That each moment deserves to be contemplated and mined for meaning is an idea that persists throughout Chris Bachelder’s latest novel, The Throwback Special, which is currently being serialized throughout four issues of The Paris Review. The novel revolves around a group of middle-aged men who gather annually to reenact the 1985 NFL game in which Joe Theismann violently fractured his leg on live television, a moment that dismayed the entire football-watching country and one Bachelder remembers well (ESPN would later dub it the “Most Shocking Moment in History”). It’s a premise that risks ridiculousness, but then again, the first two installments of The Throwback Special have proved to be full of absurdity, turning the mundane into the whimsical, veering from riotous humor to melancholia in a single paragraph. With slow, magnifying prose, Bachelder pays equal attention to — and conflates — both the revelatory and the banal, and achieves a tremendous sense of life.
Over email, Bachelder discussed comedy and tragedy, the Theismann injury and the utter literariness of not getting what you want — and liking it.
Zach Hatfield: How do you begin to write a novel?
Chris Bachelder: Typically I have some basic premise that I am committed to, and typically it takes me quite some time to figure out what to do with it. The challenges are point of view, voice, structure — ways to execute and dramatize the conceit. Lest this sound coldly technical or conceptual, I should say that the conceit, if it is promising at all, is not just an idea but a set of tonally charged associations. The premises that tend to remain in my mind as possibilities tend to be those that are tonally complex. There is no element of craft that is more important to me than tone, and I work best when I’m working with a tone that is somehow at odds with itself, or at odds with the subject matter, or both. I tend not to do very much with plot or event. One of the reasons that the Theismann injury is interesting to me is because it is tonally charged — it contains both brutality and nostalgia. And the men who convene annually to reenact the play might be ridiculous, but their reasons for gathering are fundamental and human.
So I generally have a central conceit, but it takes me a year or two to stumble upon the variables of stance and approach that allow me to enter the project and make something of it. For my last three novels, I’ve begun with a short story. I wasn’t sure I had a novel at all, and I was testing out the premise. In all three cases, the story failed. I’m not being falsely modest here. These were real failures. And it might sound perverse, but in each case I thought, “Well, this failed at 25 pages, but I think maybe it could work at 200 or 300.” It’s mostly the case that I trusted that my central idea had real promise if I could only find the right way to proceed. I was unable to let it go. That’s always a bad period, by the way, full of frustration and self-doubt and false starts. But once I get going, I tend to write fairly quickly and energetically.
When you were writing the novel, did you know it would be serialized, and if so, did this in any way shape how you wrote it?
No, I had no idea. Serialization was proposed in April, after the book was completed and in galley. The novel was originally scheduled for November publication, but it was moved back to March so there would be time for four installments. I doubt I could have written very well if I knew I was writing for serialization. I think it would have warped the book. It would have made me too conscious of plot and suspense, which are not my strengths as a writer and certainly not the most salient features of this novel.
We live in a culture where an entire TV series or filmography can be devoured in a single week or less. At a time when fiction seems to be one of the last mediums that requires an attention span, The Washington Post recently called for the revival of serialized novels, claiming it would help galvanize conversation about particular works and trump a now-tired advertising formula. What do you think serializing a novel adds to the fiction reading experience?
Certainly, serialization can be seen as a publicity or marketing strategy, a way to bring attention to books, to create buzz and chatter. Most books have a tiny window of opportunity to get noticed, and serialization slows everything down. Generally speaking, I’m all for slowing things down. But there is a larger point to be made here about the reading experience. Reading fiction is in some sense all about not getting what you want, or at least about pitting your desires against the implacable will of the book (or its author, I suppose). When reading, I want certain things to happen — simplistically, I want the protagonist to prevail — but the interesting thing is that I don’t really want to get what I want. There’s somehow a pleasure in being at the mercy of a good book, which both arouses and ignores our strong feelings. The book doesn’t care what we want. If we got what we wanted, books would be pretty dull, so it must be the case that what we actually want is to not get what we want. (Perhaps our superficial desires are for something happy, but our deeper desires are for something that feels true and real.) And what I’m speculating is that serialization might in some ways extend this dynamic, this tension between the book and the reader. We might want to keep reading the book, but we can’t because it’s not available yet. This is frustrating, yes, but isn’t it a kind of pleasurable frustration? Getting everything you want — say, watching an entire season of a TV series over a weekend — might seem like a wonderful thing. We have freedom and control, but there’s also something depressing and spiritually dissatisfying about the binge and buffet. I think there is something distinctly literary about not getting what you want (and liking it).
The first installation seems to introduce a sort of farcical investigation of a common novel subject, the midlife crisis. Its humor definitely will produce out-loud laughter, but it also has a strand of sadness and ennui. Why choose this as your topic? Who are your influences when it comes to literary humor, and how might comedy help complement tragedy in fiction?
I began with a keen interest in writing about the Joe Theismann injury, and very gradually the injury became my context, not my subject. I didn’t set out to write about the melancholy bewilderment of middle-aged men, but that’s where I ended up. My natural inclination is toward humor — I can’t imagine writing a novel that is not essentially comic — but as I’ve gotten older I’ve become less interested in zany gags or antic satire. We actually don’t have great ways of talking about the varieties of comic modes, so I don’t even know what to call it. In my mind, The Throwback Special is not satire. What I’m after is tonal complexity, a precise and probing narrative voice that contains paradox and ambivalence so that the humor is inextricably connected to sorrow, grief, frustration. Tone can’t necessarily replace plot, but it can create friction and energy and forward movement. Many of the funniest books I know are also exceptionally sad. I admire the humor in the work of George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Lewis Nordan, Padgett Powell, Mary Robison, Barry Hannah, Tom Drury, Donald Antrim, Sam Lipsyte. Kurt Vonnegut is a hero. It’s Vonnegut who said that the biggest laughs are based on the biggest disappointments and biggest fears.
The tonal complexity is what makes everything so absorbing and lifelike, but also at times invites the ridiculous. This observation seemed to stick with me in particular: “Robert began to mend the chin strap, which had split longitudinally when he snapped it on last year. The white of the thread matched closely, though not exactly, the white of the chin strap.” The first installment is full of sentences like these. What do you think minutiae in fiction can offer?
These small, vivid touches are one big reason I come to fiction, as both a writer and reader. I find great pleasure in precise articulation and description. It’s a recognition of the everyday world, and I suppose I think it’s a way to redeem what is mundane and overlooked. The inessential, as it turns out, is essential. When I read a writer who is attentive to the small stuff of the world, I feel that the fiction comes alive. I begin to believe in the made-up world because it is clear that the author believes in it. The observation is a kind of proof or evidence. I prefer slow pacing; I like the sense that the writer is not in a great hurry to go anywhere or to push the story forward. Close attention makes the fictional world shimmer a bit. Objects take on a glow or a hum. In Six Memos Calvino writes that all objects in fiction, even contemporary realist fiction, are magical. It’s a kind of residue from fairy tales and myths, with their enchanted rings and swords. As a reader, I just crave the sense that the author is paying close attention, really seeing, and thereby investing the world with energy.
When you move slowly, when you articulate precisely, you create a strong sense of mood and atmosphere, and you also do character work. In the passage you quote above, I’m paying absurd attention to the chin strap in part because it illuminates Robert. There is a kind of “contagion” effect here, in which the qualities of prose can spread to the character without direct attribution of thought or speech. The fastidious, finicky quality of the writing is a reflection of Robert’s consciousness. It’s not simply some narrator who is a freak about the color of the thread. It’s Robert that readers can see here. He’s a guy who would very much prefer that the whites matched, but who can live with this small discrepancy. Readers could feel, I hope, his simultaneous satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Maybe I’m making fun of him, but I hope that’s not all I’m doing. I’m trying to honor his habits of vision and thought. And in a larger sense, the men’s ritual is very much about control and accuracy. One hopes that these small moments connect to the larger currents of the book without being overtly or merely symbolic.
I think there are writers who attempt to propel and writers who attempt to arrest, and I think there are readers who prefer to be propelled and readers who prefer to be arrested. Obviously, I would prefer to arrest and be arrested, perhaps in part because in everyday life I feel so inattentive and scattered. Fiction can focus my attention, slow me down, make me more mindful and aware.
Did you watch the Joe Theismann play as it happened on television?
Yes. I was 14. It occurs to me that I probably wouldn’t have written this novel if I hadn’t seen the play. Because I saw it, the play somehow “belongs” to me. And I suppose that I belong to that group of people who saw it.
I read something Dan Dierdorf said about the Theismann incident: “That night, what you saw was so graphic, and when you watch something that’s so far out of the normal, you just gag, but you almost can’t help watching it again and again.” Even as context and not subject, is that something you’re interested in as a novelist, dilating on this couple of seconds that, although intensely unwatchable, has been watched millions of times on the Internet?
The play is just five seconds long, but it has extraordinary density and power. It’s like some kind of astronomical event. Basketball and soccer are fluid, but football has these discrete units of action. I’m interested in the single play as an event that both teams try to control with rigorous order and strategy, but that often devolve into chaos and contingency. That’s a nice metaphor, perhaps, for life or middle age or even novel writing. You have a grand design, you line everything up neatly, then you try to execute and everything gets messy and wildly unpredictable and dangerous. Football is a game that illuminates the tensions between radical order and radical disorder. When a play ends, players are scattered and strewn all over the field, but then they gather in a tidy huddle and set up another orderly play.
Even if you know nothing about Lawrence Taylor or Theismann or the NFC East or the 1985 season or what quarter it was or what the score was, you still have this visceral reaction to this gruesome injury. You can still feel the terrible randomness and chaos. It opens up the awful possibility in our minds that any single play — or any single plan or design — could end up like this. All of this interests me, and the play is useful to me as a writer because it’s so contained and discrete. It’s not like trying to write about an entire game or an entire season.
So the play itself is circumscribed and dramatic, but the novel is primarily concerned with it as a locus of nostalgia for these middle-aged men. There is something almost primitively spiritual about their desire to reenact this disastrous play. They are trying to control and perfect and master an event that starkly represents chaos and chance and mayhem. It’s almost like they are trying to fend off evil spirits. You could say they are silly and immature, but I do hope there is some poignancy in their underlying (and largely unacknowledged) motives.
You wrote McSweeney’s first e-book in 2004 — then what could be considered a look toward the future of literature — and now you’ve gone back to the much older format of serialization. What’s next for you? Is experimenting with form and how fiction is consumed something you’re actively interested in pursuing?
Form is always of great interest to me, and I’m definitely interested in experimenting with formal and technical elements of the novel. My earlier work was much more ostentatious in its so-called experimentalism, and I’m probably less interested now in overt structural antics. I’d like to be a bit more subtle, and I’d like to think in terms of experimenting with point of view or tone or narrative movement. The truth is, every novelist is always experimenting, and on the other hand real innovation is pretty rare.
As for the experiments in publication, that’s not something I ever think much about. I wrote the e-book, at least initially, as a regular book, and I wrote the serialized book as a regular book. I did not set out to do anything unusual or experimental with publication. Those possibilities were introduced by editors and publishers, and I was more than happy to go along with them. So I don’t actively pursue new modes of publishing, but I’m certainly flexible. Mostly I’m just grateful that the work is made available.
Zack Hatfield is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati. His work has appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus and Entropy, among others.