The Wrestler's Cruel Study: Plot, pacing, and the medium of the myth
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: As I’ve said, The Wrestler’s Cruel Study is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it maybe five times now, and I dip into it on occasion either to savor some of its best moments, or as a reference. (It’s a handy guide to early Christian heresies, which the fellows and I are always discussing around the water cooler.) It isn’t a perfect book, though, and one of the things I noticed when I read it again in preparation for its appearance in Wrapped Up In Books was its pacing.
The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, as has been noted, has a deceptively, almost absurdly, simple plot, straight out of the Hero With A Thousand Faces playbook: The innocent young hero loses his love, and embarks on a quest into a mysterious world to find her—and along the way, he learns that he, the world, and the girl are all more than they seemed. Straightforward enough, and like the plot of most good stories, pretty much beside the point. God is in the details Dobyns chooses to carve into this unassuming hunk of story. But on this particular reading—possibly because it was the first time I was reading the book under any kind of time constraint—the pacing seemed a bit off to me.
This isn’t to say that it’s a boring book; far from it. It’s one of the most enjoyable and entertaining novels I know, and considering everything that happens in it, it usually moves along at a pretty rapid clip. Dobyns is a “popular” novelist most of the time rather than a “literary” one, and a less concise writer might have clocked this book in at twice the length. But I did notice at certain points the repetition of themes and scenes, the revisiting of the familiar to the degree that after the third or fourth iteration of a subplot—I’m thinking here specifically of Wally Wallski, at the behest of his wife, forever bothering Harvey Lenguado for a new place to live, and of Michael Marmaduke’s ride-alongs with the Vals, the Cainites, the Snakes, and the other heretic gangs. I don’t wish these sections were gone (the scenes with the battling sects are some of my favorites), but I did find them, this time around, repetitive to the point that they seemed like padding.
On the other hand, I know exactly why Dobyns paced them this way; the book is far too intricately constructed for it to be mere happenstance. The Wrestler’s Cruel Study is a modern myth, and myth deliberately makes use of certain storytelling techniques to get its point across. Repeated scenes, stock phrases (“wine-dark sea,” anyone?) and an almost pedagogic approach to problem-solving are the building blocks of myth, and while Dobyns isn’t always successful in his deployment of them, it wouldn’t seem like the same book without them. In fact, I think the frustration with this repetition that sets in after a while serves to put us in a much-needed attitude of sympathy with poor, put-upon Michael Marmaduke. By the time he finally encounters the Master Of Ceremonies at “Christ’s Lair,” only to be exposed to even more jibber-jabber about Gnosticism and assorted Christian heresies instead of help finding the missing Rose White, he weakly blurts out in frustration, “Can’t you see I don’t care?”
Keeping this mythological approach in mind, too, helps me get past some of the more plodding characterizations in the book: a few mild ethnic caricatures and the ’50s cartoon harridan that is Wally Wallski’s wife are easier to swallow when they’re thought of not as characters, but as archetypes, no more possessed of depth than a Punchinello. So while I still had a few moments where I found Dobyns’ characterizations a tad lazy, or his repetition of scenarios a bit wearying, they helped round out the story’s overall direction as a postmodern re-reading of ancient myths and religious beliefs to the degree that I think they’re necessary to the book.
Donna Bowman: You mention that this time through you found the pacing uneven and the repetition somewhat wearying. I would love to know what you experienced the first time through. I must admit that since I caught on quickly about all the Disputants and their arcane disputes, I wound up paging through their expository dialogues with Marmaduke at increasing speed. (It doesn’t help that I’m a Christian theologian in my day job, and none of these variations on the gospel are news to me, interesting as they are in themselves.) Dobyns just seems to use these people and their genuine, sincere, and important attempts to reconcile the welter of philosophies and revelations in their time—use them almost as funhouse decorations. Is there anything underneath the game? Are these mythologies and worldviews anything more than a jungle for Marmaduke to hack his way through?
We read Little, Big a few books back, and I fell in love with it. There’s an instructive contrast with The Wrestler’s Cruel Study to be made. Both books attempt to use the framework of myth, archetype, and fairy story (let us not forget Rose White in her Sleeping-Beauty-style glass coffin surrounded by razor wire!) to engage the contemporary reader. But while Little, Big commits heart and soul to its vision of the world as story, TWCS seems to remain above all the stories it throws out for our consideration. It dances and skates over them, unconstrained by their frameworks as it shows us the silliness (yet the tragic necessity) of defining ourselves by any of them. Yes, this is an accurate portrayal of postmodernism. But what moves me in the best postmodern thought and writing is when the author lands again, in full awareness that no master structure can justify his position in universal terms, but committed to the existential meaning of a moment. It’s probably instructive that I love the end of Derrida’s Specters Of Marx, the part where most readers sense him going off the rails into an ungrounded messianism. In the end, it seemed to me that Primus Muldoon’s Nietzsche obsession (and surely we have to read this as an authorial alter ego, grossly caricatured or not) is the damning key text. I worry that this is all about the author’s power to define our reality temporarily. I am unable to trust that Dobyns is willing to put himself at risk along with his characters and readers.
Tasha Robinson: I’m not sure I want an author at risk in the books I read, Donna—I want one who’s already made it through the thicket and is resting comfortably on the other side, and is ready to guide me through the maze already navigated. And I felt comfortable enough with Dobyns, believing that he’d done just that—that he had a purpose to all the repetition and nonsense he was spouting, and that he wasn’t particularly on anyone’s side among the Disputants, and wasn’t educating himself or learning anything through their debates. I don’t see him as channeling Nietzsche, or glorying in his ability to lead us round the mulberry bush—I agree with Leonard that he’s putting us in Michael Marmaduke’s confused and overwhelmed place.
Granted, I think he could have accomplished that with half as many Christian-heresy monologues, and those at half the length. Like you, Donna, I got to a point where I skimmed through those rapidly, becoming increasingly confident that I wasn’t learning anything that would become important later. A lot of the philosophical/religious banter here reminded me of a Tom Robbins novel, minus the drug references—a lot of windy rhetoric that I might have found deep back in college, but now just see as a cloud of words. To my mind, all the lengthy, unbroken Disputant speeches are Cruel Study’s only major weakness, because they’re the only place where it gets bogged down in excessive detail instead of continuing to skim lightly from thought to thought.
The repetition on the fairy-tale stories didn’t bother me as much, Leonard, exactly for the reasons you mentioned—there are standard formulas for these things, and the broad style and cyclical repetition is part of the point. The king always has three sons, and the first two have to try their hand at the game before the favored third son can go navigate the hazards the right way instead of the wrong way. Harvey Lenguado can’t give Wally Wallski the key to the city the first time he begs for a better home; the story has to build. (Man, I’m glad that story didn’t end up where I feared it would, with Lenguado finally granting Wally perfect happiness by bumping off his wife and sending him back to his old hovel.) The formulae have to be observed. But in that sense, I feel like the fairy-tale side of the story was more of a success than the thought-experiment side. Or maybe that’s just my personal bias for fairy tales showing.
Todd VanDerWerff: Weirdly, I agree with all of you. The constant stream of Gnostic monologues (and wouldn't that be a great name for a one-man stage show?) gets tiring, and they become way too easy to skip over. I get that Dobyns is specifically building a world based on patterns (or, at least, I think that's what he's going for) and that he's blowing those patterns up in a way that will resonate as much with us as the characters feel when their world gets blown up. He enmeshes us in the comfortable world of fairy tales - of that coin bouncing from classic folk tale trope to classic folk tale trope - and then starts completely screwing with them. "Here we are in the classic tale of the fisherman with the shrewish wife," the novel seems to say before it pulls the rug out from under you.
I'm not sure what Dobyns is trying to say with all of this (outside of, "Here are some things I have noticed about literary tradition"), but I enjoyed some of it while finding some of the rest of it long-winded. I respect the need to play out the string, so to speak, but I also think the novel felt bloated in places and probably could have stood to trim some fat. (Like Donna, I'm a huge fan of Little Big, which is one of my favorite novels of all time, and I find some of the differences between how that novel creates a fairy tale New York and how this one does so illuminating. Here, the old tales are repeated for about 80 percent of their "run time." There, the characters are so aware they're living in a tale that they begin to push at its edges, to wonder if there's something more.)
But, at the same time, I don't really mind that Wally Wallski just repeats the tale without really realizing it, or that Beacon Luz is more of a folk tale type than anything else. These old tales still hold a sort of sway over me, and I really enjoy what they aim for much of the time. I think I'm with Tasha in giving these slightly more space to play than Michael's constant searching. But to get to my real discontent with that, I think we need to get to the discussion about characters.
Emily Withrow: Not so weird, Todd; I also agree with most of what's above. I believe our coupling with Michael Marmaduke, for example, is rather explicit. The first time Primus Muldoon speaks with him about Nietzsche, for example, I couldn't help but think that he was comforting me in that parenthetical note when he says: "I asked if he had read Nietzsche, but he had not. However (and this must be taken as a plus), he had heard of him and knew he was a philosopher."
I'll go ahead and admit that I've little knowledge of Nietzsche or the ins and outs of Christian theology. Most of the disputants' arguments were new to me, and nonetheless, I quickly tired of the Michael-learns-about-a-new-sect routine. Perhaps these were piled too closely together in the book. We had some breathing room between Wally Wallski and Zapo's travails, but the ride-alongs came at us pretty quickly. Much of my frustration here parallels that of Michael, who's constantly asking, "What does this have to do with me saving Rose White?" Ultimately, not much, right? I was less patient than he, though, who took a longer time to come to the conclusion that he just didn't care about any of this.
Conversely, I had little to no problem with the repetition or redundancy of any of the other myths; I've been trained since childhood to expect and delight in those repetitions. How else would I know the refrain of "Fee fi fo fum" or "I'll huff and I'll puff"? Each time I hear those in the context of the story, I'm reminded that the tension is mounting, asking myself, "Is this going to be the breaking point? Will the pigs have built a strong enough house this time? Will the real estate tycoon blow up and teach that coward Wally Wallinski a lesson?" It's a prompt to recall the previous episode, too--what's changed since last time? How might these differences affect this particular outcome?
I can't extend the same patience to the disputants perhaps because the refrain isn't clear. It didn't feel so much like a storytelling technique as it did new information being crammed into only slightly different scenarios. Swap out this sect for that, these weapons for those. But Michael doesn't really seem to learn much from these, and his investment in it proves futile. His plot seemed at times to be merely a hook onto which Dobyns could hang this sect-on-sect playground. Even if you're invested in the details of those arguments, there's no real payoff. The reveal about the Wrestling Association is a great one, but the punches and blows are still arbitrarily assigned. I could be wrong here, but I'm guessing my enjoyment of the puppet-fight section had little to do with my level of engagement or understanding of each sect's beliefs.
Zack Handlen: Both Donna and Todd have mentioned Little, Big, and I agree with what they both said. I suspect my biggest problem with post-modernism, at least conceptually, is that my investment in a story is roughly parallel to the investment of that story's creator. Tasha says that she doesn't want "an author at risk," which both clarifies certain disagreements we've had in the past, as well as throws my own problems with this book into sharper relief. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Dobyns is detached from Michael's struggles and the rest, because those moments of connection in the book (the Muldoon chapters particularly) helped me to find a way into it, but after a while, the detachment that was there became too distracting. In order for me to read something this long (and four hundred plus pages is lengthy enough), I need sincerity, I need some persistent connection to something real. I need to feel like, to paraphrase Leonard Shelby from Memento, if I were to close my eyes, the book's world would still be there. And the more that unfolded in Wrestler, the less sure I was that any of this was anything but endless Gimmick. That conflict is clearly important to Dobyns, but there was never a core here that I felt worth fighting for.
To throw out another literary connection: I've been listening to Moby Dick on my commutes lately, after having struggled through the novel in high school, and Melville's chapters on whaling remind me somewhat of the various philosophical lectures here. I still find those chapters tough to get through, although my opinion of their importance has changed since I was in school, but the biggest difference is that in between all those whaling discussions, Melville gives us a striking, definitive conflict to engage in, with well-drawn figures and passion. I needed an Ahab in Wrestler, or at least some rough equivalent; I needed to feel like there was something at stake. And I never did.
Ellen Wernecke: I agree with what Tasha said about the fairy-tale formulas and would like to add that the multiplicity of them within the book, while a little frustrating, is what keeps them from becoming too boring in the structure we all recognize. Had Dobyns attempted to hang the narrative on just one of the stories -- Beacon Luz and Zapo's, for instance -- it would have worn out its welcome much sooner. Envisioning a world in which these fables populate out so that everyone touched by the coin is the protagonist of his own story makes the repetition easier to bear.
Is it possible that the disputant sections are purposely windy in order to get us into the chair with Marmaduke himself? Had we become absorbed with them, which I surely wasn't, it would be harder for us to relate to his pressing need to get on with the search for Rose White and not even attempt to understand. His rudeness transforms itself into fodder to continue his heroic quest. We'll get into this later in the week, but had that taken a more prominent role in the book it definitely would have detracted from my enjoyment and I suspect I'm not the only one.