- Of Hobby-Horses, Baseball, and Narrative:Coover's Universal Baseball Association
The play-world is not a real situation involving real men; it has an odd character of appearance—it is not real, and yet not nothing.—Eugen Fink (109)1
I will draw my uncle Toby's character from his HOBBY-HORSE.—Laurence Sterne (1:85)
I lay claim in this novel . . . to the essential features of all games: symmetry, arbitrary rules, tedium.—Jorge Luis Borges (75)
When A. Bartlett Giamatti recently accepted his appointment to the presidency of the National League, he commented on his move from academia to the sporting world by observing that aside from literature, baseball was the greatest game of all ("NL Names Giamatti"). Rarely do the sports pages disclose cultural insights as keen as this. To be sure, [End Page 161] the growth of play into elaborately organized forms cannot go unnoticed by any critic of popular culture in the twentieth century. One may indeed argue that huge contests (the Olympics, World Cup, World Series) have become the most important—certainly the most popular—cultural events on the planet. As President Giamatti's remark demonstrates, the increased importance of games in our culture has not been limited to the masses and its television sets. At present, games and play represent a concept central to the latest discourses of art, literature, and philosophy.2 One may even wonder if our time might not come to be remembered as the Ludic Era, the Age of Play. French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, champion of the Nouveau Roman, clearly sees contemporary society and literature in these terms. In the preface to Project pour une révolution à New York, he offers the following assessment of the state of the novel: "After the collapse of the divine order (of bourgeois society) and, following that, the collapse of the rationalist order (of bureaucratic socialism), only game structures remain possible."3 Robbe-Grillet inherits from Nietzsche, Hemingway, Camus, and Beckett the notion that in a fundamentally absurd life, play becomes the only affirmation.
Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. belongs squarely in the tradition of the playing novel. Unlike most "sports fiction," this book is ludic on more levels than the thematic. Not only does it take for its subject a man at play, but it also constructs its text by means of gamelike operations. Thus, Coover's novel contains one kind of game—baseball—and plays itself that other game cited by Giamatti—the game of literature. Arbitrating the confrontation of these two ludic forms within the text, one might well rule that the latter dominates the former. The Universal Baseball Association is not really an example of "sports fiction" at all, for no one in it plays baseball. Its semblables in literature are not the baseball novels of Malamud, Harris, Greenberg, or Kinsella but Tristram Shandy, whose Uncle Toby has converted a bowling green into a miniature battlefield on which he reproduces the King's campaign in Flanders, or the fictions of Borges (especially "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," from the collection Ficciones), where elaborate counterworlds—complete with their own languages, histories, mythologies, and religions—are erected. The true subject of Coover's novel is not the playing of baseball but the making of fiction. J. Henry Waugh's table-top baseball league images the fictional world: hermetically sealed within a magic circle; ordered by its own time, space, rules, ends; undergoing changes dictated by internal forces; imperfectly mimetic, unfaithful [End Page 162] mirror of the world outside it. Although baseball represents only the vehicle of the novel's investigation, not the object of investigation itself, few literary works "about" baseball reveal as much about the nature of the sport as this one. Indeed, the interweaving of baseball and fiction-making that occurs throughout this novel poses in an especially clear fashion questions of interest to theorists and technicians of both literature and baseball: for the first, where and how do storytelling and game-playing intersect? for the second, why does baseball, above all other games, lend itself to narrative?
The Universal Baseball Association presents a structure of...