in places like Brooklyn and LA, who are openly, loudly contemptuous of grad students, never stopping to think that in their intellectual projects, and in the ways that they intellectualize their own relationship to those projects, they are grad students in precisely the ways they deride. They just aren’t enrolled anywhere.

Me, I’m an academic, and that includes in all the bad old ways people  try to avoid. I am that guy and have been since I was born. I read pretentious French theorists and I read them straight; at those moments, there is no room for irony in my brain. I have never been one of those grad students who shares mocking comics about grad students, never written a Facebook status about how I’m “doing that grad school thing” when I go to a coffee shop and get really invested in a journal article. When I read my Artaud, I do it because he says “in my theater, you will be transformed.” You are perfectly entitled to laugh at that. There is something inherently ridiculous about people who are always themselves. Me, I can’t help it. It’s my nature.