Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How Did Walter Tevis Do It?

Walter Tevis was one of my favorite novelists, and I like both his science fiction and his mainstream novels equally well.

He wasn't a prolific writer; when his first two books (The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth) made his name and gained him a professorship, he proceded to spend most of the next couple of decades in an alcoholic haze, not writing (although his students remember him as a briliant teacher). In the late 1970s he resigned his teaching job and went back to novel writing full time, producing four novels in four years (Mockingbird, The Steps of the Sun, Queen's Gambit, and The Color of Money) before dying of lung cancer.

Tevis classed himself as a second-rank novelist (and most critics agreed), but I think he has been undervalued; his books draw me back again and again, and I discover new pleasures in them each time I read them.

But his mainstream novels--The Hustler, Queen's Gambit, and The Color of Money--mystify me from a craft point of view. All three novels are center around games (billiards, chess, and nine-ball pool, respectively), and manage to be absorbing even if you aren't an aficianado of the games. Indeed, they work even if you can't even follow the descriptions of the games.

Now, the games aren't the only stakes in these novels. These are stories about people who undermine themselves, stories about weakness, about character. Hemingway's reification of "grace under pressure" isn't the challenge here. The protagonists in Tevis' novels aren't so much characters who are bad losers as people who can't succeed to their full potential because they are bad winners. They are most likely to crumble when they are scoring major victories.

I understand that part of the stories. What seems magical to me is that Tevis keeps readers mesmerized by the games themselves. Of course, we have to care about the characters to care about the outcome of the games, I understand that part; but I don't comprehend how he manages to inject the tension into the description of a game.

A game seems too simple, too fully in the author's hands. The character dribbles down the court, spins, throws for the basket--it glances off the rim and flies high in the air or maybe The character dribbles down the court, an opposing player blocks him, he stumbles, and, at the last second, in desperation, takes a wild shot that arcs through the air and dops neatly through the basket...It's transparently in the author's power to do both with equal conviction and equal probability.

In the emotional tangle of a relationship, or the plot tangle of a good thriller, certain events seem plausible and certain events are simply ruled out, but in a game this is less the case; whether a ball rolls into a pocket or bounces back has a huge effect, but it isn't really determined by a large number of forces the writer has built up. In short, the writer can do whatever the writer damn well pleases, and the reader knows that, and therefore the outcome is arbitrary.

Yet Tevis holds me transfixed while he describes someone running a series of bank shots or fighting a losing battle against the onslaught of a chess opponent. I can't figure out how he does it.

When he was asked how he did his amazing onstage leaps, Nijinsky said something like, "I jump up, I remain in the air for a time, and then I come down."

I understand those words. But that doesn't mean I can do it.


Tim Stretton said...

I've heard of Tevis but never read him. Sounds like I need to.

Iain M. Banks manages to make an imaginary game ("Azad") utterly compelling in The Player of Games - one several games playing an important part in his fiction.

Jack Vance also often includes sports and games as major plot elements: the marvellous 'hadaul' in The Face and 'hussade' in Trullion being memorable examples; and his fantasies often include games of chance which are manipulated by unscrupulous protagonists (usually Cugel).

David Isaak said...

I think you'd like Tevis.

Making an imaginary game compelling--now there's a challenge.

I truly can't figure out how this end is achieved. Generally anything that seems easy for the author is boring to the reader. It must be a sort of hypnosis.

But, thenm I suppose all good writing is some form of hypnosis.

Lionel Messi said...

Buen artículo

Jim said...

I love Mockingbird, one of my all time favourite novels. The only books that almost (almost, lol) brought me to tears. I read a lot and I don't know any other book with such power.

David Isaak said...

I'm with you on that. "Mockingbird" is a unique work, and, as you say, very powerful. It's odd to me that it has never become as well-known as "Man Who Fell to Earth," as it's one of the masterpieces of speculative fiction.