Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Google a Googly
I've had a lot of questions about the novel that I’ve just started writing, NOT CRICKET (renamed A MATCH FOR EVE). The first question was: how can an American woman write a book on cricket?
I’m not really writing a book on cricket (it is NOT CRICKET.) My novel is about two generations of American women at Oxford University for junior year abroad. Cricket is popular world wide and ever so charmingly English, but Americans just don’t get it. What a perfect metaphor for the cultural divide!
I love to play around with words. The expression “that’s not cricket” means not playing by the rules of gentlemanly conduct, and my novel revolves around a moral dilemma. The central male character is captain of his college cricket team at Oxford.
The rules of cricket are way too complex to explain in a novel. The last thing I want to do is bore the reader who is looking for a good story or the cricket expert who already knows more than I do.
There will be some cricket in the narrative, but on the level that even an American woman would find interesting. Guys look awfully good in cricket whites, and then there are the champagne and strawberries.
Since its inception in 1787, cricket has evolved. Back in the 1980’s (the first time period of my novel) college and university teams would have played in cricket whites. In the 2000’s (the second period of my novel) the lads are sporting bright colored nylon and spandex: pink, black and red!
Cricket reds? It just doesn’t ring true. The same was so for the Oxford vs. Cambridge Universities match in shades of blue nylon. It’s a mirror of cultural convergence, but the differences remain below the surface.
Cricket is good fun to watch on a sunny summer day. I’d have watched more matches only it was the rainiest spring/summer ever, or so people said. The English always say the weather is worse than normal. Games get rained out all the time. Can you imagine keeping those cricket whites white?
I like the college matches (like intramural sports) because they are played fast in just a couple of hours. A professional cricket match can last days. Yes, days. Five days is normal. Can you believe it?
So how did I become interested in cricket? When I was 15 my family visited England. My father had gone to business school with Sir T. We were invited to a cricket match at their sons’ school. We sipped champagne and nibbled strawberries while one handsome son in his whites tried to explain the game as his older brother played. The son was also an avid reader, and we had a fun conversation about literature. Another day we toured around gorgeous Oxford University.
My mother claims I imprinted on Englishmen that vacation like one of Konrad Lorenz’s goslings. Six years later at college I fell madly in love. That would be with my English husband Henry, an avid cricket fan.
We have a cricket bat in our umbrella stand. Maybe that’s not so strange, but the umbrella stand is in a mudroom in Maine, USA. The practice came in handy during our two sabbaticals in the U.K. Our daughter is quite good at cricket, even by English standards. She played during P.E. at her state school when we were living in Oxford last year.
My son’s wood-working project at the Abingdon School was to make a cricket ball carrier. His model was the fastest and built with the least expensive material. It ran on rubber band power. How’s that for Yankee ingenuity?
Henry’s great grandfather, Stephen Wildman Cattley, played professional cricket for Surrey. Stephen’s claim to fame was once catching out the cricket legend W.G. Grace. The heirloom ball was engraved for Stephen’s skill in the 1879 match against Kent. Stephen’s brother also played for Surrey.
Henry bought me a good short book What is a Googly? Rob Eastaway specifically wrote the book for his confused American friends or for “cricket widows” (ie clueless wives of cricket players.) It has become my well-underlined manual.
Cricket is full of odd terms, one of which is the googly. Eastaway defines it as “a ‘trick’ ball bowled by a leg spin bowler which spins the opposite way to the way the batsman is expecting.” Huh? That one I needed to see demonstrated by Henry. Bottom line: it’s a tricky ball to hit.
Actually all cricket balls are hard to hit: the ball is hard, bowled fast and bounces unpredictably on the grass. Even worse, the fieldsmen catch it bare-handed. The game requires nerve, skill and bravery. Aren’t you a little hooked?
I’m not the first one to recognize the symbolic beauty of cricket in representing the gap between Americans and cricket-playing nations. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland looks at the opposite situation of my narrative. His book centers on immigrant men playing cricket in the USA. His protagonist, Hans, have moved to NYC from London and is the only white man playing cricket that season.
The cricket in Netherland is used metaphorically to demonstrate the sense of being “the other.” Chuck Ramkissoon from Trinadad umpires cricket matches on Staten Island (NYC), “You want a taste of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of the cricketeer. Put on white to feel black.”
The novel takes place in the months after 9/11 and centers on disillusionment. Although events in Netherland are contemporary, the language and structure O’Neill employs to tell his story draw more from late 19th century literature. The prose is beautiful if wordy, and the plot is as convoluted as a Henry James novel.
I’m a native New Yorker, and still O’Neill, an immigrant himself, revealed a side of my city I never knew existed. I was surprised to find another novel connecting Americans to cricket since I started researching mine over a year ago. Released in May 2008, Netherland has sold well on both sides of the Atlantic, hitting the NYT bestseller list. Americans can be interested in cricket if the story is good.
Anyway, don’t take just my word for it. Here’s my husband Henry on Netherland:
Netherland, I should admit up front, is almost written for me, with the plot revolving around a European banker who moves from London to New York and loves cricket. O’Neill captures many of the sentiments, new joys and estrangements that I’m familiar with. What makes the book special, though, is the use of cricket to explore ideas of belonging, identity and nationhood.
The transplant Hans looks back proudly at his boyhood skills as a batsman. But the elegant ground shots which worked so well on manicured European pitches quickly come to grief in the tangled weeds of derelict New York outfields. Yet he can’t quite bring himself to slog the ball high on the volley -- a scything batting style dismissed by English commentators as “haymaking” -- even as he realises his old approach is failing him in the New World. His resolution of this dilemma is one of the more enjoyable high points.
Meanwhile, Chuck Ramkissoon is determined that he will make Americans accept cricket rather than abandon cricket to be accepted by Americans. From his insistence that cricket has a longer American heritage than baseball to his dream of creating a first-class stadium in the city, it’s a glorious conceit - part Gatsby, part Ahab - and O’Neill makes you hope and believe that Chuck will pull it off.
I loved Netherland, although I should warn you that reading it is at times like watching Yorkshire batting great Geoffrey Boycott defending a difficult wicket: you know there’s a master craftsman at work, but does it have to be so SLOW?
Anyway, it’s great for ex-pat cricket fans like me and my good friend Michael, seen here in Maine fascinating each other but boring our friends on the vital topic of whether England or the West Indies suck worse.
Blog Watch: Anil P. is a cricket fan so we’ve been thinking about him today. Visit Windy Skies where Anil blogged about the terrible floods and famine in his part of India.