The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover
Much post-modernist “meta-fiction” can seem, once you get to grips with the stylistic challenge to the assumptions about, and investments in, narrative with which you have been brought up, to be a bit of a one-trick pony; and, as consequence, that further experimentation is liable to succumb to a law of diminishing returns. Nevertheless, the best exponents of this, as of any other, genre are able to take the basic premises and concerns, and use them to fashion fictions which transcend the limitations of the genre – limitations as enabling constraints.
Meta-fiction lends itself particularly well to the culture of conspiracy, and it’s probably no surprise to have seen these two cultural phenomena grow more or less hand in hand in the United States from the 1960s onwards.
One of the less well known exponents of post-modernist meta-fiction in the UK is Robert Coover, whose main work is The Public Burning (1977), a multi-narrative tour de force which focuses on the case of Joel and Ethel Rosenberg, American communists executed in 1953 for espionage (they were alleged to have passed information about the US development of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union). Richard Nixon figures as a central character in alternate chapters, and Coover satirizes the failure of the media to interrogate the official accounts of the Rosenberg’s activities, and of the wider construction of a political context within which such prosecutions gain validity. The way in which language and narrative is, and can be, used to distort truth for political ends clearly lends itself to the techniques and ends of meta-fiction. Most recently, James Ellroy has been mining such a vein in his Underworld USA Trilogy. David Peace attempted something similar in GB84. Whether the efforts of the Blair government to engineer a consensus of support for the invasion of Iraq retains any potential for a similar treatment remains to be seen.
An earlier, and seemingly altogether more minor, work by Coover is The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (his second novel, published in 1968). Henry Waugh is a 56 year old loner, working out his time in an office of accountants. At home, he has designed a dice and chart based game in which he plays out season after season of baseball leagues. He’s not really interested in baseball as such – it’s the susceptibility of a whole world to his arbitrary control, and the endless accounting of the results, the averages, the whole minutiae of this created world, which really interests him. And as his world develops, he lives the lives of all the characters who inhabit this world with every greater degrees of vicarious intensity.
The main lines of critical response to this work focus either on the success of the novel as a work of sports fiction, and in particular, baseball fiction; or on the theme of Waugh as God-like creator of his universe (as other meta-fictions play with the idea of the narrator as more or less unreliable god of their literary creations).
The first thing to be said about this is that Coover has done an outstanding job of capturing the milieu of baseball at a certain moment in US history, and, in particular, the mindset of those in the US for whom baseball is an abiding passion, or even a living (players, ex-players managers, reporters, etc). Until you have lived in the US for any length of time, it’s virtually impossible to get a feel for the extent to which America’s ‘national pastime’ occupies people’s daily lives. At one level, Henry Waugh is simply taking this near-obsession to its obsessional conclusion.
With regard to the focus on Waugh as creator of his fictional world, I think the critical consensus is less precise. This may be a result of the fact that the responses to Coover’s work were determined by the time of their writing, at which point the meta-fictional theme of the fictional creator was still a relative innovation within literature. What strikes me reading the work now is the success with which Coover depicts Henry Waugh’s predilection for living his life within the fictional world of the Universal Baseball Association, and the way in which this offers an allegory for a certain tendency within American life to prefer living in more or less unreal worlds (whether this be the America of the movies or the American dream that fuelled the culture of ultimately fraudulent sub-prime mortgage lending).
Baseball provides the US with a rich stock of metaphors with which to create an understanding of itself, and to invent narratives about itself. The temptation, of course, is to allow these metaphors to become the means by which reality is understood and lived. The fiction takes over the reality.
This is just what theorists such as Baudrillard have been trying to depict when they have written about phenomena such as the simulacrum. We see it again in the way in which modern warfare is reduced to, or played out as, a Hollywood-style performance on the screen. Needless to say, it’s played out even more predominantly on the front pages of the tabloids, and in the glossy gossip magazines, where “celebrities’” lives are lived out on a daily basis. And, even more prosaically, we see it in the absurd phenomenon of all the various fantasy sports, in which players become “managers for a day”.
This is all pretty familiar territory today. And it’s to Coover’s credit that he anticipated all this over 40 years ago. So, aside from the superb depiction of a baseball world, is there any other reason to return to Coover, given how familiar we have become with the theoretical perspective which he develops in The Universal Baseball Association?
What I think Coover captures really well is the double sense of nostalgia and desire that works Henry Waugh’s relation with the baseball world he has created. Just as baseball itself figures as a more or less romanticised vision of an American world of the past – most strikingly embodied in such phenomena as ‘the seventh inning stretch’ and the communal singing of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Park’, alongside the ritual of fathers taking sons to the game – so Henry Waugh’s world is depicted by Coover through Waugh’s own performance of this world, and the nostalgic investment in the characters from the ‘golden age’ of this world – a golden age which is modelled on US baseball’s own golden age around the turn of the century, but a golden age which, as the novel progresses, we realise has begun to pass for Henry Waugh (to the extent that he appears to be becoming disenchanted with his creation). The sense of desire is embodied in the character of a young pitcher, who seems to have the potential to rejuvenate Henry’s baseball world, a Christ-like saviour whom Henry is, inevitably, condemned to sacrifice according to the same necessity of the dice-throw by which he governs his world (though the element of chance represented in the throw of the dice means that Henry is not quite in complete control of the world he has created).
So it’s not just a case of baseball, or the created imaginary world, serving as a nostalgic representation of a better world; it’s also a case of that same imaginary world creating the hope of our being saved from this world of mundane reality. Seen in this light, Coover’s creation evokes the millenarian mind-set which appears to afflict much of contemporary America, uniting the worlds of the religious cults with the neo-con belief in the right of the US to make the world a better place by its ‘humanitarian’ interventions.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that Henry Waugh’s worlds will collapse around him. Just as the character Fenn McCaffree, something of a cross between the commissioner of baseball and J. Edgar Hoover (is there an echo of J. Edgar in J. Henry? if not, what about J.H.Wh? his only friend being a [Lou] Engel!), installs more and more surveillance tools in an effort to provide the means to control the events in the baseball world, yet all to no avail, so Henry Waugh starts interfere in his creation, trying to rig the games and the results, in an attempt to restore something of the order and rightness of things which had been lost with the death of the young pitcher. But the very means by which Henry had ensured the independence of his creation, its verisimilitude, and, ultimately, its interest for its creator, namely the throw of the dice, return to guarantee that his world cannot be controlled. The world of J. Henry Waugh cannot help but live the life that is its own. Henry Waugh himself is undermined, just as America is undermined, by his resenntiment, his ultimate inability to affirm the dice throw by which his world is created, and the chance by which his world is ultimately governed as a consequence.