the bone cage

Reviewed by Shelly Sanders, Abilene Christian University

AUGUST 14, 2008       archive

In these golden evenings of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Angie Abdou's novel The Bone Cage has burst my bubbly Water Cube. No longer can I happily switch off the television, sliding the latest issue of ESPN magazine under my pillow-the one with Aquaman Michael Phelps' muscled, LZR-skinned torso on the cover-as I float toward sleep, dreaming of those eight gold medals tugging on his neck. No longer can I believe that if Dara Torres wins the 50 Free at age 41, all things are right in the world. Even on my favorite summer TV show, Project Runway, designer Michael Kors' question (after rebuking a contestant for not adding a cape to an Olympic outfit) echoes differently in my head: "After all, what's closer to a superhero than an Olympic athlete?"

Sigh. If only it were that easy.

At a time when global attention is focused on those athletes who participate in the Olympic games, those who perform dazzling, record-breaking feats of strength and speed in single bounds before cameras and boast their new bling on medal stands, Angie Abdou's insightful first novel The Bone Cage, published by NeWest Press in 2007, is a haunting but timely reminder that athletes are superheroes, but not in the comfortable, divinely-apportioned way that we might want to believe. Ultimately, she questions what it means to be a hero and argues that the journey of the professional athlete is much more complicated than we might realize.

Abdou's perceptive and intelligent novel makes us think about all of the almost-Olympic athletes as much as the ones who make it to "The Show." In alternating chapters relating the stories of Sadie Jorgenson, a speed swimmer, and Tom Stapleton (called "Digger"), an 85-kilo wrestler, Abdou details the seven months leading up to the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games for the two Canadian athletes training at the University of Calgary. The Bone Cage, on some level, centers around the relationship forged between Sadie and Digger, though they don't meet until halfway through the novel. Compared to the mainly sexual relationships Sadie forms with other athletes, Sadie and Digger's relationship begins sweetly but naïvely-a naiveté about life and sport that is shattered for both of them when Sadie's chances for Olympic participation are put on hold, possibly indefinitely. Of course, clarity is only found after tragedy, and what is really highlighted in the novel is how to pick up that old bone cage and keep moving on.

Consequently, in the novel we zoom in on many tired and broken bodies. And Abdou would know, being a speed swimmer herself, with a brother who competed in Olympic wrestling. This novel itself is a countdown, a race for the athletes' final moments of possession of their bodies, a palpable sense that this is the last chance. Abdou does an excellent job translating the body practicing in the water and on the wrestling mat, the urgency of training to win and the urgency of winning now. Abdou also highlights the mixed messages athletes receive about their bodies, how they can and should relate to them, and skewers the opinions of outsiders, nay-sayers and dopes from the media, inept health care professionals, lame counselors and "realists" like Lucinda, a friend of Sadie's and ex-Olympic swimmer-turned-soccer mom (Sadie thinks she now looks like "a sad pumpkin") who advises Sadie to just "have fun" at the Olympics (126). "No one cares unless you get a medal," she adds (127), and this sentiment is hard to deny. Digger's friend Ben, who suffers a nervous breakdown after failing to qualify for the Olympics is also not impressed by the advice of his counselor who tells him he needs to "learn to focus on the process rather than the end… to recognize that the value of my expertise in sports was the process" (143). To Abdou, it seems these voices only complicate matters, becoming other voices to tune out while the athletes sacrifice everything for a chance at Olympic gold.

As the novel begins with the wrestlers sweating to make weight and ends with Sadie looking forward to shaving her legs, Abdou conveys a bittersweet acknowledgment that the body will always need work. I can't help but hope that, for both Sadie and Digger, there is a deeper revelation that human connection is complicated, but that embodiment itself is key in understanding one other. In a rare and hopeful moment in their relationship, Digger gives Sadie a high-five: "Their fingertips touch, each pad pressing softly. The fleshy heels of their hands push into each other. Their eyes move at the same time to their palms pressed together and they realize they are an exact match" (140). With this touching of flesh to flesh, they and Abdou dispose of Lucinda's haughty assertion about the Olympic games and sport itself, to "Just know - it's not real. It's all spectacle" (128). Reading Abdou's novel, we understand that there is a visceral world behind the hype. This is the strength of a novel that testifies more to the Olympic quest than Bob Costas' hair-sprayed happiness and three-minute, prepackaged montages ever will.

Abdou, Angie. The Bone Cage. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2007.

Copyright © 2008 by Shelly Sanders.

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