Anelise Chen Thinks You Should Quit

The author discusses her new novel, the rhetoric of persistence, and the capitalist obsession with competition and success

The narrator of Anelise Chen’s debut novel, So Many Olympic Exertions, is in the eighth year of her Ph.D. program and stands at risk of losing her funding. Her research area is sports, and after learning that a friend of hers — an ex-boyfriend — has killed himself, the narrator, Athena, becomes obsessed with athletes who give up: those who make the choice to do so and those whose bodies choose for them. She spends hours on YouTube watching videos of marathon runners and Iron Man competitors collapsing just before or directly after they’ve reached the finish line.

For Athena, whether or not one crosses the line is arbitrary. The effort itself is absurd. So is most everything else. The story is set in 2010, in the wake of the Great Recession, when newspapers were still patchy with items about “bank employees jumping off bridges [and] consultants swallowing their guns.” In other words, when the rules governing the American economy — the great game in which all of us participate, however skeptically — had just been rewritten, and the industry’s fiercest competitors found themselves abruptly disqualified. Chen marks such developments subtly but incisively. Before long, So Many Olympic Exertions reveals itself to be a book about much more than sport; its focus is on American systems — athletics, academia, capitalism — whose demands for achievement and continual progress can never be satisfied.

As Athena struggles to complete her thesis, the reader follows her trips to the gym, the library, her therapist’s, an academic conference in Chicago, her parents’ home in Los Angeles, a writer’s residency in Greece. She is on a mission — to finish her dissertation — but it remains unclear, despite her travel, whether she ever approaches any nearer to her goal. Chen is a thoughtful and inventive writer, and the world she creates may remind readers of certain paintings by Gustav Klimt, wherein the characters are rendered in a doleful realist hand as their surroundings shimmer with gold leaf.

I spoke with Chen about her book via Facetime Audio. Mostly we discussed athletics — watching and participating in them, and how difficult they are to quit. She was in residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation in New Mexico, and at various points our connection cut out; the residency’s internet and phone service, she explained, were unreliable.

Max Ross: What first got you interested in the field of sports research?

Anelise Chen: It was the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. I was in a hotel in Mystic, Connecticut, and the men’s luge was on TV. Earlier that week, during a training run, one of the competitors had died — something was wrong with the course, and he lost control and went over the side of the track. It cast this pall over the entire Olympics — everyone was calling it the cursed games. And while I watched I kept thinking how morbid the sport was.

I thought: The luge is such a good metaphor for how life actually feels. It seems like there’s no strategy to it. From a viewer’s perspective, it looks as if the competitors go, “Okay! I’m just going to throw myself down this track at really high speed and hope for the best!” Obviously there is a lot of strategy to it, but visually it looks completely desperate.

At the time, the economy was really bad, and this feeling of futility and things dying was in the air. And two of my friends had just passed away, a week apart from each other. It was like one event and another event and another event in rapid succession. And then I happened to in front of a TV when the Olympics were on. Before that I’d had no interest in sports. But suddenly I was enthralled.

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MR: The way Athena watches sports, or studies them, doesn’t seem typical. She obsesses over the moments when athletes fail — when their bodies give up.

AC: When we watch sports, I think it normally has something to do with wanting to see the glorification of the body — of life. We’re watching really well-honed bodies in motion, and it’s life affirming. And the will to win is life affirming. The effort athletes put into their pursuits… They’re trying so hard! It’s so much!

And the act of watching activates the same areas of the brain as if you were actually moving your own body. Watching is powerful. Watching is analogous to doing. So spectatorship really becomes a conduit for experiencing what the athletes are experiencing. It’s entering into a heightened state.

On the other hand, it can begin to seem as if watching sports is some sort of ritual we’re performing to ignore the things that are really bothering us. To allay anxiety, and ignore difficulty and disappointment and — taking the metaphor to its furthest end — ignore that death exists. Ignore that we’re mortal beings, and that our bodies will ultimately fail us. By deadening us to these experiences, watching sports provides an antidote. But it can be a dangerous one.

It can begin to seem as if watching sports is some sort of ritual we’re performing to ignore the things that are really bothering us. Ignore that we’re mortal beings, and that our bodies will ultimately fail us.

MR: Have you participated in any sports yourself?

AC: I was a swimmer and a water polo player, and I was really bad at both. I became intimately acquainted with failure. And sucking, and losing.

I was competitive through high school, and we — the water polo team — had this really amazing coach. He’d coached members of the Olympic team before, and had been a college coach for a long time. So we were actually really good. Which meant that I was the worst player on a really good team. I think that contributed to my feeling that I just couldn’t cut it.

MR: But I imagine it was difficult to give up anyway…?

AC: Yes! It was really hard to give up!

The rhetoric of persistence is so convincing. And it’s definitely part of the capitalist machinery. You’re told — in various ways, and from very early on — that if you’re bad at a sport or a game, it’s your own fault. You weren’t trying hard enough; there’s some innate deficiency that is your own. With that, youth sports very quickly becomes an issue of identity. And then the stakes comes to seem impossibly high, and it becomes impossible to quit — if you quit, you’re giving up who you are.

But actually, with athletes, a lot of who’s good and who’s bad is freak circumstance. Funding is so much a part of it. And parental involvement, or the region where you grew up, and who expects what from you. And genetics. Some people are just bigger and taller than you. It’s not an equal playing field at all.

And yet, somehow when you lose there’s so much shame. And when you quit there’s even more.

Somehow when you lose there’s so much shame. And when you quit there’s even more.

MR: At times your book reminded me of that Garfield Minus Garfield webcomic, where someone’s removed Garfield from every panel, and the strip then just seems to be Jon, alone, talking to himself. But when you think of the comic as it’s supposed to be, with Garfield present, it’s still just Jon talking to a cat. Which is no less absurd.

Your book, I feel, evokes the absurd in a similar way, by thinking through what would happen if we removed competition from athletics, if athletes martyred themselves in training for no actual event.

AC: I thought about that idea a lot. The inside flap of the book is a still from Paul Pfeiffer’s interactive video piece Jerusalem (2014). Pfeiffer is a visual artist, and in this project he manipulated footage from a 1966 World Cup match between England and Germany. The players ghost in and out and you can’t see the ball they’re all chasing after. It looks like they’re running up and down the field for no reason.

His other work plays with the same idea. He’ll take footage from famous sporting events and Photoshop out all — or the majority of — the players. When the context is removed their activity becomes absurd.

MR: After seeing those images, it’s hard to feel that the game is anything but absurd.

AC: Games ultimately are absurd. There are random constructed rules. And the outcome is meaningless. It doesn’t affect world politics — except when it does — but speaking generally a game has no actual purpose to it.

It goes back to Pfeiffer’s work. If you have no opponents, and the rules of the game aren’t there or aren’t apparent, then the game loses its meaning. Why is this figure running up and down? If there’s no context, you see human life for what it is: just running up and down a field for no reason. In a way, if you perceive life from a certain angle and are inclined to think, ‘Well, we’re all just here playing this game with arbitrary rules, and ultimately we’re just alone on the field,’ then the striving and the sense of meaning and the sense of purpose — they all just dissolve.

There’s also the video work of Philippe Parreno. He made this film called Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. It follows the French soccer player Zinedane Zidane for an entire match, and only Zidane — just a zoomed-in view of him. He’s kicking turf. He’s spitting. He scowls. But you can’t see the larger game he’s a part of. It gets at the same idea. What is he doing? What is he experiencing? What is it all for?

If you have no opponents, and the rules of the game aren’t there or aren’t apparent, then the game loses its meaning. Why is this figure running up and down? If there’s no context, you see human life for what it is: just running up and down a field for no reason.

MR: In your book then, is Athena just trying to figure out the rules? And is her frustration that she also finds them to be arbitrary?

AC: Athena’s game is also absurd. It’s, “Oh, I have to get this degree and…” There’s always an and. “I have to do this and this and this, in order to obtain this.” But what’s the purpose of obtaining this ultimate thing?

In 2010, it felt like capitalism had failed us as a structure. Its rules had led us off a cliff. In a sense we were all playing a badly designed game. And people were beginning to see that it was a daisy chain of “and then whats,” and were looking for ways out, and even investment bankers started committing suicide.

So with Athena’s friend, the one who killed himself — he’s opted out of the game. This doesn’t seem right to her, I think, this idea that you can actually drop out of the game. She had looked up to him. He was a standout student when they were in school together, he seemed to have it together, he seemed to have a promising future. But he still opted out.

MR: Is suicide the only way to opt out? That seems so bleak.

AC: Figuring that out is part of Athena’s conflict. Is it okay to opt out? Is it okay to quit? Is it okay to stop running? What will ultimately happen? If you recognize that whatever game you’re playing — soccer, academia, investment banking — is a dumb one, or if you reject the game’s parameters, you don’t have to continue on with it. But then the question is, what can you do?

There’s a section of the book where Athena’s talking about marathon runners who just stopped running. What happens to them? If you take away the metaphorical import of competition — the life and death stakes for medals and glory — competing doesn’t mean anything. Quitting just means you don’t want to run anymore. You can walk off the track. And life continues.

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That’s why I like the story of Japanese runner Shizo Kanakuri, who dropped out midway through the marathon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. He just took a boat back home. He didn’t tell anyone and race officials assumed he’d died. Decades later, it was discovered he was actually alive and had raised a family and all that, and the Swedish National Olympic Committee invited him back to Sweden to finish the race. Which is to say, you can quit the race and nothing bad is going to happen.

But it’s still hard to quit, and that’s definitely something Athena’s grappling with. Do I want to keep playing this game that I don’t necessarily buy into, or believe in? How do I stop? I think she’s trying to find alternatives to the game that she’s been forced to play. Does this game have to be so cutthroat? Does it have to be a contest that we’re all in? Does the game have to be a competition?

Competition isn’t the only structure that play comes in. It doesn’t always have to be this win-lose binary. It can be imaginative in other ways. So trying to find another game or another structure to inhabit that isn’t antagonistic and isn’t based in competition — I think that’s what Athena’s after.

MR: But she still finds she needs rules to get by. For instance, she comes up with a set of guidelines for attending academic conferences (“Sit as far away from another human being as possible”), and sets goals for how many people to mingle with at parties.

AC: I think we all need some structure. She’s trying to find hers, if only to finish her thesis.

Is it okay to opt out? Is it okay to quit? Is it okay to stop running? What will ultimately happen?

MR: And do you think she’s successful?

AC: Ha, well. The book ends before there’s a resolution. I don’t know if it’s a cynical book, or if it’s hopeful. It’s still trying to figure that out. I don’t know ultimately what Athena discovers.

We never know if she finishes her thesis. The book ends with an image of ocean waves, which I liked because it’s so repetitive — this movement of waves crashing. There’s no beginning and no end, it just goes on and on. It’s really hypnotic. And it doesn’t stop.

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