A World in Numbers: A Review of Michael Joyce, <em>Going the Distance</em>

A World in Numbers: A Review of Michael Joyce, Going the Distance

by
Daniel Punday
2015-05-03

Joyce’s treatment of baseball in Going the Distance isn’t merely thematic, according to Punday, who believes that baseball (and its emphasis on numerical ordering) here represents the balance of the poetic and computational that defines Joyce’s electronic literature.

When Dave Ciccoricco reviewed Michael Joyce’s print novel Liam’s Going a decade ago for ebr, he noted the difficulty of coming to terms with the printed work of someone known best for writing in the electronic medium. The earliest hypertext narratives were greeted with apocalyptic language, such as what we see in Robert Coover’s “The End of Books” or Sven Birkerts’s Gutenberg Elegies. When we grow accustomed to thinking about electronic textuality as killing and replacing the print novel, it’s hard to know quite how to talk about a writer who insists on “returning” to the medium that he supposedly killed.

Michael Joyce’s Going the Distance in some ways raises the same problems that Ciccoricco encountered but in other ways is unique. Joyce’s novel is being published in print for the first time, but in fact it was written much earlier. As he explains in the preface, “It’s been twenty-six years since I wrote this novel, and I’ve come to love it more and more over the years. Though I have come to be known for other works, in many ways I am fondest of it among all the fictions I’ve ever written.” Published electronically in 1995, he explains, “this novel kept threatening to be published in print but something always seemed to happen.” As a result, Going the Distance occupies a strange place within the narrative of Joyce’s own career: in some ways it is an early, pre-hypertext work; in another ways it is typical of how his career has moved back and forth between print and other media.

In this essay I will offer some connections between this novel and Joyce’s other narratives, but I am especially interested in how baseball works in the novel to offer patterns of organization and meaning. The nature of order has been an issue that Joyce has written about often, and the degree to which baseball’s numerical structure offers a form of order strikes me as particularly interesting in light of his long-running use of poetry as the means by which people orient themselves in the world.

1.

Going the Distance tells the story of Jack Flynn, a recently retired star pitcher who is recovering from what initially seems to be amnesia. The novel opens with Flynn driving in upstate New York with a female companion: “He honestly did not know her, he had tried to explain….She pressed her knees together, smiled, yet he could recall no common history between them, not even a chance meeting and a slow night. There was nothing beyond the morning and the drive up from Syracuse” (2).

Over the course of the novel we do, eventually, piece together much of the story of Flynn and his relationship to this woman, who turns out to be Emma LaChance. We discover that Emma has been woven through Flynn’s life, appearing first as the wife of a man he hires to repair his father’s sailboat and later as the woman who nurses his father through a terminal illness. Emma reprises this role at the end of the novel as she helps Flynn and his family deal with the fate of his long-vegetative sister, who is being kept alive in an ICU. Emma takes on the role of healing Flynn through his own crisis.

My summary of Emma’s role in the novel is, though, somewhat too neat and implies that the story’s conclusion is driven by the resolution of earlier uncertainties. Flynn’s amnesia doesn’t function as it might in a traditional novel, where his memories are eventually recovered or reconstructed, and the full story becomes clear in the end. In fact, Flynn raises the possibility that Emma might have staged their whole encounter on the night of his memory loss: “It’s all too neat, isn’t it?… Emma just happens to be on that road, just happens to work at what she does. I just happen to be unable to function” (223) to which Emma’s daughter Molly replies by turning the tables: “You ever think that it might have been you who planned it?…You knew Emma from way back, she even helped your father. You’re on the way home to see about your sister, and you see Emma on the highway, her dippy car broke down. It gives you an excuse to lose it…” (223). As this exchange makes clear, Joyce doesn’t resolve the cause of Flynn’s memory loss. Instead he is more interested in the patterns that surround this encounter.

What prompts Flynn’s erasure of Emma from his memory is not fully clear. They meet when he finds her beside the road with her car broken down. She teasingly implies that she knows him without fully explaining their earlier connections over drinks at a nearby motel (100). After drinking heavily, they end up in a room with Emma sick and Flynn taking care of her. When she awakes, however, Flynn has no memory of her. In part, Emma’s suddenly disappearing from Flynn’s memory is simply a more extreme version of his inability to recognize a woman who he has met before at several key moments in his life.

The reason for Flynn’s blindness represents one of the central puzzles of the novel. It seems clear that Emma’s connections to all of the personal relationships in Flynn’s private life represent a literal other to his time in baseball. In this novel Flynn is recently retired and squarely in the middle of his life. He occupies a curious moment, one that is seemingly resistant to narrative. He is no longer faced with important career decisions—this is not a novel about a pitcher at the end of his career, deciding whether to go on. Nor is it a novel of nostalgia, where a player looks back on an earlier time and compares life before and after baseball. Instead, Flynn is poised at a middle point between his career in baseball and the something else that comes afterwards.

Late in the novel Flynn comments on how pitchers lose games, and his comments on the dangers of the middle of the game strike me as relevant:

“There are two places where you can lose a game,” he said, “the first innings when you haven’t yet found your rhythm, and the middle innings when, if you’re not careful, it can leave you without warning. You tire all of a sudden and it’s gone. Maybe it’s a ground ball too sharply hit, it looks like an error on the books, but you know he got to you, hit something too hot to handle. It opens the floodgates, next there’s a clean shot, or maybe a squibber, a walk, then a long fly. You’re on your way out…Someone else wins or loses it for you.”  (179)

It’s hard not to read this as a gloss on Flynn’s own position at the middle point of his life. Relevant, too, is the note on which he ends this passage: early in the game “you maybe can or can’t survive on your own” but in the later stages when you lose it you become dependent on others. At this most uncertain point in his life, he is likewise dependent on Emma. To use the baseball term, she is trying to get a “save” in the game of Flynn’s life.

A crucial contrast between Flynn’s life in baseball and the world that awaits him is the role of numbers. Like any pitcher, Flynn thinks of the game and his own career in terms of statistics—ERA, wins and losses, pitch count, run support. As he notes early in the novel, “I’ve lived my life in numbers” (20). These numbers aren’t just a way of reducing a complex world to something simpler and easier to control, but are themselves a world. Speaking about pitch counts, Flynn thinks, “There’s a world in numbers. Each set of numbers has a different face. One-and-oh, for instance, can be behind or ahead, up or down, depending on what you got going, what you let him see, what you’re setting up.” (132). Flynn has lived a particular kind of life to this point, defined by numbers and different from the world that Emma represents. It is in this regard that her observation, “I am, she thought, whoever is the opposite of Circe, the un-enchanter” (172) because she is bringing Flynn back to his senses, is particularly meaningful. Emma seems to offer to translate Flynn from the life of numbers back into something more mundane.

Respect for the mundane is a theme in Joyce’s work and a central feature in the tension between his print and electronic work. In “The Persistence of the Ordinary” he describes “[t]he call for attention to the ordinary”:

In theorizing and creating early hypertexts many of us saw a form suited to reifying and retrieving the cyclic richness of ordinary life…. What none of us—modernist, Marxist, postmodernist, feminist, hypertextualiste—could quite anticipate was the current regime of repeated and insistent novelties. (Moral Tales 137)

In contrast to the way that “[t]he net dislodges the quotidian and diurnal” Joyce offers literature: “The fundamental familiarity of literature is its sense of life lived in common and commonplace” (137). In this regard, Flynn’s move from the “life of numbers” that he experiences in baseball to the mundane world that Emma seems to embody is the quintessential literary act.

Understanding the relationship between his time in baseball and his life in the mundane requires us to resist the tendency to see baseball simplistically. The world that Emma offers is not necessarily more messy and real. In fact, Emma remarks that the care that she gives the dying, the way that she consoles them and describes the presence of their loved ones, is itself a kind of ordering:

Order heals. We enter into it, we women. Not the orderliness of what commonly goes by that name, but the order of change. The patience of a watching woman, the sinusoidal wave, dark eyes, and the world in her hand. (184)

Emma’s role in the novel seems to be to help Flynn to transition from one system of order to another, one which he has missed during his career. Baseball is another ordering system, but Joyce never suggests that it is merely a reduction of the everyday world.

Joyce seems quite explicit about why Flynn has missed this personal, familial order in most of his adult life. Baseball demands that its pitchers are apart and “lordly,” something which was not in Flynn’s nature: “The game made him become something, it wasn’t what he wanted. He had begun playing baseball for noise and for the secret reason most boys and men have for the game: it authorized intimacy and companionship” (39). In Going the Distance systems of order impose themselves on the people who participate in them. Early in the novel Joyce introduces Flynn’s Aunt Bertie as someone who has adopted a particular role in response to becoming older: “She has learned these ways, this style, from television soap operas. She has decided to become the still-attractive but matronly woman played in these dramas by the women who model mature clothes for mail order catalogues” (23). The novel is very much a story of the differences between ordering systems.

2.

Joyce’s career as a whole has demonstrated a fascinating ability to move between traditional storytelling and writing that is challenging at the sentence level. Liam’s Going and most of Moral Tales and Meditations are examples of the former, while Was (discussed in some detail by Stuart Moulthrop recently in ebr) is a clear example of the latter. Joyce has frequently been at his most effective and challenging in the transitions between sections and points of view. Afternoon is, of course, the clearest example of this technique, where pronoun reference is often ambiguous as we move from lexia to lexia. The more recent novel Disappearance manages these transitions in a very different way by making the adoption of other people’s memories a plot element of its strangely SF world.

In Going the Distance Joyce employs this technique of ambiguous point-of-view transitions especially effectively. In every chapter we move between several points of view, and often shift between the present of the novel (with Flynn struggling to recover his memory of Emma) and scenes from his past (through which we do come to understand Emma’s history with him). Sometimes these transitions are invisible and abrupt (as for the transition from Flynn to Emma’s point of view after an apparent time lapse on 10), and other times the transitions are handled more explicitly, as for example the matched “I know” statements, one of which occurs in flashback and the other is said in the present of the novel as return from the past (108).

This tendency to make frequent and unmarked transitions between points of view is one of the reasons why the novel’s occasionally unclear attributions of thought or speech are so effective. Typical of such references is this exchange early in the novel:

He negotiated the village streets with care, looking for something. He is coming around.

She smiled and asked him to forgive her.

“But really,” she said, “isn’t it all too goopy?”

She got through. Flynn slowed and parked carefully, stared at her.

She saw it dawn he knew she thought.

“My mother is buried here. Here in Theresa.”

She looked at him.

“You knew, didn’t you?” he said. “Why did you use that word?”

“Goopy?”

It hurt not to know her. He tried. (52-53)

This exchange is strongly reminiscent of the lexia transitions in afternoon. The key line is the quirky and playfully nested attribution of insight: “She saw it dawn he knew she thought.” Is Joyce narrating what Emma thinks? She saw it dawn on him: he knew. Or is Joyce narrating Flynn’s point of view? He knows that she thinks that this insight is dawning on him. This exchange begins with us in Emma’s point of view. This is implied by the line “he is coming around,” which makes the most sense as Emma’s evaluation of Flynn’s state of mind. However, by the end of this exchange we appear to be closer to Flynn, since it is he who would know that it “hurt not to know her” and that he was trying. Does the point of view in this scene shift on this ambiguous line in the center, or should we read the final line quoted above as Emma’s understanding of Flynn’s state of mind?

Much of the early commentary on afternoon claimed either that Joyce’s goal was a kind of modernist uncertainty about knowledge, or a reader-empowering support for multiple narratives and paths through the story. In looking at this exchange in Going the Distance, however, it is hard not to see Joyce’s goal as a kind of mixture of voices. This seems to be the basis for the kind of end-of-life peace that Emma is able to give. Here is the narration of how she tends to Flynn’s father as he dies

“The world,” she said. “I’ve given you the world to hold.”

The words had come, it would have been an embarrassing thing to say otherwise. You trust yourself to your guiding, Flynn’s father knew this. To him at the end she had said: “It is a beautiful, sunny day outside. Jack has gone to eat, the fish have moved off the spawning beds to deeper water. Esther is near, your son and your wife await you.”

His breath had caught in the way she recognized as the end. (181)

Emma’s narration of Flynn’s father’s last moments essentially speaks for him, giving him a way to look at his life. The novel as a whole seems to work this way, with characters’ consciousnesses frequently blurring together. This will be a technique that Joyce will explore more fully in Was.

In her reading of Joyce’s Twelve Blue Marie-Laure Ryan notes this same uncertainty produced by point of view shifts:

If Twelve Blue challenges classical ontology, as many postmodern texts do, it is not by frustrating the reader’s quest for fictional truths or by postulating more than one actual world but by offering a more diversified ontology than the standard binary opposition of actuality and virtuality. Between the realm of the solidly factual and the realm of the hallucinated, the text creates a zone of free-floating, dreamlike existence…. (237)

Ryan’s observation partially reflects the electronic medium in which he is working—as she notes, “you never know if you have seen all the nodes and followed all the links” (226)—but is just as much a feature of Joyce’s handling of point of view and his use of poetic, suggestive images. In Reading Network Fiction Ciccoricco links Joyce’s claims about contours and flow to the organization of some of his electronic works: “Contours are the shape of what we think we see as we see it but that we know we have seen only after we move over them, and new contours of our own shape themselves over what they have left us” (Joyce, Two Minds 207; qtd Ciccoricco, Network Fiction 91). Contours capture the search for order with a respect for ambiguity and transition that is characteristic of this novel.

This style of merged or at least ambiguous consciousness stands in stark contrast to the role of the pitcher that has characterized Flynn for most of his adult life. I have already noted the way that the game isolated him: “He didn’t play baseball to be alone and yet that was how it worked out” (43). Joyce links this isolation to storytelling quite explicitly in a segment of the novel written as an interview:

All the time Flynn has been telling this story, his eyes have the well-known intelligence, the searching quality, about them. There is the feeling that he is toying with his listener as in other times he toyed with batters, setting them up for the pitch he wants to make. (151)

This brief aside nicely associates the isolation and control of the pitcher with that of the traditional storyteller. This control and isolation is in stark contrast to the ambiguous mixing of voices that is characteristic of so much of the novel.The exception to Flynn’s isolation when he is on the team is his one close friend Wolfman, the pitcher with whom he literally communicates by pitch signals throughout the game. An important subplot of the novel involves their falling out late in their careers when Flynn appears to give Wolfman an easy pitch to allow him to continue a hitting streak. The unspoken communication between them is explained by Wolfman late in the novel (167). The arc of the novel, then, narrates the way that Flynn’s life in baseball has created this numerical ordering system and personal isolation, and how he adopts the social integration and mixed voices characteristic of the novel.

3.

I’d like to conclude by suggesting one other way that Joyce’s interrogation of meaning in and outside of baseball’s numerical system tells us something about the relationship between this print text and the electronic works for which Joyce is best known.

Baseball’s historical and deep relationship with statistics is well-established, and for this reason it should be no surprise that the current popularity of “fantasy” sports—leagues created by people who select professional athletes from any team within a given league and “win” games based on their collective statistical performances—has its roots in the “rotisserie league baseball” of the 1980s. I’ve argued elsewhere that this urge to translate the world into a system for numerically tracking and accounting for objects and people is the basis for pen-and-paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. In turn, D&D provided the numerical framework by which the vast majority of contemporary video games handle character development and conflict. In other words, it is a short trip from a discussion of ERA in baseball to the “hit points” and other character statistics in a modern first-person shooter.

Of course, afternoon and Twelve Blue are definitely not first-person shooters. But there is a numerical structure in elements like this—think, for example of the way that the Storyspace system can track the number of times that a reader visits a particular lexia. The work explicitly contrasts this technical structure to the poetry that runs through the story from the very first lexias that the reader encounters. We could say that one of the overriding concerns of Joyce’s career has been the place of a poetic voice and vision in the time of what David Golumbia has called The Cultural Logic of Computation, as more and more of the world becomes the subject of numerical representation.

What is fascinating about Going the Distance is that Joyce is resisting a simple opposition between statistics and poetry, between life as a professional athlete and life after the game. This is why I think that Joyce’s claim that “there’s a world in numbers” should be taken quite literally: numbers create a world in one way, just as Emma’s work to weave him back into his family creates another. Several times in the novel it is suggested that Flynn’s quasi-amnesia is the result of an overload of information. This is Emma’s diagnosis at one point: “You know too much…What you have is a block, no?” (53). Another character complains about himself, “I remember things…That’s my curse, in fact, Flynn, that’s why I’m making a book” (83). It seems clear that Flynn is caught between different organizational schemes, and that, having lost the order provided by baseball, without the replacement system that Emma brings him, he is overwhelmed.

By providing a model of order that is numerical but with its own richness, baseball may have provided Joyce with the framework through which he could see how to balance the poetic and the computational that is so characteristic of his electronic works.

Works Cited

Ciccoricco, David. Reading Network Fiction. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2007.

—. “What Remains in Liam’s Going.” Electronic Book Review 2003-11-03. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/endconstruction/dialectical.

Golumbia, David. The Cultural Logic of Computation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Joyce, Michael. Disappearance. Boulder: Steerage Press, 2012.

—. Going the Distance. Albany, NY: Excelsior, 2013.

—. Liam’s Going. Kingston, NY: McPherson, 2002.

—. Moral Tales and Meditations: Technological Parables and Refractions. Albany, NY: SUNY, 2001.

—. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995.

—. Was: annales nomadique/a novel of internet. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.

Moulthrop, Stuart. “Lift This End: Electronic Literature in a Blue Light.” Electronic Book Review. 2013-04-02. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/blue%20light.

Punday, Daniel. “Creative Accounting: Role-Playing Games, Possible World Theory, and the Agency of Imagination.” Poetics Today 26.1 (2005): 113-39.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Joseph Tabbi:

Moving “back and forth” between media is a plausible account of the origins of “electronic literature,” so called, and one that might be worked through (by creators and critics) going forward.

2014-11-25

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