Sizzling Chops &
Devilish Spins:

Ping-Pong and
The Art of
Staying Alive

Jerome Charyn
(Four Walls Eight Windows)
Charyn learned ping-pong in 1947 when he was twelve or so. He has played in China, he has played with Ruth Aarons ("the Ginger Rogers of table tennis"). He has played Dick "the Needle" Miles, and the writer Henry Miller (at age 70).

He played Chuang Tse-Tung in China, 1971, and tells us,

    Ping-pong is played by over 250,000,000 people all over the world, with 40,000,000 tournament players, a fraction of them from the United States. There are more ping-pong clubs in France than there are players in the USTTA.

His ping-pong memories begin at Reisman's basement in Manhattan, a basement where millionaires, bums, a "shirt king," psychoanalysts and junkies played together. The paddle's the thing, should it be sandpaper, pimple rubber, or the foam sandwich, the "Butterfly bat."

He taught himself to play with pimples --- not on his face, on his bat: "I chopped, I smashed with my elbow held high, I developed terrific sidespin, and began to haunt the club."

    From two in the afternoon, when Reisman's opened, until midnight, I was under Broadway, listening to the bounce of ping-pong balls. I had an infallible method for determining the hours of the day: the splinters in the cellar door grew dark around dinner time.

Charyn takes the time to go into the 900 year history of his chosen sport. It began as jeu de paume --- royal tennis --- "the oldest of all racquet sports, though the first 'racquet' was a monk's palm." Bare hands were used on balls of hair, cork, or wool. A leather glove appeared, then strings run between the fingers of their gloves. With a frame, jeu de paume "spread from the monasteries to the courts and princes and kings."

Charyn points out that, "Unlike football, ping-pong 'fails to evoke blood.' We have little use for the delicacies of a sport in which a 138-pound man can reign supreme." He tells of his current activities:

    I play in a little league [in Paris], against aggressive youngsters who have a serve that's so wicked, I can barely see the ball. But it doesn't matter. My own special racquet is like a samurai's blade, masked with soft rubber pimples that's called a picot... It's a curious sport, where graybeards like myself can compete against the young killer sharks and sometimes win. I live for the sound of the ball, the pock of my racquet makes while I bend my skinny knees. The fierce concentration pulls me into the fabric of a whirlwind. I dance. I dream.

Charyn is a dream of a writer, good at catching the characters, especially those who played in the great matches in mid-century. In 1952, Reisman and Richard Bergmann went to the USTTA championships in Bombay. Reisman's serve was called "the Atomic Blast." But they were unprepared for Hiroji Satoh, from Japan. Satoh used rubber foam on his racquet, which muffled the sound of the ball.

    Bergmann had spent a lifetime studying the sounds of table tennis. But against Satoh there was no sound...Bergmann was a deaf mute in a game that required dialogue.

In Sizzling Chops, Charyn rises above the tedious prose of a typical sports writer; he even manages to become a bit of a philosopher:

    History turns and turns in funny ways. The past creeps into the future, leaving us with a false present tense, as if every single one of us is wearing a mask.

--- Lolita Lark

The Biology of
Science Fiction

Mark C. Glassy

The Biology of Science Fiction Cinema is divided in chapters such as "Cell Biology," "Molecular Biology," "Endocrinology," "Hemotology," "Biochemistry," and "Microbiology." Under "Microbiology," for example, you'll find "The Brain Eaters" (1958) and "Man Made Monster (1941)." "The Blob" (1958) is dissected under Cell Biology. The text reads,

    The physician, when confronted with the blob digesting an arm of a man, tells his nurse, "There's a man here with some sort of parasite on his arm which is assimilating his flesh at a frightening speed."

The author then says,

    Because of its obvious gelatinous appearance, its pulsations, and the fact that it was literally crawling up the man's arm, calling the blob a parasite is a reasonable guess by a country doctor.

The photograph from "The Man who Lived Again" (1936) has this caption,

    The three-chambered glass vessel to Karloff's immediate left is a complex separatory funnel apparatus primarily used for solvent extractions.

It's a pseudo-scientific trip through the pseudo-scientific world of fiction. Over fifty chilling, blurry photographs, with all the creepy-crawlies you could ask for (best is the man who turned into an ant --- dressed in 1950s style, collar and all).

All that we could have asked is that the author had a bit more genteel affection for the idiocies of the genre. We all knew it was foolish nonsense, but we loved it all the more for that.

--- B. W. Wheeler, PhD

My Little
Blue Dress

Bruno Maddox
Getting the joke here is easy. It's a warped, and warp speed, survey of nearly every cliché of 20th century literature, an inside report from the Short Attention Span generation, an identity crisis of magnificent proportions, and --- most of all --- a sendup of publishing's memoir craze.

Getting to the heart is just a little harder.

Bruno Maddox knows about goring sacred cows. He was editor of Spy magazine from 1996 to 1998, when he "accidentally" killed it off. (He has said the irreverent magazine outlived its reason for being because the villains in suits with cell phones had all gone.)

What's not instantly clear is that under his hipper-than-thou façade the real Maddox, whom we'll call Maddox, is troubled about a prevailing obsession with surface, status, self, and a corresponding lack of interest in knowledge, competence or (heaven forbid) work. He pins these attitudes on his fictional narrator, twenty-seven-year-old Bruno Maddox, whom we'll call Bruno.

Bruno, on the brink of 2000, is faking the memoir of a hundred-year-old woman born on 1 January 1900. He's a self-obsessed young man in search of himself, instant fortune and fame, a creative project with the just-right marketable gimmick, and captivating outfits. In one of his many re-inventions of self, he discards his whimsically blue-collar wardrobe for a getup that changes his outlook, at least for a few days:

    The young man felt old all of a sudden, reader, slightly. Venturing out for his morning sandwich he caught sight of his clothes and could no longer see the point of them, get the joke of them. No longer did his clothing make him feel like a god, reader ... no, instead they made him feel like a man who lacked either the money or the basic common sense to dress appropriately.

Bruno stumbles into caring for an ancient neighbor in New York's Chinatown. He discovers a contract for her memoir --- a million dollar contract, with a looming deadline. Thus the mad dash to write something for which he is totally unequipped, and the notes to himself like:

    TYPE LIKE THE WIND --- and also obviously like an incredibly old woman recalling her life in the 1930s.

Is the woman comatose, dead, or non-existent? It really doesn't matter, because the focus shifts very quickly from her life story to the real story (Bruno) and then again to ... no, never mind.

As the presumed narrator moves from decade to decade, she drifts through literary styles: from D.H. Lawrence to Anaïs Nin, Hemingway and others. This supplies much of the book's fun.

Of course, she's not really writing this, you remember, and Bruno knows next to nothing about history, less than nothing about women. So, in an early romance, set in that glorious summer preceding World War I, it's the nameless lady who constantly side-steps her lover's pleas (they need to "talk about the relationship"). Later she becomes a lesbian, since Bruno does know something about being attracted to women. When she's distressed over a lesbian affair, her partner reassures her:

    I delivered a letter to Ernest Hemingway this afternoon ... does that make me a postman?

In the '30s we find our heroine hidden away in a London mansion as a Mary Poppins-style nanny:

    Beyond the playroom windows, the nineteen thirties were whizzing by without entangling me one iota in their complexity.

He deals with World War II by giving her a job pushing a tea cart at a rural institute where the staff is expected to be creative, not troubling themselves with news, thus neatly avoiding any need for actual WW II facts.

Once the old lady is out of the way --- except as the narrator of Bruno's activities --- he's free to barge around at clubs with weird names and weirder theme décor, get drunk and recover from hangovers, and pursue the girlfriend who keeps telling him to go away. Pay more attention to her than Bruno does. He has many epiphanies:

    History has ended and we don't need people to have fixed identities anymore because the world is now finished, there's nothing more that needs doing.

He looks at other writers' works and decides he could just as well have written some things himself --- if he'd happened to think of them. He makes notes on surefire projects like Cabin Pressure (a rock opera about an alcoholic airline pilot) or Shades of Manhattan (a 16-hour play about a man and woman searching for a pair of sunglasses).

Bruno uses a lot of creative energy convincing himself that genius is just a matter of timing, and of doing the obvious first. An imagined Bob Dylan speaks to an imagined Andy Warhol:

    "If we were ordinary people then it would probably never occur to us to do a giant painting of a soup-can label ... I mean obviously I'm not saying ordinary people are stupid ..."

    "Well, I am," said Andy.

    "I'm sorry, but that's exactly what I'm saying."

It's a brilliant send-up, not just of literary styles and formulæ, but of his own generation, and transient lifestyles: the post-WW I artistic stampede to Paris, drowning in appliances in '50s America, beatniks, hippies, pop art, the money dances of the '80s and '90s.

Read it for dazzle, read it for fun --- it's enormous fun --- but be warned you may be left seriously perplexed over what Bruno/Maddox means by this note to himself: "It was stupid stupid stupid to kill the old woman."

--- Diana Trent

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