Enthralled by Systems

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

Chris Messenger reviews Tom LeClair’s first novel, Passing Off (1996).

Of the three major American team sports (Basketball, Baseball, Football), basketball is the only one that is wordless. Baseball is interpreted by language through an umpire’s balls and strikes, football sent into violent collision of bodies by a quarterback’s arcane jargon. Basketball, however, is the sport that at present remains a mystic’s communion, somewhere between a violent ballet and a transcendent praxis. Because of its silence, basketball has attracted only a fraction of the novelists (Updike in his Rabbit series the most prominent) who have memorialized baseball and football in the past few decades. That team roster is large and cuts across a popular and elite sampling of contemporary American fiction (Malamud, Roth, Coover, Charyn, Kinsella, DeLillo, Whitehead, Gent, Jenkins). Furthermore, basketball’s symbology and social relations have been almost totally appropriated by an African American standard of play, excellence, and cultural relevance, stipulating that white American authors must work out their own meaning now in a residual and somewhat tangential sense.

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