REVIEWED:NowTrends by Karl Taro Greenfeld. Short Flight / Long Drive Books. 352pp., $7.99.
“My body betrayed me”: so speaks the reflective narrator of “The Gymnast,” a story tucked halfway through Karl Taro Greenfeld’s newest collection, NowTrends. Xiao is the gymnast from the title, and she has never had ownership of her body. Not that any Chinese woman in this narrative owns her form—“my athletic prowess almost made up for the fact that I was born female”—but Xiao has been scouted since doing “backbend kickover[s], frontward and backward saltos, and four consecutive forward rolls” when she was only 3. Those “stout men” had labeled her disciplined by age 5. Xiao’s father was gone, so her mother made the decision to allow her daughter to train for hours each day, probably because “she was grateful for the perks that accompanied my success.”
The end of athletic innocence begins, though, with Xiao’s growth spurt. Gymnasts must be kept small and tight, “to stay tiny,” and Xiao was expanding. The solution: “eat millet and summer spinach,” and “a sour combination of tea leaves, mustard greens, and radish that I later found out was intended as a laxative so that we would purge our meals as quickly as possible, gaining vital nutrients but not centimeters.” Chinese sports are a form of nationalism, so those scouts did not simply make suggestions. They required weekly measurements of weight, height, and fat. Xiao, starving, would be told to chew slowly whenever she ate, to break down her food so that it would not clutter her form.
Xiao’s suffering enables her promotion to junior nationals, and it is her mother, “face pink inside the fur lining of her hood,” who delivers the news. After that, Xiao saw her mother “for a total of eighteen days” during the next 5 years. That is when the responsibility of shrinking the self moves to Xiao. She continues to grow, and though she tries everything to push back the years—taking menstruation-delaying medicine, not eating meat or seafood—her body betrayed her: “I gained.”
Xiao fears losing a spot to the younger, tinier girls. In gymnastics, “it is impossible to conceal yourself” in “skinny leotards with arms and legs exposed.” Sour-breathed from no water, dizzy from no food, she knows her end is inevitable: “I knew the shape we all yearned for, like a summer wheat cake but with smaller head. Our bodies betrayed most of us.” Xiao learns that even gymnasts who participated in the Seoul Olympics “were now working in the Complex’s dressing room, handing us our towels and picking up discarded tape.”
Xiao’s body is on loan for performance and show. She is one of their “beautiful little playthings, toys . . . that you could wind up and make leap, jump, vault, spring, flip, turn.” After the performances ended, the gymnasts lived eight girls per dorm, which were scoured each night by coaches: “if they found so much as a bean cake you were denied rice for three days and had to run eight kilometers; a second infraction and you were sent home.” The girls hid cough drops in their vaginas. Greenfeld describes all this without flinching, although the reader pities Xiao, who knows her time with the team is short. She is now “embarrassed at my size” and hates her body, “my large feet, my think arms. I felt like a farmer mingling with ballerinas.”
It is easy to forget that the writer of this story is a man. Greenfeld is able to slide so deeply into a young girl’s perspective that, even though the narration is truly offered through the flashback of Xiao as a grown woman, her words of worry carry such immediacy. Xiao refuses to take the pills to avoid menstruation, and as soon as her first period is detected, she is kicked off the team. The reader knew such an ending would come, but our sympathy for Xiao does not diminish from foreknowledge.
Xiao does not return home after her gymnast years: she joins acrobatic street performers and a group that later performs topless in a revue. She becomes pregnant, and it finally seems that she has gained ownership of her body, even if she is sharing her form with another. Yet, in a repeat of losing her spot on the junior national team, Xiao is kicked out of the performing group for becoming pregnant. If her body becomes her own, it does so with a price.
Xiao, now a mother, fears for her daughter’s own development: Quan’s future talent might lead her down the same path of suffering. While watching Quan move with gymnastic flourish along monkeybars and then do a back uprise on a pull-up bar, Xiao needs to make a decision, and it might include the brick she finds at the playground. The potential action is shocking, even after Greenfeld has coaxed the reader into accepting the injuries of body and torture of the mind particular to sport.
Such moments of sport-related or -influenced violence are common in NowTrends, and yet they never feel calculated or contrived, rather a natural extension of bodies moving and reacting. “Silver” documents an American executive relocated to Hong Kong, where he joins a corporate pick-up soccer team. The narrator, not a great player, is “the most senior staff member to play ever.” He is not accepted, and on the field, “barely acknowledged.” The executive’s travails pale compared to Xiao’s physical concerns, but his bodily self-doubt upon joining the team sounds familiar. No longer an executive, he is merely a player, one who “fell somewhere in the middle, perhaps lower middle, but certainly not the lousiest.”
The executive’s worries are worsened when he learns that the other players, uncomfortable playing with a boss, consider not telling him the practice or game schedule to avoid his participation. Silver, one of the workers, delivers the news carefully, and the executive appreciates the man’s care. He is lucky that Silver is on his side, which makes the later action of the story all the more tragic. Silver “dropped to both knees” in the middle of a game before falling forward: “the impact with the turf actually bounced his head up and sideways, so that he was lying on his cheek.” The executive unsuccessfully attempts CPR. Silver dies, and Greenfeld presents the funeral with the same, first-person detached narration as Silver’s final moments. It is not surprising to learn that the executive “wanted Silver’s happiness” and, “after an appropriate time had passed,” asks the man’s widow out to dinner.
“Toddy M,” the last sport-focused story of NowTrends, is also narrated in first-person, but the tone is unique. “The Gymnast” and “Silver” were delivered with a paradoxical engaged detachment, spoken by characters living the complexities of sport, but sharing those experiences with the reader free of real sentiment. “Toddy M” is a more iconic representation of sport and athletes, even if that conception extinguishes before the final page.
The narrative of “Toddy M” focuses on well-built, sleek bodies, both male and female. “The first time I saw Toddy M. he was naked” begins the story, and Toddy’s athleticism is never in doubt, at least for the narrator, a sustainable energy project consultant. The narrator “hadn’t surfed in years,” but he certainly remembers a time when the waves mattered. Toddy was especially important because he was “a local boy, or close to it;” now, in his mid-forties, Toddy can still handle waves. Toddy’s legend is soon brought down to earth: first, by his “weak-smelling marijuana,” and then by his faulty business sense. Toddy’s plans for an eco-resort fall-through, and though the consultant narrator sees the imminent demise, Toddy’s daughter begs that he keep his knowledge quiet.
Still, the narrator rejects the truth and decides to live in the comfortable legend for a while longer. He is not alone: “the two of them together inhabited this fantasy of an eco-paradise where they could surf and eat compost-grown sweet potatoes and walk around naked forever.” Father and daughter, both athletes, naked but not totally innocent. Sport does bare its athletes. Runners, swimmers, surfers: the more latitudinal movement, often the less clothing. If sport is a rewind to physical youth, then why should it surprise that the mind also turns back?
Toddy’s business acumen is debunked long before his athletic legend fades, and the narrator’s real arrival at the reality of the situation is after he is injured while surfing. He is saved by Toddy’s daughter, Liddy, who reiterates her desire for the consultant to not reveal the foolishness of her father’s goal of an eco-lodge. The consultant leaves them, but continues to follow Liddy, who now is her self in surfing magazines, “more like a model than an athlete.” She married “another surfer, a young god.” Although the narrator is married, his want for Liddy is palpable: she represents an athletic freedom he idolizes, a beauty perfected in sport.
“Toddy M” does not contain a death, but the narrator’s near-death during sport focuses his present into action. The death in “Silver” occurs in the midst of a game. The threat of injury prefigured in “The Gymnast” is a reflection of the narrator’s own physical suffering earlier in the story. For Greenfeld, injury is a precursor to death, the ultimate break in sport.
The literature of sport is often separate from the literature of sports. The latter, plural reference connotes a culture of professional lockouts, suited halftime commentators, and themed advertising. Sport, in its singular version, imbues Olympiad-type classicism, veneration of refined anatomy, and the theories of Georges Hébert. Neither connotation is entirely true, or even exclusive. The icons of sport often reside within the daily world of sports. Don DeLillo’s End Zone, lauded by Christian Messenger as the most “intelligent” of football novels, still couches its satirical jabs at American militarism in the warrior rhythms authentic to football: “Hit somebody, hit somebody, hit somebody.” Writers of sport literature seek to subvert the “big game” narratives that threaten to make the genre superficial, yet most resound the cultural reverence of the athletic cult.
And why not? When Gary Harkness, narrator of End Zone, notes the “mysterious black gift” of speed that defines Taft Robinson, DeLillo’s wink at the commercialization of black athletes was tempered by the palpable awe that results from such sheer physicality. NowTrends is driven by a similar focus on the physical through sport. Greenfeld, a former editor of Sports Illustrated, dramatizes lives damaged by athletics and bodies mythologized by the athletic culture, but his stories arrive without the jaded disgust of an observer on the bench. Even Xiao in “The Gymnast,” though profoundly scarred by her betrayals of body during her training youth, sounds authentically imperfect: such a round representation of her character would never be possible in the hands of a writer who thought sport was a superficial activity. Greenfeld dips into other themes in NowTrends, but his narrative heart appears to remain within the world of those dangerous games of sport, where rules and conventions are meaningless when life is at stake.
Nick Ripatrazone is the author of four books: Oblations (prose poems, Gold Wake Press 2011), This Is Not About Birds (poems, Gold Wake Press 2012), The Fine Delight: Postconciliar Catholic Literature (literary criticism, Cascade Books 2013), and This Darksome Burn (novella, firthFORTH Books 2013). His writing has received honors from Esquire, The Kenyon Review, and ESPN: The Magazine.
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