Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Tim Parks, "The Rapids"

Another book I read on my trip (of many -- those were LONG airplane flights) was "The Rapids," by Tim Parks. It is a novel about kayaking on whitewater in northern Italy (in South Tirol, to be precise). A group of English kayakers is there for a long weekend of advanced kayaking lessons. As a theme, kayaking offers Parks the chance to say things about kayaking that also become metaphors:

There was always the tenth time when you didn't come up and didn't know why.

That particular sentence struck me because it captures one of the mysterious and fascinating things about sports: one does the same thing over and over again until it always works, and then suddenly it doesn't, and one has no clue why. Ski jumping is a sport that seems that way to an extreme degree: one jumper suddenly can fly ten meters further than before for a few months or a year, and then suddenly he can't anymore, and he can't explain why he got better or why he suddenly got worse again. Or a tennis player goes to hit an easy volley, and suddenly misses it, after having done it right dozens of times. No explanation possible.

In this novel, kayaking is about taking risks in order to push your envelope and have the exhilirating experience of success, but Clive, the main instructor in the book, sees what the limits of such risk-taking are:

... after the high of getting away with it on the river, nothing has really changed.

Parks himself takes risks in his narrative: such a story has an obvious ending that is hard to avoid: somebody has to die, or at least come close to dying, in a nasty accident. As is usually the case in his novels, Parks manages to get around this problem while also paying tribute to it, as it were. The way he does so is quite startling and powerful, so I won't reveal it here; suffice to say that he does sidestep the predictable ending in surprising and harrowing fashion.

Of course, after the high of getting away with it in the narrative, nothing has really changed. But that's all that art can do, it seems, or sport: provide a space in which one can get away with things, in which one can be out of character: "It was satisfying to do something out of character, something destructive." The destruction that one experiences in art, as in sport, is imaginary, and hence not really destructive. One goes beyond one's limits in a safe, controlled way.

Of course, sport is more dangerous than fiction (usually): you can die kayaking, which you usually can't do while reading a novel. Still, Michela (Clive's girlfriend) concludes that "these sports are something you do instead of life." Is fiction "something you do instead of life"? Perhaps, but I would always argue that fiction is part of life, and the "life" that Michela appeals to is also a fiction -- or a sport?

1 comment:

mrjumbo said...

A newspaper article is never meant to tell a complete story. A complete story would take forever. A newspaper assigns so many column inches to a story, and the article's goal is to include the most important (in someone's eyes) details of the story. Clearly the editing process involves selecting certain details and leaving others out. As Burroughs put it, "We don't report the news--we write it."

Life is the same way. You can't drink water all day. Some of us vacuum instead of cooking; some cook instead of reading; some hang-glide instead of vacuuming. You get 24 hours a day, and you choose what to include and what to leave out. If you drink water now and then, you're not considered obsessive, but if all you do is sit in the easy chair and sip from different brands of bottled water, people say it's what you do instead of life.

Fiction in proper dosages often helps us see truths we hadn't noticed before. Try Pam Houston's "Segway" for a kayak story. A friend of a friend said she met Pam Houston at a writer's workshop, and she had unpedicured feet, as if that were a bad thing. To me it just made her stories more true. As if they didn't hold enough truth in the first place. Sometimes kayaking lets you see truths you hadn't noticed before.

But don't forget to stop and smell the water from time to time.