The Universal Baseball Association: a Review

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Life is a series of disappointments. If I were designing one of those pessimistic memes posing ironically as an inspirational quote, I’d add a snappy modifying clause to my opening sentence to eclipse the glaring cliche; in this case, however, I mean exactly what I wrote. You never really get what you want, and there’s no way around it. Life is set up to sort-change you, and expecting otherwise is the perennial wellspring of human suffering. It isn’t love in itself that we love to hate, but the tendency love has to blind us to life’s insurmountable disregard for our grievances. At heart, even organized religion is less interested in offering pseudoscientific explanations of the world than attuning us to our inscrutable dissatisfaction with “God’s plan.” And no, I don’t mean the Drake song—our dissatisfaction with that is of a different character.

Take Robert Coover’s protagonist in The Universal Baseball Association, Henry Waugh. Without a doubt, Waugh himself didn’t intend to sacrifice the concerns of his waking life to the maintenance of a fantasy baseball league of labyrinthine complexity. But sacrifice he did, and you can sense his tiny pangs of disappointment throughout the book. Although these small discomforts pale in comparison to Waugh’s Great Disappointment, which I’ll decline to discuss here in deference to those of you who wisely decide to read The Universal Baseball Association yourselves, they are keenly felt in their accumulated mass, mirroring the inertia of a disappointed life that has collapsed at the core yet remains functioning, like a happy dog chained to a tree.

Here are a few minor disappointments of my own: that Coover’s work doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves (despite the William Faulkner Award), that I can’t write a lengthy work of fiction with the seamless combination of deceptive ease and emotional depth that Coover commands, that I still don’t own all of Coover’s books, and finally, that we don’t have more great fiction like his in the world.

Robert Lowell Coover is most known for metafiction and his association with Chicago’s Electronic Literature Organization, a collective intended to promote and embrace hypertext, interactive narrative, and other emergent electronically-inclined movements in contemporary fiction. The “meta” tag on Coover’s work might lead some readers to expect various narrative twists and upheavals–to expect, in short, the unexpected. Just read Pricksongs & Descants, Coover’s legendary 1969 fiction collection, and see if he doesn’t deliver just that and more.

But for now, we’ll focus on just one of Coover’s greatests twists:

When you discover The Universal Baseball Association, and if you manage to resist your inherent assumptions evoked by the word “baseball” long enough to skim the blurb on the back, you’ll inevitably find yourself stacking expectations like a house of cards around the novel’s protagonist, J. Henry Waugh. The fact that he lives in a world of pure fantasy will suggest an ambiguous sadness, as if a normal, fantasy-free life is a commodity of high value that exists to be envied. That Waugh’s activities–working, eating, sleeping, and screwing, like the rest of us–are all subservient to the grand, invisible world of the UBA should be enough to call for the grandest of biblical misfortunes, since we’ll tolerate evil before we cast a kindly glance at uselessness. “What a sick man,” we think to ourselves. “What a freak.”

Expectations exist to be broken on the rack.

Not only is Waugh’s fantasy elaborate, engaging, and frighteningly compelling, but it’s also a work of sheer genius. I mean this literally. Waugh is not a simpering imbecile muttering himself to sleep beneath a heap of soggy newspapers in the shadowed end of a hidden alleyway. He’s a mathematical savant who has sent maddeningly complex papers to game companies who didn’t understand them. He’s a writer of enviable diversity laboring over a history of the UBA written from a growing array of voices and perspectives. He’s a master of high-fantasy who knows that he must strike a balance between the living world and the cocoon of the mind, a man who has stashed uncashed paychecks in a drawer in preparation for the day when the world of the living comes ‘round with the bill.

And most importantly, The Universal Baseball Association traps the reader in a web of her own expectations. We wanted Waugh’s world to be worthy of pity, but we fell in love with it, despite disinterest in baseball. As readers, we realize that our world of books is no different (other than being less in need of genius) than Waugh’s “pathetic” delusions. Coover’s work is a stern reproach for our haughty high-handedness, and a challenge to the pragmatic currency of Horace Zifferblatts everywhere.

It’s as if Coover didn’t even need The Public Burning or Pricksongs and Descants. The Universal Baseball Association is brilliant enough to support a career; that it seems to be one of his “minor” works is a testimony to Coover’s brilliance rather than a sign of poor quality.

Life is disappointment, and that’s why Waugh is an uncanny reflection. His insanity is ours, and Coover shows us there’s nothing to fear.

Justin A. Burnett

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