Reviewed by Angie Abdou, College of the Rockies
27 march 2013 archive
Paula Eisenstein's debut novel features a teenager who is above all else a champion swimmer. She faces other challenges in her life – gargantuan, shocking challenges – but it is always swimming that looms large, dwarfing all else. The pool becomes a place to escape from tragic events that happen within her family, but even more so swimming is a means through which she can forge an identity and sense of self-worth to separate herself from those tragedies.
In what feels like a minor aside, the unnamed narrator reveals that her brother has murdered a girl on the swim team. But it's not like he murdered her on purpose, she assures us. No, this murder happened accidentally when the girl resisted his attempt to rape her. The doctors have declared the brother a psychopath, we are told, because "he didn't care afterwards" (19).
But that is not what is important, the weight of the narration implies. What is important is: "I'm an excellent swimmer. Seriously excellent. I've already been city champion three times. Now I'm a provincial champion with a provincial record" (17).
Tellingly, the narrator lumps the problem of her murderer/rapist brother in with her other teenage problems as if they are all of equal value: her self-consciousness about her armpits that might be ugly due to her massive swimmer shoulders, her fear of menstruating during swim practice, her embarrassment of her mother who leaves her father and declares herself a lesbian. Whatever the insecurity, Flip Turn's narrator seeks validation through swimming. If only she continues to be a good enough swimmer, nothing else will matter. Nothing else will be counted against her. "There's two things [the girls at school] could have heard about me" (76), the narrator writes. We know the first. The first is the brother. She only needs to tell us the second: "The second thing is – I'm such a good swimmer" (76). The narrator continually weighs her swimming victories against the notoriety of her brother, posing the question: how much can athletic talent compensate for? That is a question worth spending some time with in the age of Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius.
It takes a mind altering acid trip for the narrator to break out of this obsessive focus on swimming victory. Only when she is pulled over to the side of the road, too high to drive, does she realize the extent of her dependence on her sport and how much she has come to need winning in order to make sense of her life: "You're afraid. So don't panic. Stop treating everything like it's a race to win. Pull over to the curb and wait and try to think of a way out of it. Try to think of a way around an entire dimension dropping out of the world, the one that keeps it all together and organized" (185).
Flip Turn is a dark book. The coaches are sexual predators. The parents are oblivious accomplices. The pressure put on young swimmers is nearly unbearable, even to the extent of being likened to rape. Early on the narrator tells us that "the advantage of swimming is that when you're in the water doing lengths you could cry like a baby without people knowing" (21). Dionne Brand has said "The great interrogation room is the stanza, you are standing at its door." With Flip Turn, we can extend that metaphor to the novel, where Eisenstein interrogates the culture of competitive swimming with great vigor and ruthlessness.
The structure of Flip Turn may be off-putting to some readers. Eisenstein has written it in very short sections – some only a couple of sentences, some as long as two pages. We follow no traditional narrative arc that readers usually associate with a novel. There is no tidy, satisfying closure. However, the book itself warns against judging a literary work by an arbitrary, external standard. The novel's swimmer is also a writer, but her creative writing teacher does not understand the fragmented piece she wrote about an atomic bomb explosion: "Evidently, it is Mr. Voight's belief that when you witness a nuclear bomb blowing up, no matter how upsetting you might be finding it, your experience should be described paying full attention to rules of grammar" (108). Instead, it is implied, we must judge a literary work's structure in relation to that particular work's content. The experience of reading should mimic the experience of living the events relayed within the book.
Eisenstein's structure is perfectly fitting for Flip Turn, then, in that each segment is like a length of the pool. We go back and forth over the same terrain, around and around familiar issues. We experience repetition but also difference, as we change direction quickly and come at the same event from the opposite end. The narrator reflects on her life of "all the swimming up and down and around." The author's structure mirrors that dominant activity.
If I were to teach Flip Turn in my sport literature course – and I likely will – I would teach it alongside Swimming by Nicola Keegan and Sage Island by Samantha Warwick. All three novels draw parallels between the athletic and artistic life, both art and sport offering a space in which to escape and to self-validate. In these books, the main impulse for an athletic life is existential angst. Through swimming, the protagonists attempt to assign meaning to their lives, but in the end, all that swimming has done is defer life's most important lesson. All three of these authors know that the validation that most counts does not come from the time clock.
Eisenstein, Paula. Flip Turn. Toronto: Mansfield Press, 2012. 190 pages. Paper. $19.95.
Copyright © 2013 by Angie Abdou