The Wrestler's Cruel Study: Opening thoughts on style and structure

The Wrestler's Cruel Study: Opening thoughts on style and structure

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month's selection, Stephen Dobyns’ The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.

Leonard Pierce: I was introduced to The Wrestler’s Cruel Study by a friend of mine who was a fan of Stephen Dobyns’ poetry. This friend knew my tastes pretty well, especially my love of tricky narrative devices and stories that successfully blend “high” and “low” culture (something we’ll talk about later in this space), and he hit the target dead-on with this one. I make no secret of it being one of my favorite books; while Dobyns is thematically all over the map—aside from being an excellent poet, he’s written a large number of detective stories set in the world of horse racing, and a handful of Stephen King-esque horror novels—he’s never done anything this unique and wonderful, before or since. 

Those of you who have finished the book know what it’s about, as far as it goes: a hulking but gentle-minded professional wrestler, Michael “Marduk” Marmaduke, sets out on a quest to find his girlfriend, the impossibly pure Rose White, who has been kidnapped by a pair of gorillas. In the course of this quest, he is drawn into a strange underworld of feuding gangs of Christian heretics who are somehow connected to his job with the Wrestling Association. It’s a simple enough story—almost simple-minded—but the depth of meaning in the book is hinted at in the names and the shadings of ancient myth, fairy tales, and religion. But most of that comes later: what nailed me from the very start is the way the story is told.

The Wrestler’s Cruel Study begins memorably, with a line that’s both gripping in its originality and reminiscent of antiquity: “First of all we need a place to stand.” Unlike in Then We Came To The End, the quirky narrative voice doesn’t drive the entire story; in fact, given how odd it really is—it sounds almost like a guided reading by a teacher, or even more so, an extended story pitch to a movie producer—it quickly becomes comfortable to my read, almost a winking amplification of the omniscient narrator. The difference, the wink, is in how it tips itself: that voice is constantly reminding us we’re in a story, dropping in its own opinions, using narrative and theatrical and cinematic language to forever call attention to its own artificiality. In other words, it places this novel firmly (and wonderfully) in the dreaded camp of postmodernism.

There’s no doubt that the structure and style of The Wrestler’s Cruel Study is gleefully postmodern. It turns back on itself, it makes no secret of its willingness to keep secrets in service of the story (it’s not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable narrative), it taunts our desire to not know we’re in a work of fiction by constantly pointing out the nails in the backdrop, and it even has a little self-mocking fun in the person of the literary theorists DeMaus, Vogel, and Sosage. But for me, it’s second only to Don DeLillo’s White Noise as the book I’d put in the hands of anyone with an aversion to pomo storytelling to prove to them how great the approach can be when skillfully executed. The language is gorgeous (I was hooked from the second page, where the man on the balcony imagines tipping over skyscrapers like dominoes to avenge his cuckolding), the book pulls off the extremely difficult feat of combining a light, fast-paced story with profound philosophical content, and, to me anyway, the cleverness of the story, and the narrative’s constant metafictional play, is always in service of the book, and not a distraction from it.

But what did you think, A.V. Club comrades and readers? Did you find the book’s postmodernist trickery, its deliberately intrusive structure and narrative, enjoyable, or annoying? Did it strike you as funny and clever, or too clever for its own good?

(By the way, I would highly recommend—to anyone who hasn’t already read it—Roland Barthes’ brilliant short essay on professional wrestling, “The World Of Wrestling.” Dobyns makes brief reference to it in the book notes, but its theories infuse the whole narrative; I’ve rarely encountered an essay that complements a novel so well. I’d actually advise reading it before finishing the book, though that’s probably a moot point now. It’s available in Barthes’ must-read collection, Mythologies, or can be found on the web on the web here.

Donna Bowman: Thanks for choosing this fascinating book, Leonard. I’m going to keep my comments short here, since I imagine there will be many chances to get my two cents in this week. I can see why you love this book, which is one of the wonderful things about Wrapped Up In Books. I enjoy seeing through the eyes of my colleagues and the readers, and even if I didn’t have the same experience, I can appreciate their passion.

Now I don’t mind an über-archetypal plot. I don’t mind a quest, I don’t mind a Gimmick. I’ll go so far as to say I love those things, and tend to defend them against all comers when they are worn on their sleeve. I suppose you could characterize my problem with this particular presentation as a difficulty with the ludic nature of it all. Maybe I am missing entirely what Dobyns is doing, but I have a hard time caring about the plot and characters. They are so meta, so pomo, so constructed and deconstructed to within an inch of their lives. Is Dobyns serious about anything? Is anything at all at stake here?

It’s possible that I’m asking the wrong question. You delighted in the cleverness; I despaired at the joke. Wrestling is certainly an apt metaphor here. It is something false played as if it were true. One hint of irony, and the whole thing disintegrates. That’s why Andy Kaufman’s wrestling career was so brilliantly destructive of the enterprise. He never let on whether he was performing a joke, just like wrestling does not, and the two jokes were on a collision course… who would blink first? Dobyns, it seems to me, lets us in on the joke. And I thought that was a mistake.

Tasha Robinson: We’ve seen over time that my tastes generally align more with Donna’s than with Leonard’s—even when Leonard and I do like the same things, we tend to like them for different reasons, and more often, we’re on opposite sites of the board entirely—but The Wrestler’s Cruel Study was a definite exception for me. I have to disagree with Donna on this one. I absolutely loved this book; it’s my favorite Wrapped Up book so far. And I particularly loved the wryly self-aware pomo aspects of the narrative.

Yes, it goes entirely over the top. In one of my favorite bits, the omniscient third-person narration cringes away from a firefight, feeling threatened:

“Now let us look down from the ceiling. We watch the action from a spot near one of the forced-hot-air heaters. The room is smoky and we think there must be a fire but then we see that one of the Snakes is throwing smoke bombs from the door… several bullets have struck the forced-air heater to our left even though we chose this position because of its ostensible safety.”

That is patently ridiculous. But here’s the primary reason it worked for me: That particular narrative device is used sparingly. It isn’t run into the ground; Dobyns makes the joke and then moves on to something else. Even the straight version of the third-person narration (a device I normally hate) is only intermittent. Dobyns keeps trying out new styles here, moving rapidly between them like a hummingbird at play, and for me, he rarely lit in one place long enough to wear out a joke. (There’s one major exception, but it seems like I’m not alone there, and we’ll get to that tomorrow.)

One of the biggest reasons I marveled at this book is that the style is constantly shifting, and yet the plot threads mostly stay coherent and consistent. We’re flying through the air in third person one minute and stuffed inside someone’s head the next, flitting between POVs rapidly and getting core-dumps of exposition every few pages, and yet most of the plates which Dobyns sets spinning, he remembers to come back to. And I thought the results were pretty breathless. As intrigued as I was by Violet White’s plot and Michael’s dilemma, I was more caught up in the fairy-tale-inspired questions of whether Wally Wallski would stand up to his wife before she led him to doom, or whether Zapo would achieve his Frog Prince quest to become Beacon Luz’s pal, or what would become of the dancing celebrants at their bacchanal.

And here’s the thing: At first, I had no idea what kind of book I was reading, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Then Rose White was kidnapped by talking gorillas, and I thought “Oh, it’s a comic-book story.” Then Wally Wallski’s story started up, and I thought “No, wait, it’s a fairy-tale pastiche.” Then we hit that line above with the cringing narration, and I thought “Okay, it’s a pomo self-aware novel.” And then we encounter the dueling schism gangs, and I finally realized… We’re in an Alan Moore story. Like Moore—and no one else I’ve read until now—Dobyns incorporates comic-book tropes, familiar but re-framed elements of myth, deep philosophy (which may all just be cornball babbling), huge symbols, as-above-so-below parallel goofery, and a whole lot of intelligent thought put into making things seem playful and simple. From then on in, I stopped questioning and surfed the wave, and I found it hard to put the book down.

My only regret? We never really find out what’s up with those talking gorillas, do we? It’s one of the few places where I felt Dobyns threw out a hook and never reeled it in.

Ellen Wernecke

Leonard, I'd never heard of this book before you brought it to the table, and I feel I have been remiss. At the risk of trivializing, I found the novel completely cartoonish, but in a way that was pleasant and even moderately suspenseful at times. While I was unable to take any of its plot points seriously, I had a very good time reading it -- and I'm sad to hear that it's unique among the Dobyns canon as you say.

Early in the book, Primus (I believe) mentions how the announced statistics of his wrestlers are always an exaggeration of their real attributes, and the book constantly plays with how people take on roles (or Gimmicks, or Masks) that are or aren't limiting to them. My awareness of the narrator as a gimmick didn't detract from my enjoyment of the story at all -- but it did throw me into a heightened state where all I could see was the Gimmicks and the Masks. Marduk is an exaggeration of a man, a gentle giant who flips between his tremendous strength and kittenish temperament, from being sophisticated enough to master complex scripts for his performances and so naive he can't fathom why anyone would accuse him of kidnapping his own fiancée. But in my head I always pictured him as a literal cartoon character, a bundle of strokes and colors. (Maybe more of a "Triplets of Belleville" sketch than a Disney prince, though.) Of course, some of the characters wear their roles better than others -- I found Claudine Wallski's appearances and actions particularly grating, as well as some minor characters I'll get into later on in the discussion -- but

So I guess I fall on the other side of Donna's analysis, in that I felt that there weren't really any stakes and didn't particularly care if cartoon virgin Rose White would be rescued, but that didn't affect my enjoyment of the book. I'm not surprised that, having split on Little, Big, we would find each other on the opposite sides of this book, which I felt captured some of the magic of that book's New York City-set section -- the sense of the city as a patchwork quilt of wildly differing environments and the whiplash-inducing transit between them -- without particularly forcing me to care about any of them. Despite the explicit direction of the narration in this book, I never felt like it was forced.

Todd VanDerWerff: I rather enjoyed The Wrestler's Cruel Study, but I kept wondering if that was all there was. And I guess that having a novel that kept me turning the pages in anticipation of just what was to come next and made me laugh several times should be enough, but the novel sets such high stakes for itself - attempting, at times, to seemingly compress the entirety of post-Christian philosophical thought into the space of a novel - that I was surprised it was so light and fun. That may end up just being me bringing my own expectations to things too much, but I can safely say I really liked this one without loving it. Much of this has to do with characters, which I'll deal with later in the week, but a good deal of it has to do with the structure as well.

Basically, the novel really, really reminded me of the TV show Lost. It's steeped in lots of arcane philosophical and theological esoterica, and it involves basically guileless types ending up trapped in a mystical war being carried out among a bunch of different groups that said types can never understand as much as they'd like. Michael Marmaduke is sort of an audience surrogate, I guess, in that he never fully grasps just what's going on all around him, but I never felt that his quest was the driving force it needed to be. It was more a way for the novel to animate itself, a way to put the pieces in motion. I never cared about him as much as I care about the hapless folks on Lost.

But, as I said, I really liked the novel. And I found myself liking the other bits with the other characters much more than I liked some of the other things in the book, even as I hated things like, say, Claudine (the single biggest problem with the novel) or how little we know Rose White beyond being a damsel in distress. (But more about this later.) I liked the way classic motifs from myth, legend and fairy tale just dropped in out of nowhere in 1990s New York City. I liked the way the novel was always willing to make fun of itself. I rather loved the narrative voice, the way it would flip back between that "we" and a more common third person and then Primus' constant hectoring of the reader (which I really enjoyed).

But it's a novel of ideas before it's anything else. I get that this is something that can work, and I've loved many a novel of ideas. But everything here always felt so thin to me that it was pretty much just an excuse to express the novel's philosophies. And that requires some new spin on either the novel form - which I think Leonard is arguing this is (and I guess I don't disagree) - or some really cool and new takes on philosophy, which the novel doesn't have. This is all stuff, right down to the religious heresies, that most people who've done reading on the topics at hand will have heard of before. And while it's fun to see Nietzsche's teachings applied to an action-adventure, comic book type narrative, I kept waiting for there to be more there there, and there just never was.

Emily Withrow: I don't have any history with Wrapped Up In Books to cite here as precedent, but I'm certainly a sucker for books that surprise me, and I put a lot of stock into the first sentence. So I loved the calculating, self-aware narrator who appears in the first few pages, nodding to the almost arbitrary selection of a "place to stand" as a starting point, obliged by literary tradition to establish a setting and viewpoint from which to begin the narration, establishing scene while telling us that "all senses are being addressed."

But as I crammed the reading of this book into a two-day window, I often found myself irritated by that same narrator getting in the way of the story's progression. It's deliberately intrusive, as Leonard said, and hell bent on pulling me out of the story again and again to remind me that I'm reading a story. Postmodern, yes. Disruptive, yes. The royal We grated on me at times, lumping me in when I wasn't always willing. I understand that the narrative technique doesn't really allow for this, but I often wanted him to hush and get on with the story. I even came to dread turning the page to a new chapter--a strange sensation--because I knew that roughly 50 percent of that time, the new chapter would pull back to a "we," a "let us," or a question. (I'll admit that sometimes these questions were great. I preferred the "Do you like my mustache" and "Do you admire my pinky ring" variety to the "Are most people unchanging throughout their lives" variety.) The narration also seemed awkwardly expository at time, slamming home points that were already quite obvious. "Even in their curses they are destined to duplicate each other," for example, appears just after a series of similar curses.

Ultimately, I fell hard for the Cruel Study, but it really was  in spite of those postmodern interruptions. I loved the collision of Christian heretics, fairy tale riffs, and comic-book exaggerations. Like Tasha, I preferred many of the minor characters to the main action, curious about Wally Wallski's subservient status and spoiled Beacon Luz's crossover to hormone therapy. These caricatures (what I read as masks, initially) grew into characters without me realizing it, and I found myself genuinely looking forward to their chapters.

Zack Handlen: I can't think of a Wrapped Up In Books selection that has turned on me as neatly and completely as The Wrestler's Cruel Study, and, with respect to Leonard and everyone else who enjoyed this book, that turn wasn't a pleasant one. I found the opening self-conscious and sort of gawky, but endearingly so, and that Dobyns committed to that self-referential style of writing throughout, essentially reminding us that we're reading a novel every few paragraphs, impressed me. It was as if I could feel the effort of him creating the world, playful or not, because the process of creation was so inorganic. Characters weren't introduced so much as intellectualized out of thin air, and it was a gleeful experience to take part in. I enjoyed Muldoon's occasional narration, I enjoyed the dissection of wrestler politics and the campy, fever-dream intensity of the city. I didn't latch on to any of the leading figures, because there wasn't a whole lot to latch on to, and I never felt I was engaged by a cohesive fictive environment (I'm not sure if I have a problem with post-modernism or not, because I dearly love books that are aware they are books, but that loose, too-many-spaces feeling may be an inherent aspect of the movement), but I didn't mind. It was a enthusiastic con from a clever, insightful con-man, and I could dig it.

But then Michael started stumbling across the gnostic sects, and Wally fell into that awful, draggy problem with his wife, and the pleasure I got from the story died. The momentum of the first hundred or so pages died too, and I found myself turning on all the commentary and endless, tedious discussion. Tasha, you've said that the clear analog between Wally's plight and a similar fairy tale made reading Claudine's one-note shrewing easy to take: for me, realizing what structure I was in made it just the opposite. And as for the philosophy, I had no problems with Muldoon's commentary, but the endless cycling of gangs and their religious presumptions became difficult for me to read after a while. Michael wasn't fully realized enough for me to care much about his quest, and without that through line to hold on to, the narrative dissolved into talking head after talking head. In a different context, I might've found their lectures interesting, but here, it just didn't work for me. 

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