The Wrestler's Cruel Study: meaning and final thoughts
Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. This is the final post on Stephen Dobyns’ The Wrestler’s Cruel Study. Join us today at 3:30 p.m. CST for a live online chat about the book—watch this space for a link.
Leonard Pierce: As we close out our discussion of Stephen Dobyn’s The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, I wanted to discuss a few things about the novel’s meaning, as well as address some issues that have come up in discussion. First off, it’s clear to anyone who reads it that the book is meant as a philosophical work—at the very least, a book that is about philosophy, if not an actual book of philosophy. I’ve also noted that I think it’s very successful in doing something that not only appeals to me as a reader, but which I think is vital to the current era of fiction, which is erasing what I think is a largely artificial and harmful barrier between “high” and “low” culture.
What do I mean by this? I mean that Dobyns has succeeded in writing a book that takes fairly straightforward elements of “low” culture, or “entertainment,” such as the detective story, the milieu of professional wrestling, and the urban comedy of manners, and blends them with complex elements of “high” culture, or “literature,” such as philosophy, religion, transformation, and epiphany. What exactly is Dobyns trying to say, philosophically? I think, again, he’s really more writing about big ideas than writing the big ideas, but I still believe he manages to find interesting things to say about the perils (and the temptations) of dualism, the way that curiosity and comfort are largely incompatible, and the sacrifices people have to make when they decide that they want their ideas to have meaning in the world, rather than being mere abstractions.
Postmodernist literature very frequently, and not always unfairly, leaves itself open to the charge that it’s lacking in meaning, that it’s really more about things than about people. And Donna noted earlier that she found the book ludic, playful, and a bit slight, and wondered: what are the stakes? Why should we care about these characters, when Dobyns is using them as pieces on a game board to illustrate often-abstruse points? I can’t, and don’t want to, argue against the ludic nature of The Wrestler’s Cruel Study; that’s one of the things I love about it. And I certainly can’t deny the way the story and the characters are sometimes used as props in an overarching meta-narrative, though I do believe that’s part of what the book is about, and it wouldn’t be as good without it. But, especially re-reading it, I had no trouble relating to many of the characters as real humans with real problems and real access points of relation: Michael Marmaduke’s helplessness, frustration, and fear of the monster that change might make him into; Primus Muldoon’s savagely comic nature, and the way he is driven, like Nietzsche, to near-madness by the world’s unwillingness to conform to his view of it; Jack Molay’s well-meaning determination to turn belief into abstraction, which ironically blinds him to the essential attitudes of human nature that he hopes to instill.
I think the stakes work well on the level of any philosophical quest, and that Dobyns himself takes quite a risk (especially given how radically different The Wrestler’s Cruel Study is from the rest of his work) by telling that story successfully and then placing it in the context of a much more abstract framework. He tells a story that’s well-written in both a modern and a classical sense (the chapter describing Michael’s big bout at the Garden is absolutely gripping), that deftly blends humor and depth, and that introduces a number of memorable characters (especially, for me, Deep Rat, Primus Muldoon, and Jack Molay) that have stayed with me for years. Obviously, not everyone agrees, but that he does so in the context of a book that’s expressly and unashamedly postmodern makes it not only a great book, but a work that I use as an example of the potential of that much-maligned style.
Let’s hear everyone’s final pre-chat thoughts, and thanks a lot for letting me share the book with you.
Tasha Robinson: Throughout these discussions, I’ve compared Cruel Study to the works of Alan Moore and Tom Robbins. I’ll make one more comparison that kept coming to mind as I was reading: Voltaire’s Candide. Michael Marmaduke struck me as essentially a modern Candide, a tabula rasa hero attempting to navigate a manic, antic, often ridiculous world full of aggressively competing philosophies and tragedies. And the combination of cynicism in particular struck me as sharply similar. I suppose I cared more about the characters for themselves in Cruel Study than in Candide, though Michael himself was such a broad and uncomplicated type that I felt a lot more for the minor characters. But given how long Candide has endured as a piece of literature, with all Cruel Study’s supposed flaws—the lightness, the comedy, the broad tropes, the shallow game-piece characters, the sense that it’s more philosophic vehicle than character study, the sometimes distracting density of concept—I don’t see any reason why Cruel Study couldn’t endure as well. I’m not sure it speaks to its time as well, but it’s certainly more fun, at least if you happen to like talking gorillas.
Leonard, you've been eloquent in your defense and explication of the book, and you deserve credit for helping me see it in a different light. Your point that it's not writing the big ideas, but writing about the big ideas, is a good one. I don't think I'm knocking it for being derivative. If anything, its honesty about being derivative is a point in its favor. But the best observation you've made here in this final post is about that chapter describing the big Enuma Elish wrestling match. I was mesmerized by the way Dobyns seamlessly integrated the tropes of myth (the ones that, not coincidentally, become transmogrified into the doctrines of religion) into the realm of theater. It shouldn't have been a revelation, because what could be more obvious than this connection? But the way Dobyns did it, with grandeur and in that low-culture framework, completely snuck up on me. I wish all the chapters about riding with the Vals and the Toots had that quality, but probably I shouldn't complain. There was certainly greatness in this novel for me, even though I couldn't describe the work as a whole as great.
Zack Handlen: I've enjoyed everything we've read so far for this feature, and Cruel Study is no different. Whatever my problems with the book's more philosophical bent, it was fascinating to see how successfully Dobyns managed to take such a silly concept and give it real, undeniable weight. And I appreciated all the stylistic tricks and the enthusiasm he brought to the book, even if those tricks wore thin for me after a while. There were strong characters here, but I had a hard time holding on to them, and I was never fully enough invested in Michael's quest to save Rose White to make it through the various hardships he endured. Like Donna, I have to fall on the side of the critics who considered this a "high-minded trifle." And while I don't have anything against trifles, all that high-mindedness made it difficult for me to really get my teeth into anything. I appreciate how this feature keeps giving me a chance to explore novels outside anything I'd usually read on my own time, especially oddities like this one. And I may have to come back to Cruel Study when I have more time to appreciate its strengths. For right now, though, this was interesting, but count me among the unconverted.
Ellen Wernecke: I would never say that The Wrestler's Cruel Study was, as you set up, Leonard, lacking in meaning. As I've said before, the meaning wasn't front and center for me because I was having enough fun with the surface-level adventures that parsing the philosophical underpinnings wasn't as attractive to me. (Apart from the monologues of Primus Muldoon, which I think I heard running through my dreams the other night.) Still, and I cannot say this for every book we've touched on so far in Wrapped Up in Books, I am going to make a concerted effort to re-read this one in the next year or so, while it's still somewhat fresh but not too fresh. I think as it settles in my memory I'll be able to look beyond the archetypes and be willed -- or be willing? -- to get more invested in the philosophical work of the text.
Todd VanDerWerff: And now's the part where I talk about what I really liked about the book. I get that Primus Muldoon is basically just spouting Nietzsche all over the place, but I was fascinated by Nietzsche as an undergrad, and I love the way Dobyns brings it into the narrative here (in the mouth of the character who ended up being my favorite). That second chapter - which features Muldoon's long monologue about how he created all of his wrestlers - is a dazzler, and if I was disappointed in some of what came later, it was perhaps because it didn't match up to that. Muldoon is both an archetype and a fully realized character, and when some of the other characters never break free of the archetypal nature, it left me a little disappointed.
But I do like the book's philosophical bent as a whole. Again, I'd heard much of what the characters were monologuing about, but I liked the way the book essentially used these philosophical ideas to tell its story, the way that the clues to put all of the pieces of what was going on were always buried right where you could see them but that you didn't necessarily realize the true nature of the story until right before it was revealed to you. (One disappointment here: I grasped from basically the first mention of the term that the Master of Ceremonies was to be Jack Molay.) Using philosophy to tell your story is a gutsy call to make, and I appreciated what Dobyns was doing more often than I didn't. It also helped that all of this philosophical talk was shared with a twinkle in the eye.
In particular, I liked what the book had to say about dualism, about how it's something that's rather attractive (particularly as a way to view the world) but something that is also ultimately hollow. There was a point late in the book where I was groaning that Michael's quest was going to make him suddenly less enamored of Rose White. It's not that I found Rose White particularly deserving of his love, but I did think the book was heading so far down its dualism path that there would be no way for it to pull out of that trajectory. Happily, the last 50 pages or so of the book have an almost mournful quality, even as they're filled with great jokes, as the ideals of philosophy give way to the nature of life as it is really lived, and the final pages, where Michael and Rose (and I think it's debatable who she is at this point, since she may be Violet or a Rose so changed by her captivity that she's now someone whom Michael can be with, similar to how his search has changed him) consummate their marriage, are beautifully written. In a book where I wasn't sure what Dobyns felt about what he was writing, it was these final passages that finally made me come around. This is all deeply, deeply felt, and it made me think that I would like the book much more on a second reading, secure in the knowledge that it all pulls together.