Monday, April 28, 2014

Red or Dead and the Impossibility of Sports Fiction

No. There is no debate.
The greatest baseball scene I've ever read in fiction is the opening scene in Underworld. The greatest sports movie ever made (and this is not a debatable fact) is Slapshot. Besides a level of class-consciousness rarely seen in American pop culture, the two works of fiction share one major quality; there isn't much actual baseball in Underworld nor much actual hockey in Slapshot. What baseball there is in Underworld is all factual, narrating the legendary home run Bobby Thomson hit off Ralph Branca to win the pennant for the Dodgers. What hockey there is in Slapshot is all completely and utterly ridiculous; the championship is won when a player strips off his equipment while a brawl is happening (No, I won't specify which of those two things is the truly ridiculous act in hockey). In both cases, and pretty much all other successful sports fiction, the actual sport acts as more an element of the environment driving and organizing the action and the narrative suffers whenever the creator is obligated to actually show game play. Unless, as in Slapshot, the storyteller adds something purposefully unrealistic, the action drags, and whatever we're reading or watching feels forced.

Offsides. OFFSIDES!
This is weird because sports tend to be entertaining. Really entertaining. Almost universally entertaining. Why is real hockey, which I love to watch, so entertaining and meaningful that I will sculpt my social media days in order to somehow not learn the results of the game I've recorded, but depicted hockey, like say The Flying V from Mighty Ducks totally uncompelling? (Before I get myself into too much trouble, the first Mighty Ducks movie is actually a very good hockey movie, even if the hockey action itself, at least in my opinion, too often leaves charming behind to induce some good old fashioned eye-rolling. Interestingly, it too has a level of class consciousness you don't see often enough in depictions of our very classist society. Someone get me Zizek on the phone.)

In a way the gap is obvious. In an actual Bruins game the action is not pre-determined, whereas in a hockey movie, the action is. But why does this relatively simple gap leads to such a difference in emotional content? First, every single action in sport is a locus of potential excitement, in that every pass could be THE pass that results in a goal, every hit could be THE hit that changes the emotional tenor of the crowd, every save could be THE save that gives the team a chance to come back, and so every pass, every hit, every save, and every other thing that happens in a hockey game contains, at the very least, a shade of the emotional content of THE THING! In theory, sports fiction should have the same freedom to associate significance to all of its action, but because the story's significance often is only partly related to the results of the depicted sports action, fictitious sports actions can only access a shade of a portion of the significance of the story.

Secondly, a hockey movie does not have time to show an entire hockey game or season and so must essentially put together a plot-driving highlight reel. Unfortunately, highlight reels are anthologies of distinct moments presented with minimum context for us to appreciate athletic acts in and of themselves, whereas movies try to recreate the flow of action real games have without all that stuff that happens in between highlight reel moments. This gives a jarring sense of artificiality to whatever action is depicted. Finally, when you remove a hockey game from a focus on the athleticism of the action, and you remove the action from a meaningful result, or, when the sport you're watching doesn't connect directly to personal meaning, it's a lot of boring stuff that happens over and over again. That guy passes to that guy. That guy shoots. Those four guys are “digging for the puck.” In order to depict sport in fiction, traditionally creators have tried to avoid, mostly in unsuccessful ways, the relentless, repetition of actual sport. The repetition that is the very essence of sports. Which, as above, reinforces the fictitious nature of what you're watching or reading, and breaks your willing suspension of disbelief.

Enter David Peace and Red or Dead, Peace's massive monument to legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. Rather than avoiding the ultimately repetitive nature of sports, he embraces it, structuring the prose style around the realistic movement of sport. And Peace doesn't hide his style choice. He tells the reader explicitly what to expect. The first three words Peace writes, in a preface-like passage titled “The Argument III” are “Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.” And that's what Peace does. Whether depicting a soccer match or Bill Shankly setting the table for breakfast, phrases repeat, progress, and accumulate. Just like actual soccer matches and just like actually setting the breakfast table. Just like going to work. Just like drinking coffee. Just like genetic reproduction. Just like meditation. Just like washing dishes. Just like working out at the gym. Just like writing a novel, or a poem, or a short story, or an essay, or a blog post. The same thing, with occasional and slight variation, over and over and over and over again.

The term that came to my mind to describe Peace's style is “passionate box score.” It is hard to describe what an accomplishment that is. Seriously, I'm sitting here struggling to finish this paragraph. If you know what soccer looks like it's easy to imagine the course of a game through Peace's prose, but that isn't even the point I'm trying to make. And by using the same prose style for both the greatest matches in Liverpool history and cleaning the stove (the Shanklys (“Shanklies?”) must have had the cleanest stove in the goddamn world) turns life itself into a passionate box score. (Which, in a way, places Red or Dead firmly in the modernist tradition.) Somehow, the passionate box score recognizes that life is just one damn thing after another while at the same time celebrating that all these damn things keep happening on the pitch and in life.

What separates all those damn things happening on the pitch and all those damn things happening in life is the damn things happening on the pitch have a tangible result. Since Liverpool had to win or lose or draw, we know, at the end of the game, that each damn pass, each damn shot, each damn save, and each damn tackle was part of the win, the loss, or the draw. And each win, loss, or draw is part of a League Championship or not part of a League Championship, part of a European Cup or not, part of an FA Cup or not, part of relegation or not, part of disappointment or not. But what is drying the plates part of? Peace's Shankly describes his playing philosophy as “total football.” Peace might be describing through his Shankly, “total life.”

Peace's Bill Shankly is a hero. A hero for our time and a hero for all time. Shankly's heroics are as simple and applicable as can be and they apply to everything from sports, to work, to making dinner, to hanging out with your friends, to politics and leadership. How was Bill Shankly a hero? He thought of other people first and he tried his fucking best and he never fucking quit and when he failed he failed having never fucking quit, having tried his fucking best, and in service to other people first. Just imagine for a second if our national character was defined not by the “self-made man” or the “rugged individualist” (both of which, total fictions) but “everybody trying their fucking best and never fucking quitting while making the world a better place for everyone else.” You know what, maybe don't imagine that, I don't have enough bourbon insurance for the emotional effects of such a thought experiment.

I wish there were some way to read with sections of my consciousness turned off. I know what soccer looks like. Sports, in general, are meaningful to me. And so I was prepared and sympathetic, both in terms of knowledge and in terms of emotional investment, for Peace's project. But I'm not at all sure what kind of buy-in someone who isn't connected to sports will give Red or Dead, especially since the style is so overt and relentless. I hope said sportless compatriot would be able to absorb Peace's passion and see the style as a poetic form, a restraint designed to also free, but I honestly can't be sure. I was willing to read this guy put on the same suit the exact same way a bunch of times because I understood what it feels like to watch the same shit happen over and over on a soccer pitch, but how does that pocket square look to someone who believes that shit on the pitch is boring?

But, all works of fiction erect barriers of experience between themselves and their potential readers. Every difference between the action, events, and characters depicted in a work of fiction, is a barrier that must be surmounted by the imagination of the reader. Of course, it's the author's responsibility to give the reader the necessary substance of the imagination, especially in works of fiction that, unlike science fiction or fantasy, don't have culturally accepted imaginative expectations, but it is also the reader's responsibility to try. Or maybe to think about this in a terms that could be reduced to an acronym on a bracelet: What would Bill Shankly do? He would try his fucking best, he would not fucking quit, and he would read to become a better person for everyone else he shares the world with.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Why the Bruins Won Everything in March

The Bruins have locked up the Eastern Conference with four games remaining in the schedule and have a solid shot at the totally-meaningless-but-I-guess-kinda-better-than-nothing President's trophy. Though it was formalized on Saturday's win over the Flyer's, with the waning of the Penguins, the Bruins have been the best team in the conference (and probably the league) for several weeks now. They only lost once (ONCE!) in March and put together an almost unbelievable string of games. Here's why they were able to do that.

They're Relatively Healthy
The boring fact of the elite teams of the NHL is they tend to distinguish themselves from each other based on how healthy their stars are. When an announcer talks about “playing well at the right time,” that is generally a narrative-biased explanation for the fact that Patrice Bergeron had a punctured lung and a dislocated rib by game 6 and Jonathan Toews did not. For the last month and a half, the Bruins have been relatively healthy, with only Dennis Seidenberg (who had the courtesy to suffer his season ending injury before the trade deadline) and Adam Mcquaid missing serious time. For the last month of the season, for a Stanley Cup contender, only missing two major players, and missing them in such a way that the team has the resources to compensate is about as healthy as can possibly be. Professional hockey is a war of attrition determined, too often by luck, and for the last month, the Bruins have been very lucky.

They Have a Legitimate Power Play
The Bruins have been the best even strength team in the NHL for a few years now thanks to a successful system (more on that later), a couple of top notch shut down defensemen, and a few top notch three-zone forwards, but, even when they won the Stanley Cup, their power play hindered them. Given their even-strength excellence, I've never believed a top ten power play was required for them to be successful, but it couldn't hurt. So what changed between then and now, where they're scoring at a third-best 20.8% clip. Unlike the top two teams, Pittsburgh and Washington, the Bruins don't have a sniper to bend the power play curve. Rather, they've had success because they run two fundamentally different power play systems.

Most teams have two power play units, but very few teams that I can think of, run distinct systems based on those units. The Bruins first unit has a pretty simple strategy, stick two monstrosities in front of the net and move the puck around enough to get a decent shot so the mythological beasts can fight to stuff in a rebound. By sticking Chara and Lucic in a power-I in front of the net the Bruins first unit throws down a physical challenge very few teams will be able to meet. And the result is that shut-down defenseman Chara, has ten (TEN!) power play goals. The second unit is an entirely different story all together, using puck motion to create passing lanes for lay-up goals on the side of the net. A system which requires an entirely different strategy to defend against. And then you add in the fact that, because of their overall defensive structure, they can have four forwards on the ice without undue risk of a short handed goal (they've only given up six all year), and the puck moving ability of Torey Krug and the three-zone skill of Bergeron and Kreici and the increased chemistry between Soderberg and Eriksson and you have a dominant power play without the typical NHL superstar on the best even strength team in the league. If there is any one of these particular points terrifying other teams, it is this one.

The Olympic Break
The Olympic break gave both Iginla and Eriksson a chance to get their legs back; for Ignila, that meant a bit of a breather and for Eriksson it meant getting his reps in after returning from his concussion. The energy Iginla came back with turned his line into a true top line and they have been dominating opponents ever since. Eriksson's improvement has, not only added more depth by improving the Bruins third line, but also, I think, played a role in Carl Soderberg's recent successes. A chemistry has developed between the two Swedes that was not really there with Eriksson on the Bergeron line. The result being that once again, there is no break in the Bruins forward lines. There is skill and grit on all four lines and now, all four lines are playing well.

The Bruins System
Third man high, three-zone center, protect the house, support your teammates, weak-side defender pressures the puck at the blue line. At this point, there is pretty much one vulnerability in the Bruins' team system; a cross-ice stretch pass, but since they know that, it isn't much of a vulnerability. If someone makes a mistake, there is always someone else to cover him. And both Rask (who is playing at Vezina levels) and Johnson (who is playing far better than any back up has a right to) are good enough to make up for nearly every time mistakes compound into a serious scoring chance. Over the last month and a half pretty much the only goals the Bruins have given up have involved the occasional long pass and the bad bounce amidst the chaos in front of the net. At this point, enough Bruins have been playing the system that it is second nature, and the system is intuitive enough that newer players have fit in perfectly.

But along with the strategic system, there is a powerful team character. It leads to Chris Kelly, who is pretty goddamn good in the face-off circle, to play wing, to Gregory Campbell staying on the fourth line and making less money than he otherwise would, to David Krejci working the point on the power play, and for every player to stand up for every other player. If the Bruins can win another Cup or two in the next five years and continue their overall success, one could argue Claude Julien is one of Boston's greatest coaches, if not one of the NHL's greatest coaches.

The Schedule
It should also be noted that the Bruins won a lot of games they were supposed to win. Florida twice. Carolina. Phoenix twice. Minnesota. Washington is a cusp team that “needs” points, but they are still below Boston in the standings, and the same goes for Montreal, Philadelphia, and New York. All four are better teams than those previously mentioned, but all four are still, not as good as the Bruins. Chicago was diminished. And Colorado has come back down to Earth. Not losing in March was still pretty fucking amazing, but the Bruins also benefited from a schedule that happened to set the table perfectly for them.

Perfect Hockey
Oh yeah, also they haven't been making mistakes. Like any mistakes. And the few that happen, are almost always taken care of by a teammate. It's fucking relentless.

Looking Forward
Given all that, it's hard not to be optimistic about the Bruins chances in this post-season. From what I've seen, the only real concern is Chara. Since the Olympic break, Chara seems to have lost a step. Thus far it hasn't been a problem, but against the Penguins, or even in seven games against the Canadians, having your top shut down defenseman a step too slow could cost them the series. Hopefully, with the Eastern conference now sewn up, they can give Chara (and Bergeron and Kelly and Campbell and Krejci...) a few days off to hopefully recharge his legs a bit.

But baring that, and assuming the Bruins stay healthy, at this point, there is no good reason not to expect the best.