Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Set Pieces (2001)

[This is a set piece I wrote in September/October 2001]

I first noticed the odd literary use of the expression "set piece" in book reviews. In my favorite example, quite a few reviewers used the term to refer to the opening section of Don DeLillo's novel Underworld. This lengthy prologue is a description of the 1951 baseball playoff when Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants hit a game-winning home run The New York Times dubbed "the shot heard round the world" (even though the issue's other lead story reported the Soviet Union's first detonation of a hydrogen bomb). The expression "set piece" not only does not do justice to such a virtuoso performance, it is also—independent of the passage's quality or style—not really applicable to it at all.

In a set piece in sports, players do a series of planned things in order to achieve a particular goal: the hit-and-run in baseball; the pick-and-roll John Stockton and Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz perfected in basketball and executed thousands of times over the years; corner kicks or free kicks in soccer, so sublime when performed by David Beckham or Roberto Carlos, with all their power, grace, and precision. In a sense, every single play in American football is a set piece, at least at the beginning. In all these examples, a series of "set" moves has to be executed with precise timing in order for the action as a whole to succeed. In this light, regarding a passage in a novel as a "set piece" seems quite odd: the point of such a play is that it can and should be done over and over again in the same way, while DeLillo's prologue in Underworld—to return to my example—can only be done once.

The verbal set piece is in the realm not of the writer but of the raconteur. Think of those people who are so present at parties because of their virtuoso storytelling. Their narratives can occasionally be annoying, but such "set pieces" are more often thoroughly entertaining, full of wit and energy, told with precise timing and complete control of digressions and little ironies. Tucked into the flow of conversation, these little morality tales, however indirectly, comment on or correct statements made by others. Still, the raconteur does not finally aim to "score points," as it were, but to perform, to keep the conversational ball in play as artfully as possible—so as to provide openings for further stories down the line.

Those who hear such stories often urge their tellers to write them down—but good raconteurs rarely have the temperament to be good writers. They are gregarious improvisers, not solitary composers; their pieces evolve in performance, not through the painstaking revision a writer like DeLillo puts into his work. The writer aims at the unrepeatable; the raconteur's story may evolve with time, so that if you hear it again, even years later, you may wonder why some of the details have changed, but the point of the set piece—or more precisely, of its telling—is finally its repeatability.


Donald Brown said...

Interesting. I didn't know "set-piece" had anything to do with sports. I believe I've seen certain episodes of "Finnegans Wake" referred to as "set-pieces," which I took to mean that they are almost more or less free-standing, in some cases, as in that opening segment of "Underworld," they were published separately, before the book appeared.

Andrew Shields said...

Don, your note made me look the expression up again:

1. A realistic piece of stage scenery constructed to stand by itself.

Is this perhaps the actual source of definition 2?

2. An often brilliantly executed artistic or literary work characterized by a formal pattern.

I think what I am missing in the general use of "set piece" is the idea of "a formal pattern." To me, there ought to be something standard about a literary "set piece." My Mom also mentioned the idea of a painter painting a crucifixion: a standard piece that one had to paint in order to have done everything a painter was supposed to have done.

3. a. A carefully planned and executed military operation. b. A situation, activity, or speech planned beforehand and carried out according to a prescribed pattern or formula.

The "prescribed pattern or formula" is perhaps what is here connected to the idea of a "set piece" in sports (which is apparently a British English expression, as is the American Heritage).