Friday, 23 May 2014

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover

This is one weird book. But I liked it a lot.

Two personal personality quirks might account for this:

1) The main character has created an entire fantasy baseball league, and is in the process of playing out year 56. Not with real players. Entirely created and maintained and imagined by J. Henry Waugh, Prop. Years are played out, deaths are mourned, injuries happen, he creates complete lives for each player, all centered around the game of baseball.

When I was younger, I used to do something similar, also using dice. Not baseball, but I remember creating whole little villages using my mother's trolls, and figuring out relationships and how friendships and marriages rose and fell according to the how the dice rolled. These games never lasted longer than a couple of days, but I get Henry's urge to create a world like this.

2) It's about baseball. And I love baseball. Some people don't, that's fine. But it is a three hour oasis in the day, it's a sport where an entire narrative is created each and every time they step on the field, it plays into larger storylines of teams winning and losing, and there is something about it that lends itself to ascending to the status of myth.

My father loved baseball, and since his death three years ago, my entire family has gotten more into it, to honour his memory, or his favourite sport, or something. And we all genuinely enjoy it. We go on weekend trips to see our team. I called my sister to tell her that one of her favourite players had been traded last week, and later she emailed me that "we don't speak of her loss." I don't watch every game, but I watch a good deal of many games.

So there are those things that predisposed me to like this book. The book itself is another, as it is a tale of how the stories Henry creates take over his life, become more real to him than real. As a study in obsession, the writing is hypnotic. Not only the teams, but the league politics, the barroom carousing, the off-field lives of all of his players, past and present, come alive.

When the game comes to a head in its 56th year, when the worst possible outcome on the Super Extraordinary Circumstances chart occurs, Henry is almost shattered. Should he give up the game? How can he restore balance to the universe? Where do his responsibilities to his creation lie?

The last chapter blew my mind. It takes place entirely within the world Henry created, and one player speculates on their being an outside force that created their world, set the rules in place, watches over everything that happens. And what has happened between the last and penultimate chapters is only implied, but fairly unsettling. It feels a lot like Shirley Jackson's The Lottery.

I feel that a certain knowledge and love of baseball might be necessary to get into this book, as jargon and statistics fly fast and free. But if it is a sport that you enjoy, this is a strange and wonderful look at baseball and obsession.

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