Friday, June 18, 2010

Cheston Knapp, “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love”

Cheston Knapp’s “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love” (One Story 133, March 30, 2010) and I never bonded.

It’s strange. The right sorts of elements were there. Characterization done by accretion and by showing, not by full disclosure and by telling (good example: how the narrator’s anger management issues creep up on us). There are scenes in which the narrator’s inner world vined around the events in the outside world (take the description of Charlotte on pages 2-3). We find inventive uses of metaphors (note the metaphors-turned-real of windows on page 7 and walls on page 9). Whiffs of poetry (notice the alliteration in a sentence like “Behold the whole body of my mental torture” [3; my italics]).

But despite all those valid and varied techniques, the story never interested me. My main problem was the narrator, who was drearily uptight to the point of producing stilted language and boring descriptions. You get stuff like a towel that “is heavy with the saltwater weight of exertion, the dividend of pressure and performance” (18) or a “series of impressions charged with so much emotion as to be tolerable only in their profusion” (29). Sentences like these don’t seem credible for a 19-year-old narrating in real time (present tense), with no inkling of a background that would make this language believable. Besides, they’re convoluted.

The diction level also free-falls. Metaphors such as “warm alluvial plain” (3) to describe a woman’s vagina alternate with delicate phrases like “she can be as impossible as that space between your ass and balls” (4). There’s a barrage of qualifiers and intensifiers. The narrator kept dropping like and really, which may have been true to character but blunted the prose. Some adjectives could’ve been asked to leave (the balls in the new can “hiss like deceptive snakes” [15]). There were comparisons that chose contortions over effective expression (“his hairline’s receding like a disarranged flock of geese” [20]).

The first paragraph is illustrative of the story’s maladies. A matter of fact account of a tennis match (sentence one). Afterward, a ball turns into “a yellow blur of physics equations” (sentence two). This started to bother me. A yellow blur of physics variables, perhaps? A blur that sped past physics equations? That sped past (or even into) the grids of physics equations? The reference to physics was good, but it could’ve been handled better.

Then comes a colorful description of the return (sentence three), followed by a general statement on Sampras’s serve (sentence four): it’s “one of History’s best and he gets free points for all the time, especially on grass.” Capital-h history, for real? And was the assessment of Sampras’s serve even necessary? After that, sentence five: “There’s an awkward pause in the match’s momentum as we all watch the ball finish its arching flight.” There’s an awkward pause when we begin that sentence because, with no warning, it shunts from a general appreciation of Sampras’s serve back to the specific return we had read about earlier. And the alliteration (match, watch) tips the scale unfavorably when you get to the muffled echo of arching. Two more sentences left. That’s the first paragraph.

The final pages galumph to the end with weighty paragraphs of reflection, explanation, and transcendence. We are hit over the head several times with the idea that this was not just a tennis game, but also a quest for things like “immanence and grace” (35), which exists beyond language (an idea used just too many times), which is ultimately a struggle with our own bodily failings and our own mortality (32). Where was the delete key during these long stretches?

I haven’t even mentioned the plot. The narrator, William Able, leads a team of ballboys at Wimbledon. Sampras and Federer are playing a big match. During the match, Able, who has problems with his temper, is going crazy over the budding affair between his ex-girlfriend, Charlotte, and his former protégé, Freddy. Able clearly identifies himself with Sampras, who loses at the end. This is also Able’s fate with Charlotte.

If you’re a tennis fan, the story will be much easier to follow. Then again, you’ll realize how much more dynamic and entertaining it is to watch an actual game. The story wasn’t a bad idea: transferring a personal conflict to another stage, while having the conflict infuse the language, is an effective device. But the story should’ve been much, much shorter. This is the longest story I’ve read on One Story (35 pages). It should’ve also struck a better balance between the love story and the tennis match. A ten-page piece that concentrated on the game and featured a quick scene involving Charlotte, while allowing the description to reveal the narrator’s turmoil, would have been much stronger.

The One Story interview shows why the story grew such a thick hide of explanation. The author was reading a lot of Heidegger when he came up with the story, and Heidegger’s ideas made it to the narrative (and catastrophically into the interview, too). Surely, therein also lies the explanation for the uppercased History that appears twice in the story. The story was bogged down by something many authors criticize: if you start with themes, and not people, stories become lifeless. Start with Heidegger, and you’ll have a philosophical reading of a tennis match, little character development, and not much that is compelling as fiction.

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