Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review: Flip Turn, by Paula Eisenstein

Stories about competitive sports enjoy a well-earned place within the pantheon of Canadian fiction and poetry. We’ve seen stellar contributions over the years on everything from boxing (Steven Heighton, M.T. Kelly) and the Winter Olympics (Priscila Uppal) to running (Alexander MacLeod) and our ubiquitous national sport, hockey (Mark Anthony Jarman, Cara Hedley, Lynn Coady, Jeffery Donaldson, among many, many others). Why athletic competition lends itself so well to creative writing, I would argue, is that there is often a built-in tension already there for the author; sports can provide a clearly defined set of characters we can root for and an arc that mirrors the tenets of traditional storytelling.

Which makes Flip Turn, the debut novel from Toronto writer Paula Eisenstein, such a curiosity. The sport in question is competitive swimming—an activity that requires intense focus, rigorous diet, and an endless regimen of early-morning practices—and Eisenstein overlays her examination of this sport with a story about a murder committed by the brother of our nameless narrator. Yet despite these promising elements, Flip Turn is almost completely devoid of tension or anything resembling a narrative arc. Eisenstein has instead written her novel as a set of murky, vaguely defined fragments, as if recited to the reader under water. She may very well be trying to subvert our expectations as to what a sports novel can be; but having reached the end of the book, I wondered what she thought she was replacing those expectations with.

A big part of the problem is the awkward and stilted sentences with which much of Flip Turn is written. There were many opportunities with both the swimming and the story of the murder for Eisenstein to use sharp, evocative descriptions and poignant internal monologue. Instead, the book provides passage after passage that left me baffled by what the author was attempting to evoke. Sentences like “Our class feels quiet in an effective, superior way” or “But Julie said she couldn’t be best friends with me because she was already best friends with Donna Snowden so then I wouldn’t be friends with her anymore because it wasn’t good enough for me” had me scratching my head. How am I to imagine a class being “effective” in its quietness? What, exactly, wasn’t “good enough” for the narrator? (That “it” just sort of dangles there.) The worst of these passages came near the end when the narrator is describing her French class. She says, “At least in French I can feel the dark closing in around me, like I have a chance to survive. Math is like the brightness of already being on the other side.” In the margin below this, perhaps channeling Mordecai Richler, I wrote: I have no idea what the author is expressing here. Does she?

But the real issue with Eisenstein’s book is how it overdoes the elusive and elliptical approach to its core story. The narrator’s brother Cal sexually assaulted and murdered a young girl named Selena at the local YMCA, and is now doing time in a psychiatric prison. The narrator takes on the improbable obsession of using her victories in the pool to clear her family name—or at least induce a different response when the public sees it printed in the newspaper. But Flip Turn never fully explores the impact of Cal’s crime on the community, and his actions’ influence on the narrator’s family remains frustratingly obtuse. What’s worse, there are other horrible things going on with our protagonist: she and her swimmates are sexually abused by more than one of her swimming coaches, and yet these encounters are given but a cursory mention. (The narrator seems to have a warped sense of sexual boundaries anyway, to the point of even indicting Selena in her own assault. She says, “Like being that way was Selena’s fault, what she did wrong, for attracting Cal. Not a fault she could be blamed for, just a fault.”)

What Flip Turn does explore, inexplicably, is an array of petty relationships that the narrator has with other girls at school and at the pool. A motley assemble of vague, poorly drawn female characters are marched out, given some kind of trivial interaction with our protagonist, and then scarcely heard from again. This approach goes on for dozens of pages, and left me wondering what all these relationships would amount to, what sort of jouissance they would instill by the end of the story. The answer, sadly, was nothing and none.

Sill, Eisenstein does have her moments in this novel. There are times when she does get the balance of elusiveness and detail just right to create little sparks of pleasure in the reader’s mind. Here’s a passage, of the narrator describing womanhood, that stunned me with its off-kilter beauty:

The reason the moon is a woman and your mother and one day you is because of its pulling power. Your mother pulls you into doing things for her all the time. Like being a great swimmer. Like not being a problem. The reason there’s a man in the moon is the man represents men getting sucked up into her.

Yes, that first sentence is grammatically awkward and yes, there's a lot of jarring repetition in this passage, but it all works. It has the spirited cadence of a fully formed thought.

Sadly, there just isn’t enough of this kind of writing in Flip Turn. The book feels so bogged down with the need to challenge our assumptions about narrative that it undermines itself and misses opportunities for emotional impact. There may be a better story buried somewhere in there, full of tension and well-formed characters and little moments of catharsis. But Eisenstein doesn’t seem interested in running that race. Instead, she’s happy to have her book just do practice laps over and over again in the pool, in the hopes that we’ll still watch even though nothing appears to be at stake.

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