Author: Kerry Howley
Type: Non-fiction, single subject
I read it: May 2016
So this is a book about mixed martial arts (MMA), but more specifically about the individual trajectories of two aspiring fighters. And more specifically than that, it’s about Kerry Howley’s mission to “find a proper object of study” and get “inside the world of ecstatic experience.” Like most worthy non-fiction pursuits, it has a lot to do with the author’s obsession with the subject matter.
The action starts in Des Moines with Howley attending her first MMA fight, then branches to other parts of Iowa (like Cedar Rapids) and the midwest (Milwaukee). Eventually the chronicled fights extend to Vegas, New Jersey, and even Brazil. Between the fights are long months in which the fighters train and fast and are generally alone, with the exception of their “spacetakers.” Howley puts all her energy into becoming one of these, living intimately with her selected fighters, trying to get as far into their culture and their heads as she can.
It’s an interesting project on the whole, though the reader has to get past the author’s (deliberately?) pretentious writing style. It seems she wants to both mock her philosophy professors while also writing for them. She desires so badly to discover a non-academic world but then seems to limit her reading audience to only those in academia. Around the halfway point I was sucked in enough that these things didn’t bother me, and I was along for the ride. I wish there was more broad context and history of MMA included to balance out the personal analyses of the individual fighters, but some great writing definitely put me in the scenes at the crucial moments.
We could stop here and it’d be a decent book. But depending on how much you read up on the intentions of this work, your opinion of it may descend into a complete tailspin. At least, it did for me.
Supposedly this book has a “fictional narrator” named Kit. As in, this person is introduced on page 65 as different from the person of Kerry Howley, and therefore should not be considered reliable. The justification is eye-rollingly slim: “All narrators, I say, are fiction.” I skimmed this part and deliberately forgot about it so I could enjoy the rest of the book, but in our book club discussion this concept was almost entirely what we talked about.
I have trouble finding the reasoning for this tactic. I’m not saying writers shouldn’t get experimental—write whatever and however you want to write. It’s just that the flap of the book says this is a “work of literary nonfiction” in which “acclaimed essayist Kerry Howley follows these men for three years.” Well, does she? Are we supposed to take her observations as fact, or are some things purely made up for the sake of giving color to a few subplots (as if this story even needed exaggerating)? The distinction matters when it comes to fiction vs. nonfiction. There is enough deliberate misinformation in the world, and it’s not helping anyone to blur the lines. Doing so leads us down the first few steps toward moral relativism and global subjectivity, and therein lie dragons of chaos.
So Kerry Howley spent years “hoping to record a moment of transcendence.” She came far closer than most people ever will. But I remain baffled at this failed experiment in form. I don’t think it’s just that I didn’t “get it”—one of the esteemed reviewers on the back cover called the book a “work of rigorous nonfiction.” Did he also not get it? Rigorous. Either words have meaning, or they don’t. What are our definitions today?