It was during the summer of 2009 that I first read the opening paragraph to German novelist Peter Handke’s 1970 novel, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. It remains the most tantalizingly confusing paragraph I’ve ever read:
When Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had once been a well-known soccer goalie, reported for work that morning, he was told that he was fired. At least that was how he interpreted the fact that no one except the foreman looked up from his coffee break when he appeared at the door of the construction shack, where the workers happened to be at that moment, and Bloch left the building site. Out on the street he raised his arm, but the car that drove past — even though Bloch hadn’t been hailing a cab — was not a cab. Then he heard the sound of brakes in front of him. Bloch looked around: behind him there was a cab; its driver started swearing. Bloch turned around, got in, and told the driver to take him to the Naschmarkt.
In this paragraph, the reader finds a narrative method that feels like a double-negative, with all those nots. Bloch’s been fired, but only in his head. And yet he seems to lose his job anyway when he walks out of the construction shack. Termination happens without the pink slip. Except that it doesn’t. If that doesn’t feel like a true crossing of narrative wires (since Bloch might be “crazy” and therefore delusionally imagining the events of the story), it gets weirder. On the street, Bloch raises his hand, but not to hail a cab, and though the car he seemed to be hailing wasn’t a cab, a cab arrives anyway. When Bloch gets in, he immediately has a place in mind, a place he seems to have wanted to go. What I’m thinking is this: arrive early at a concert, and there’s a soundcheck—or, better, when I come early to an orchestral performance, I hear the violins and the cellos tuning up. The musicians test out notes. They try out their bows, adjusting the tension. They try out the gestures of musicians before performing. Handke’s opening salvo in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick seems like a tuning-up. The gestures get tried out and then mean something a second later. The hand shoots into the air. Then it becomes a hand hailing a cab. The opening paragraph of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick throws a little touch of rehearsal into its performance.
That can’t be right. The book stays weird. Near the end, it uses simple, word-sized pictures instead of words to describe Bloch’s actions. So, Handke doesn’t eliminate the sense of a rehearsal’s effort, but it doesn’t feel like effort. The novel’s opening paragraph is stone-faced. Its confidence has no air of practice. A point of comparison seems in order. The end of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel, Breakfast of Champions, features a hand-drawn picture — a cartoon, really — of Vonnegut himself, with a single tear running down his cheek. Just a few pages previous, the novel has concluded with a meeting between Vonnegut and his own character, Kilgore Trout. He grants Trout free will — he wants to free all the characters who have served him “loyally” over the years, but is only telling Trout — but as the narrator/Vonnegut disappears into the void, he hears Trout exclaim, desperately: Make me young, make me young, make me young! This is the opposition that exists in an unstated fashion between Handke and Bloch, right? And if so, what does that mean?
Characters, it seems, are pawns. They are creatures raised to the status of automatons by “acting” the way their creators want them to. In one sense (the classic analytic sense by which literature is held to be mimetic, i.e. imitative of actual life), this state of affairs leaves characters in one hell of a pickle. Supposedly, their emotional lives resemble the emotional lives of readers, but characters have been programmed. In a weird way, then, all literary characters are undead. Imbued with the qualities of life (certain kinds of movement), but lacking the autonomy of real people, they stagger through the landscapes of the novels and stories they appear in, following the paths laid out for them like idiot zombies cornered in a dead end. What Vonnegut suggests is that this is abuse. Characters, were they really free, would want the chance to have back what Trout wants back: to start from the beginning on his own. At the beginning of Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, this is why there isn’t any true sense of practice. When Bloch raises his arm, the narration begins to say But the car that drove past wasn’t a cab, but then has to quickly add that Bloch wasn’t hailing a cab. It’s as though Bloch is resisting the position he’s been put in. After all, he seems to decide he is fired all by himself. Reversing the usual relation between character and narrative, Handke seems to find Bloch slippery in his grasp. There’s no practice, just trouble.
For part of May and June in 2009, I was living in Iowa City, attending a summer writing program at the Iowa Writers Workshop. It was a relatively short commitment, just three weeks, and I rented a tiny bedroom in a strange apartment complex on a hill near the university’s campus. On the complex was a house where, I was told, Vonnegut had once lived. There was no bed in my room, though there was an ugly green couch. I slept on an air mattress that deflated every single night, slowly lowering me to the ground as I slept. It was like those cartoons where someone’s spirit-self settles carefully back into the sleeping or dead body so that the person can get up, except that I would wake in the morning at roughly eye level with the ugliest bluish carpet I had ever seen. The mini-fridge in the room had swirls of brown stains that I tried to clean, but couldn’t scrub into the proper degree of oblivion. For some reason, I bought a package of bologna at a corner store, thinking that this time and place was the exact moment in my life when I should finally try bologna. As I sat in that hot room, trying to be in physical contact with as few surfaces as possible, I read a series of books, including The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. My living situation at that time is fun for me to write about now, of course; it has the touch of squalor that makes the writing I did at the time seem grounded in a kind of discomfort that’s stupidly perfect for a wannabe writer. Except, that’s all a sham. The second weekend, I retreated back to Minneapolis for two days, mostly so I could sleep with the woman I was seeing at the time. What I like about Bloch is his apparent flashing between different intentions: now he means one thing, now another. What I dislike about myself when I look back at a strange period of desperation in my mid-twenties is that I was so remarkably consistent. Must remain in relationship, no matter the cost may very well have been my motto. If I had accidentally hailed a cab back then, I wouldn’t have told it to take me anywhere at all.
These are questionable conclusions. Sure, my loneliness at the time felt a bit impressive to me. It always feels unusual to go multiple days in a row without speaking to anyone. It wasn’t glum, however. Yes, the room was small enough that I could feel my laptop making it hotter. No, there was no internet. But, the communal kitchen was surprisingly clean. The kicker was that the word “DEAD” was stenciled backwards on the thin, wood-paneled wall of the room and through the wall I could hear my immediate neighbor, who seemed to be a permanent resident, watching MacGuyver. This is the key to Bloch’s situation at the beginning of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick: it’s really very silly.
Handke’s novel is a murderer’s tale. Bloch goes out and kills a woman within the first few pages of the book. His homicidal actions have the same disconnect as that double-negative spirit that sweeps through the first paragraph. What is Bloch’s role, then? What’s his responsibility? Murderers sometimes have alibis, but not really. Since the killers are the ones who did the killing, their alibis — if they even have them — are inevitably false. If Bloch had an alibi, though, it would feel true even when it was a lie. Handke puts the question to the idea of Bloch’s responsibility in a peculiarly uncomfortable way. A man who hails a cab by waving randomly at a car that is not a cab seems caught in the teeth of some machine that liberates him even as it clamps down. So it’s not that the first paragraph of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is silly haha; it’s silly because the idea that Bloch works his way through the world in this fashion, with the alibi of his own irresponsibility, puts us back in a naïve reading of Handke’s novel, the reading that says Joseph Bloch is crazy, that he’s a psycho, a jangled weirdo who decides he’s been fired and accidentally hails a cab before deciding, I’ll go to the Naschmarkt. If he’s crazy, and if the book simply wants to convey that keyed-up insanity, the opening paragraph is silly because it doesn’t seem to tell us we should be laughing. It’s not funny.
Laughter is not the only kind of funny. In his short essay on Kafka, David Foster Wallace comments that part of what makes it difficult for his students to appreciate the humor in Kafka’s stories is that “the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle” — and that, Wallace writes, is comical. The trouble is that trouble is our only business: ha! ha! Handke’s paragraph on Bloch has the same sense of comedy. I can think of no other piece of writing that so simply and richly conveys that sensation where one feels both deeply responsible for and irresistibly forced into one’s actions. For example, imagine how funny it would be if Death came to you and said, Hey, it’s time for you to die, sorry and you said, Haha, not this time, Grim Reaper and then ran straight off a cliff, Wile E. Coyote-style. Obviously, that’s completely hilarious. And so is Joseph Bloch.
It’s not until the ending of Handke’s novel that the book’s opening paragraph seems to be explained. By tale’s end, Bloch is intently watching a penalty kick. He rehearses in his head all the thoughts that must be nagging the goalie, who doesn’t know where the kicker will try to put the ball. Then:
The kicker suddenly started his run. The goal-keeper, who was wearing a bright yellow jersey, stood absolutely still, and the penalty kicker shot the ball directly into his hands.
Apologies, I know I’m jumping ahead; these are the last sentences of the novel. The suspense of consideration — the goalie wonders whether he should dive this way or that and whether the penalty kicker will be counting on his diving this way or that — was all for naught. If the problem in the opening of the novel was that Bloch’s gestures didn’t line up with clear intentions, the gesture of the penalty kick is perfectly in sync with a hoped-for meaning. The ball goes right into the goalie’s hands. The gesture of kick and catch line up exactly. There is no lag between kicker and goalie, character and author. What a wonderful world. But it is not Bloch’s world at all.
We only have words for things that bother us. Language is anxiety given material form. Or, rather, words designate those things about which it is possible to think, those things we have to deal with. If things were inert, not worthy of notice, we wouldn’t mention them and wouldn’t be able to. There’d be no words. That there is a word indicates a snag, a hitch we have to consider. In the opening paragraph of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Handke’s narration presumes the meaning of Bloch’s raising his arm before really understanding the intent. Bloch was, after all, just raising his arm. What does anyone know about what that gesture means? What is the word for it? “Hailing”? But, of course, Bloch ended up hailing a cab anyway. The point is: what do Bloch’s intentions matter? Language doesn’t care about us. Conventional meanings are always at the ready. Perhaps it is not so much that the narration is lagging behind Bloch’s actions as lagging around Bloch’s actions. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, being a novel, will record the forward momentum of a plot in which Bloch goes some “where,” does something, murders someone, wanders some “where” again. But even if a fictional narrative is the case and the context, Handke’s opening paragraph suggests Bloch’s alienation from the plot in which he’s helplessly snared. He tries the gestures for reasons other than their meaning. It’s a stretching of muscles. But it’s raising your hand or opening your mouth that gets you in the worst kinds of trouble.
Image courtesy the author