Reading Like a Writer: The Longshot and Meaningful Transitions
Katie Kitamura's The Longshot is about a mixed martial arts fighter who has a rematch with the first fighter who ever beat him, back when he was winning, and he hasn't really been a winner since. It's about the journey from the top of a career to understanding himself as something else.
Good writing about competitive sports makes bodies present and physical, but still acknowledges the brain's involvement and the games it plays. In elite athletics, the mind and the body act together, but they might also work against each other. The Longshot makes that strange and nuanced mind/body relationship come alive. It's hard to find the best passage to quote, because Kitamura never shines a big cheesy spotlight on it. Rather, she makes it happen in small ways in almost every scene.
They had a light workout scheduled for the evening. Cal jumped rope to warm up. He liked it—he liked the feel of his feet bouncing on the mat and he liked the rope arcing around him. He kept his arms taut and his hands rotating quickly and soon his feet were skimming fast over the mat. The rope made a high whistling noise as it soared through the air and then a light slapping sound as it hit against the mat. Riley watched him for a minute. Then he stepped outside, pulling the door shut behind him.
There's an intense physicality, but it's still a quiet, watchful moment. How does this happen?
First, details of the body abound: the jumping, the way Cal's feet bounce on the mat and the rope encircles him. We feel his muscles in words like "taut," as well as the quick movements that are described. He most definitely has—and feels—his body.
The objects in the room enhance Cal's physical presence. A body in a void has no feeling, but this body is pressed against material things. His feet touch the mat—bouncing then skimming. The rope defines a space around him when it arcs. The space becomes more alive and visceral when the rope makes sounds—the high whistling nose in the air and the slapping as it hits the mat. The presence of the mat and rope help his body have presence, too.
But physical as the scene is, it's also mental. Cal "like[s]" the feel of what he's doing. Kitamura is careful to alert us to his perspective, which makes us conscious that these things aren't only happening, but Cal is noticing them. In fact, he is making the actions happen.
Writers are often encouraged to eliminate such filtering and it's true a scene may become more immediate without constant "he saw,” “she knew,” “they noticed,” etc. But a reminder of perspective makes us aware of Cal as not just a body but a mind, which is crucial to the work Kitamura is doing in the scene.
I should also note that Kitamura uses indicators of perspective because the point of view shifts between Cal and Riley. It does this frequently and smoothly throughout the book. Even in this short paragraph, we move to Riley's perspective. In this way, we see Cal from both the inside and the outside. He lives inside his body. His body also exists in the world.
The matter-of-fact transition from one person's mind to another is essential. When Cal "like[s]" something, the word is subjective enough that we feel we're hearing it directly from him. An objective narrator is unlikely to make a claim like that. Neither is Riley. When "Riley watche[s]" Cal, it pulls the readers from Cal's head to Riley's because Cal is unlikely to tell us what it is that Riley sees.
If the perspective were already established as firmly loyal to one character or another, we'd interpret terms such as "liked" and "watched" differently. We could know that the primary character observes another closely enough to notice or interpret these things, or even that the original character is speculating. Since this book has carefully established a shifting point of view, however, we trust that these words identify changes in perspective.
Kitamura might have chosen one narrator for the entire story—either Cal or Riley—and stuck with him. But I think her choice is wise because it allows the story to circle the inside and outside of the mind and body in question. The transitions from character to character are like the transitions from describing the body to describing the mind.
This relationship between inner and outer world, and the circling perception of it, persists throughout the book. My theory is that the smooth transitioning between minds and bodies paves the way for a more profound transition that happens in just a few key moments but resonates throughout the rest of the story. Here's one moment:
At some point the fight with Rivera had become terrifyingly real. It had no semblance to a game. There were no rules or rounds or demarcations, there was no beginning or end. He stood in the middle of the fight. He looked out and it was like he couldn't see where it would end.
As happens in the earlier passage, the body is used to express what is happening in the mind at the same time that the mind is used to express what is happening in the body.
However, a more paradoxical idea comes to light in these later passages as we transition from understanding the body in the fight to knowing the fight in the body:
He and Riley started training. They trained, and he felt the fight growing in his body. His head was clear for the first time in years. He thought that must be because of the fight. He found himself looking forward to it. He found himself thinking about it all the time. The promoter fixed the date. The fight was confirmed and the contracts signed. He looked at Riley. He could see how he was pleased.
The body is an actor just as it is acted upon. Even wilder, a thing is inside a thing that is inside the original.
This paradox of the sport existing inside body and the body existing inside the sport expands the reader's mind space and understanding of the world of the book. As Cal's body expands to encompass a huge idea, our brains expand to encompass the impossible concept.
If Cal's body can contain this—the whole world of fighting—what else can it contain? I propose one more effect of these important transitions between mind and body, Cal and Riley, contained and containing: it's a way to enhance the implicit metaphor that the fight represents life itself. Kitamura doesn't spell this out for us—I agree it would be over the top to do so. Instead she creates the mind space possible for the reader to intuit it.
The smooth and careful transitions from brain to brain, brain to body, and body to world create an incredible and nuanced effect, enhancing the book's impact and making it resonate far beyond its (already interesting) subject matter.
Allison Wyss's stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.