[personal profile] mixedmetaphors
cover shows a jockey riding a horse "There are tales that are remembered and tales that are forgotten, but all tales are born to be told. They demand it; the dead become tales in order to live. Their eternal life is in your mouth."

Tales and eternal life are somewhere near the core of C. E. Morgan's epic The Sport of Kings. The novel is about horses and race and gender and land and family and desire and evolution, but all those concepts circle around the idea of survival: what remains, and where do we--with our lives, so short and yet the longest thing we will ever experience--fit in with the hope of something bigger than ourselves. Or something big enough to make ourselves feel whole.

The first interesting thing about this book is the dedication: "This book is dedicated to the reader." I liked the framework and the relationship this establishes. This book is for me, and it's also for you, whoever you are, whoever you are who picks it up, opens it, reads it. It's not for someone else. Despite this book's intelligence and erudition, it's not dedicated to someone more intelligent or more erudite than you. It's dedicated to you, and if you dedicate yourself back to it, this book will meet you where are you are. Morgan has finished her work, and now the reading of it, the challenge of it, the analysis of it, the moral urges it provokes, those all belong to the reader and no longer to her.

And I liked this dedication because, remarkably, this book is deep enough to really be a gift to the reader. Deep enough for a wide-encompassing, multidimensional understanding of the uglier and awfuller sides of humanity--and have no doubt, this book is tragedy and suffering more or less all the way down, but it's not without a couple moments of grace. This book is a gift to the reader, who is human (presumably; shout-out to any AIs in the audience), and The Sport of Kings does not take humanity lightly. It runs headlong at the grittier mysteries of being human and inheriting all that come before us and our attempts to grasp on to what is eternal: what came before us, what will come after us. Or is the eternal something different from that? How can we decenter ourselves when we consider the eternal? And is there an actual separation between that "ourselves" and everything else of this world?

(A character writes in her journal about the shock of falling in love: "Then I met someone I wanted more than the idea of him, and I began to think: another also thinks. An equivalency began to assert itself. I sensed the enduring mutual affinities. But until that moment happens, it's impossible for the mind to accept that the self is not the center of the universe, that the center is everywhere, that the universe is always expanding, that there is, in fact, no limit to the universe at all." This is not a book that explicitly states that love breaks down boundaries, that love makes us better people, but it's threaded in there, just not necessarily in a superficial, obvious pabulum kind of way. So. You know. It's not a hopelessly bleak book. Love is as simple as hate, and as complicated, too. And it's in this book.)

I found this a very philosophical book, and not in didactic way. I thought it necessitated the rather loquacious writing style, the belabored descriptions, the lectures and the interludes and the Socratic dialogues and the media excerpts. It tasks the reader with getting involved in thinking, in connecting, in experiencing. This intense emotional and intellectual work was very satisfying to me, and even though it wasn't universally rewarding, I still found it mostly rewarding. I loved how the thematic weight was carried by Morgan's singular writing style. Sentences bloom and wilt. A slow and dreadful poison seeps through the soil of a scene until the imagery and the actions rot. Ideas both reinforce and reinvent themselves as they propagate. Characters find their choices selected, and shape their futures, as they collide with the external, internal, and the ambiguously located forces and environments that force them to define themselves.

This book is alive, and it knows it's too much and that it's not enough:
Everything comes from everything and nothing escapes commonality. I am building a house already built, you are bearing a child already born. Everything comes from everything: a single cell out of another single cell; the cherry tree blossoms from the boughs; the hunter's aim from his arm; the rivers from tributaries from streams from falls from springs from wells; the Christ thorns out of the honey locust; a word from an ancient word, this book from many books; the tiny black bears out of their durable mothers tumbling from dark lairs; eightieth-generation wild crab abloom again and again and again; your hand out of your father's; firstborn out of firstborn out of firstborn out of; the weeping willows and the heart leaf, the Carolina, the silky, the upland, the sandbar willows; every tart berry; our work, which disappears; our mothers' whispers, which disappear; every Thoroughbred; every violet; every kindling twig, bone out of bone; also the heat light-borne, the pollen airborne, the rabbits soft and crickets all angles and the glossy snakes from their slithering, inexhaustible mothers, freshly terrible. When you die, you will contribute your bones like alms. More and more is the only law.

Or is all this too purple, too florid? Is more too much—the world and the words? Do you prefer your tales lean, muscular, and dry, leached of excess and honed to a single, digestible point? Have I exceeded the bounds of the form, committed a literary sin? I say there's no such thing—any striving is calcined ash before the heat of the ever-expanding world, its interminability and brightness, which is neither yours nor mine. There aren't too many words; there aren't enough words; ten thousand books, all the world's dictionaries and there would never be enough; we're infants before the Ohio coursing its ancient way, the icy display of aurora borealis and the redundancies of the night sky, the flakes of snow common and heartbreaking; before the steady rocking of a man and a woman, the earthworm's curling, the leopard killing the mongoose killing the rat over the ant in its workmanlike machinations, the anonymous womb that knit the anonymous, the endless configurations of cloud, before the heron, the tern, the sparrow, and the wily peacock too, the peacock turning and splaying his designs, each particular shimmering feather a universe invested with its own black sun, demanding, Look before you die, Look—Don't turn away for fear you'll go blind; the dark comes down soon enough. Until then, burn!

I just found the writing so extraordinary and so exhilarating. It's visceral and philosophical. It gets playful at times, and not just like the passage above, with the irony and clarion call of attention to the marriage of theme and style. This book, THIS BOOK. It's the kind of book that demands you change, now that you've met it. Be more attentive. Stretch. Breathe. Sit with the difficult, accept the limits of understanding. Stretch. I was completely struck by the mantra of Lou, the veterinarian: "I do not understand what I do not understand. It was a thing she often said when her husband was itching for a fight. It irritated him to no end, but it was the truest thing she could say." That floored me when I read it, and then I carried it with me until the end of the book and beyond. Why does it seem so revolutionary to me, to lay claim to not understanding? It's an apology and a relief and a reminder. A humbling acceptance. It's reverberated through my own philosophy. And it's only one tiny part of the book.

At times, I struggled not just because of the prose but because of the content. It's an unsettling and violent story, and all the windows into it--primarily the main characters, Henry and Henrietta and Allmon--provide compelling but uncomfortable viewpoints. Sexism and racism, systems of oppression, are some of the book's largest arteries, and this book is basically littered with the bodies of its women, and that makes this a difficult read. All the cruelty and cowardliness that is part of ordinary humanity is depicted by Morgan, but there is a great sensitivity running through this book. She utilizes multiple, complex characters, and to her credit, this book and its themes don't collapse into an easily-consumed story about the tragedy of racism and sexism. For the most part. The ending did sort of struggle to be more than the sum of its parts; it felt to me like an explosion of racial tragedy, despite all the more nuanced work that preceded it. Man, that ending. I wasn't a fan. The epilogue, I didn't mind. But the ending before that? It just felt like a collision rather than something as carefully and complexly rendered as the rest of the story. I didn't want transcendence, necessarily, but I did want something besides the melodramatic and the clunky.

On a more superficial content-related note: to be honest, my knowledge of and interest in horses is basically My Little Pony, and even that's not a lot and basically limited to those weirdly pliant, weirdly scented 80s/90s toys that I coveted as a kid. (I also know nothing about the Friendship is Magic iteration. Don't come at me.) And, frankly, even with all the reassurance of other readers that this book isn't really about horses or horse-racing--and also the reassurance of seeing one-star reviews from readers with horses in their icons who wanted to read a horse book and were disappointed (one-star reviews are helpful!! thank you, readers who utilize all levels of the GoodReads review ecosystem!)--I spent a lot of this book going, "Horses, ugh, I don't care, there are words here that I don't know if they're describing part of a horse or something else, THERE IS TOO MUCH HORSE." But I did catch on to and appreciate the parallels and thematic work that the horse and horse-racing aspects of the book were doing, even if I couldn't summon up the ability to feel that stuff down deep in my bones, the way I could about the other topics braided into the narrative: evolution, sexism, racism, inheritance, legacy, a need to prioritize the right to healthcare because what is going on is MURDER, etc.

This is the first book I've read from this year's Baileys shortlist, and it's a contender. The strength of its prose and the vitality of its themes are, I imagine, hard qualities to match. But I also loved how unabashedly this book--full of all the shames and terror of humanity--still stakes out its moral positions without abandoning anyone. Maybe that, as demonstrated in this passage, is what's most singular about this book:
Father, we are uniquely capable of morality. We must be moral, because we can be moral.

He stood very still as the words settled like silt to the floor of his veins.

We can snatch from the air the abstractness of numbers, adding and subtracting and making logic from magic, and because we can, we do, and we must. We can build pyramids and sky-piercing towers, so we must. We can wrestle language from our grunting, so we must. We can map our physical mysteries with machines of our own making. We can classify the species of the earth, name every stone and streamlet. We can run a hundred miles, and we can walk on the face of the moon, so we must—and then we must go farther.

We can, from the chaos of existence, extract meanings, which do not exist. We can make ourselves philosophers and scientists and priests. We can construct our unnatural civilizations—we can, and therefore we must. To starve our genes is to honor our genes. With fear and loathing we can stand on the necks of our parents and refuse them. We can evolve from simple to complex. We can choose survival of the species over survival of the self. We can say no to nature and form a conspiracy of doves.

We are uniquely capable of morality, therefore we must be moral. That is our nature.
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