The favors I owe Brian Phillips are beginning to stack up. First, he wrote an excellent piece comparing FIFA and FIBA for my blog, 48 Minutes of Hell. Now he has taken time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about Brooklyn Asylum F.C., a serial novel about American soccer in the 1920s he is steadily publishing at his site the Run Of Play. If you're new to the Run Of Play, it's a bit like getting drunk with Lionel Messi in a bookstore in Nuevo Laredo, only to wake up, roll over, and say, "Oh my God, I wasn't dreaming. That's Lionel Messi. And he's wearing nothing but briefs."
But let's leave sexual experimentation in border towns for another day. Here's my conversation with Brian Phillips.
When did you first have the idea to write a novel about soccer?
About two minutes into my first experience of reading about American soccer in the 1920s. I had been reading for two minutes, and I was about halfway through, and then suddenly a small light bulb went on over my head (a fluorescent, because my ideas are pretty worried about the environment), and I thought, "this should be a novel." Actually, that's not even true. First I thought, "this should be a movie." Then I thought, "this should be a novel that I sell to someone who will make it into a movie." Then, following the inevitable creative trajectory of our time, I thought "this should be a blog post." It just seemed so amazing that American fans were cheering for soccer teams at the exact moment that Lou Gehrig was smoking a cigarette and gazing with clear, steady eyes into a marvelous American sunset.
Are you writing it as you go, or is Brooklyn Asylum F.C. complete and merely being published over time?
I am writing it as I go. I have a vague idea of what I think should happen, but I haven't really bothered to write down a story. Honestly, I don't see how this is possibly going to work. If you're following this novel, it's going to end badly for both of us.
What about fiction is helpful in capturing the wonder and terror of soccer?
Well, for one thing, modern celebrity culture is pretty clearly an attempt to outsource a kind of authoritative aesthetic power that was divorced from politics at around the time George Washington got walrus dentures. That is, a long time ago, a duke told you what to do, and you did it, partly because he was going to kill you with a sword if you didn't, but also partly because your clothes were made out of straw and he was just indisputably shiny. He didn't even have clothes, he had "raiment." You were going to mow his lawn. "We are the makers of manners, Kate," as King Henry V said to Kate. Then democracy came along, and people realized it was stupid to submit to the church just because Bach used to polish their organ and they had a gigantic roof. But that weird sense of beauty as an efficacious power didn't just dissipate. It flowed into some other areas of society where, granted, it could no longer kill you with a sword, but it was still there, and that's a really bizarre and terrible thing to think about. A lot of people who could be persuaded to support a military draft probably wouldn't feel right about including George Clooney in it. George Clooney is special. It's like very, very white steel in the hour of chaos.
So, one thing you can say about all that is that insofar as sports is a part of modern celebrity culture, it's a repository of that phenomenon, which is one reason why the government would like to convince you that the NFL is a branch of the armed services ranking just higher than the Air Force. Another thing you can say is that the relation between aesthetics and power is a subject of intrinsic interest to the novel, which is at once the most democratic and leveling form of literature and a source of aesthetic intensity with the power to move you by extrarational means. (Think of all those people voting against the Corn Tax because Little Hortense died in Dickens.) So I think fiction can help capture the wonder and terror of soccer because, to a greater extent than nonfiction, it possesses some of that wonder and terror itself - you invest in a fictional character in an even more intimate way than you invest in George Clooney or, God help you, John Terry. And also because, by virtue of its preoccupation with both human consciousness and social relations, it's very well positioned to say how people feel and act around soccer, which, if you think about it, nonfiction generally doesn't do at all except by reference to a few accepted cliches.
Is there an element of the game that can only truly be understood through fiction?
I wouldn't say that. I think I'd say that the same elements can be understood differently through fiction.
Are there any other works of fiction - whether they be about soccer, another sport, or something else entirely - from which you draw inspiration? If so, how have those works affected you?
There is no fiction about sport that I consciously draw inspiration from. I love Dickens's depiction of the cricket game in The Pickwick Papers, but drawing inspiration from it would be like taking a drink from the firehose that MIT kids used to have to drink out of for homework. In trying to find the voice for BAFC, I've been diligently plagiarizing pulp noirs, Dorothy Sayers, Fitzgerald essays, Flaming Youth, jazz biographies, old newspaper reports, P.G. Wodehouse, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Around the World In Eighty Days, Arthur Conan Doyle, Lovecraft, Mencken, Dorothy Parker, and a style of 1930s screwball comedy dialogue that I strongly suspect had its roots in 1920s plays. But most of the time, I'm just trying to get something down by 4:30. So I don't always have time to go into the other room for a book.
Is this your first foray into fiction writing?
No. My first, magnificently incomplete foray into fiction writing was fired into space by NASA in 2005 to alter the approach vector of an incoming comet. A tragedy for us all, really, except for the fact that we survived. I've heard that the charred remains of page 875 recently fluttered to earth near the outskirts of an Indonesian village, so perhaps there's still some hope.
Why Brooklyn? Why the 1920s? While we're at it, why America? What have we yet to learn about and from soccer in the United States?
Brooklyn because it's the soccer of boroughs. The 1920s because of the amazing fact that soccer was relatively popular in the U.S. during this decade, but crashed spectacularly at the end of it and was never the same again. I don't think many people know the story, because afterwards soccer became the ultimate sport of foreign exchange students and boys with bangs who know how to jump off diving boards, but there was a moment when people thought that soccer and not the NFL would become the country's second-favorite sport after baseball. And America because... well, for one thing, I'm American.
Beyond that, though, the last century has been the era of both American global dominance and soccer's rise as overwhelmingly the most popular sport in the world. And surprisingly, those things haven't really overlapped. America is a sports-mad country with an overwhelming influence on global popular culture, and yet the most popular sport on earth is something that we've never had all that much to do with. So I think soccer can serve as a really intriguing metaphor for America's relation to the rest of the world. And the fact that the game once had a stronger footing here and is more rooted in American history than most people assume just strikes me as the basis of a pretty entertaining narrative situation.
Why did you decide to include songs along with the chapters of your novel? Do you think you might be at the forefront of a new, more deeply textured way of experiencing fiction?
Well, no, I definitely don't think that I'm at the forefront of a new way of experiencing fiction. I haven't read really any other fiction online, but I'm sure it's there and that someone else has already thought to put audio files with it. I decided to include the songs because I didn't want this to turn into the sort of Weighty Historical Fiction Project in which every last detail of the subject era has to be meticulously brought to life across 700 painstakingly researched pages. As a child, I was afraid of nothing except James Clavell, and the sight of that katana hilt poking out across the cracked paperback cover of Shogun made me determined to go a different way in life. And I remembered that when I read Ulysses, listening to music from the era gave me a very vivid sense of early-20th-century Dublin, much more so than I got from the book alone. And the 20s was obviously an era of wonderful music. So I guess, in conclusion, I have read Ulysses. So there.
So, the World Cup, huh? How 'bout that?
I'm looking forward to it. I'm also enjoying the brief window of respectability that befalls American soccer writers in the three months surrounding a World Cup. I'd like to go on the record with the prediction that if we beat England, the English media will report a 500% increase in their own rate of publishing stories about what a terrible job South Africa is doing with the tournament.
"Write the Future": What do you think? Do you like it? More generally, do you like the role advertising plays in the way we mythologize our athletes?
I think "Write the Future" is blocky and confused and says very little about anything except Nike's desire to persuade me that they know what YouTube is. And I'm still not sure! That said, I didn't like Babel or 21 Grams either, so maybe I just have an Inarritu problem.
Generally, no, I don't like the role advertising plays in the way we mythologize our athletes. Most ads, to the extent that they even try to fulfill that function, seem to conclude that we should mythologize athletes on the basis of the fact that they're in the ad. Michael Jordan is such a good basketball player, we've placed him near this comical commentary on what a good basketball player he is! Or on the other hand, Michael Jordan is such a good basketball player that we have decided to use extremely slow motion on a highlight of him playing basketball well. Neither approach really says anything about the player apart from the fact that he's doing advertising. Neither does the soccer-ad staple of showing a highly stylized, exaggeratedly grim game with lots of swoopy camera angles. It's like a terrible mixture of pro wrestling and applied semiotics. Shoe companies don't really care about sports.
Is Arsenal (Arsenal F.C.!) by far the greatest team the world has ever seen?
Which Arsenal FC? Arsenal de Sarandi? Yeah, they're okay.
(Author's Note: Brian is being difficult. He knows quite well that Arsenal is by far the greatest team the world has ever seen. For Chrissakes, we've got Cesc Fabregas! Well, for the time being anyways.)
[Graydon Gordian is a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He is the founder and editor of 48 Minutes of Hell, a San Antonio Spurs blog. His work has been published by Hardwood Paroxysm, TrueHoop, the Rumble, the Huffington Post, Politics Daily, the Military Times, and UPI. To read more by Graydon, check out his profile.]
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