I’ve already spoken highly of the physical article that is Kerry Howley’s book Thrown, and can say with certainty that the object-as-idea is every bit as impressive as the object-as-artifact. The book is nonfiction, but employs a semi-fictionalized narrator to better tell the story, framed as a long-form essay. It’s hard to tell how much of Howley’s “character” Kit is fabrication, but it’s not a question I find especially compelling. It’s a narrative device and it must be judged on its efficacy alone. Truth isn’t just irrelevant, it’s downright distracting. The Kit character frames the narrative in a useful and interesting way, getting at a more aesthetic truth by means of subverting the more literal one. If you’re the kind of person who complains when the fact checkers come up with discrepancies in literary memoirs that don’t make claim to absolute truth then this might bother you, but there wasn’t much hope for you, anyway.
The narrator’s dubious reliability makes her perspective (and the questions she raises) that much more interesting. I was initially put off by the intellectual distance she created between herself and the men and women involved in the world of MMA, but all of my misgivings burned off as soon as she confessed to being “horrified” by the fact that one of the 19 year-old bikini-clad ring girls was reading a book instead of playing on her phone (Kit’s divorce from staid academia seems somewhat contrived when juxtaposed against her naked honesty in this regard). Couching her narrative in philosophical research and references creates a neat distance from the fighters she’s writing about, one that -along with both Kit and Howley’s academic background- puts the brutality of cagefighting under an existential microscope, completely outside of the bounds of the binary morality most people (especially the educated and civilized) seem to impose upon MMA. Her prose is intense, very Iowa-Writer’s-Workshop, but that’s an aesthetic categorization, not a complaint.
My response to this text is going to be a bit of an anomaly, on account of having trained in combat sports for a few years myself. Much in the same way that I had to read Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance without over-defaulting to my own experience working on old bikes, I had to make sure my own experience didn’t crowd the narrative. I’m intimately familiar with the training behind MMA and the feeling of stepping into a cage with an opponent and I’m incredibly impressed with Howley’s empathy, the way she can write inside a fighter’s head with such specificity and accuracy without having (to the best of my knowledge) any firsthand experience herself. Both the amount of research and the approachable dissemination of the appropriate information are noteworthy. This is by far the best writing on MMA I’ve ever read, and one of the best recent works of literary fiction. Regardless of your stance on mixed martial arts as a sport, give this a read (and maybe especially if you’ve written it off).
Recommendation: Buy, read. Look closely at the book, because it’s a beautifully made artifact.