A Big Enough Lie
Northwestern University, 2015, Fiction
Changing the Playbook: How Power, Profit, and Politics Transformed College Sports
Howard P. Chudacoff
University of Illinois, 2015, Nonfiction
The Empire of the Senses
Knopf Doubleday, 2015, Fiction
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2016, Nonfiction
It’s hard to know what Eric Bennett is taking aim at exactly—the culture of self-help, media consolidation, the Information Age, publishing, the search for “authenticity,” perhaps capitalism itself—with his scathing debut novel, A Big Enough Lie. The premise: a self-seeking shlump named John, who has never before served in the military, invents a persona, wherein he’s a disabled war veteran and recent returnee from Iraq. The supreme irony: that his tell-all memoir is gripping and compelling, captivating millions and winning sympathy from around the globe. When he appears on the fictionalized equivalent of Oprah, confronted by an actual soldier and a dubious host intent on calling him out, a bit of soul-searching ensues, though not quite enough to absolve him.
Bennett, the author of an equally damning attack on institutionalized creative writing, clearly has an axe to grind. Others have compared his novel to Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012), though perhaps Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), with its invented military persona, biting social satire, and mockery of memoir itself, would be a more fitting (and caustic) comparison. After all, four months before Bennett’s novel came out, Brian Williams, the smartly-coifed, curiously-tanned, NBC news anchor, confessed that he hadn’t in fact been riding in a Chinook helicopter the day it was struck by an RPG round in Iraq, as he had previously insinuated. Lost amidst the uproar—and that of James Frey’s saga, as well—was the question of why we expect a journalist or writer to have any claims on “experience.” It’s not clear that Bennett has an answer, but he certainly wrestles with the topic in true and unmerciful form.
Speaking of chicanery and fraud, who loves college sports? Apparently, Americans, as the industry has ballooned into a sixteen-billion-dollar-a-year venture. This, in spite of the fact that most universities—public ones especially—now face crippling budget shortfalls, declining enrollments and graduation rates, and massive amounts of student debt. One study, which Howard Chudacoff, a professor of history at Brown University, cites in Changing the Playbook, his exploration of the rise of college sports, points out that between 2005 and 2010, average spending per athlete in Football Bowl Subdivision schools (the top 128 teams of college football) surged by 51% while average spending per non-athlete student shrunk by 27%. Chudacoff focuses on the scandals engulfing college sports—from the Sandusky Saga to the failed unionization bid by Northwestern’s football players—and shows that these sagas are nothing new in the long and checkered history of America’s Higher Ed past. As far back as 1922, he reminds us, Upton Sinclair was explaining how “college athletics, under the spur of commercialism, has become a monstrous cancer, which is rapidly eating out the moral and intellectual life of our educational institutions.”
Chudacoff’s book offers several recommendations for “reforming” college sports, including lifting restrictions on the outside incomes of athletes and steering them towards useful majors and courses so that those who don’t make it to “the show” come away at least decently educated. Chudacoff, for his part, reminds us that the vast majority of college athletes—i.e., those not dunking for Kentucky—are in fact committed learners, despite the overwhelming demands they may face. He also brilliantly explains how neither the NCAA nor the colleges themselves are purely to blame for a system of endemic abuses and corruption. Indeed, one gets the sense, as in Bennett’s novel, that corporate culture itself, or at least the branding of athletes (like books, and, perhaps, universities), along with the behemoth that is broadcast media, plays a larger role. To that end, one might question whether reforms are advisable, or whether college athletics themselves shouldn’t be entirely disbanded, as they are, say, in virtually every other country. Of course, this is America, as Chudacoff—and Bennett—well know.
And then there’s the Holocaust. The Empire of the Senses, Alexis Landau’s gripping tale of 1920’s Berlin—with all of its frills and excesses, combined with a budding despair—recalls Aharon Appelfeld’s masterful novel, Badenheim 1939 (1978), which, as its title suggests, evokes a slightly later period in German history. Both puzzle over the question of how the Holocaust could have occurred, and why more—Jews especially—remained impervious to its rise. Landau’s book is more personal than Appelfeld’s, focusing on the fraught relations and affairs of a family, and in so doing, offers more tragedy to the gloom. It’s also beautifully researched and detailed.
For those looking for something more upbeat this fine summer, say a slim beach read, one could always turn to the latest incarnation of Harry Potter, now at its eighth (estimated) installment. Or one could turn to Lily Hoang.
Ninety-three pages into A Bestiary, Hoang’s collection of essays—though vignettes would be a more fitting description—she cites Virginia Woolf: “Some people go to priests; other to poetry; I to my friends.” The quotation is from The Waves (1931), and in Woolf’s novel, it continues: “I to my own heart, I to seek among fragments and phrases something unbroken.” It’s curious—or perhaps thematic—that Hoang does not incorporate the full quotation, because both friends and language seem broken in her work, or ill-equipped to handle the weight of her sufferings. Like Woolf’s soliloquies, Hoang’s cry out in despair, ranging in topic from the death of her sister to the verbal abuses of her then-boyfriend. And yet, like Woolf’s, her language somehow basks in that despair, flourishing even. One only hopes, especially given her invigorating talent and marvelously lyrical ear, that Hoang’s saga will not end as Woolf’s did.