August 17, 2010

Personal essay: Why I Signed '99 Problems' -- An Apologia.

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

99 Problems, by Ben Tanzer

APOLOGIA: A critical essay designed deliberately to be all-positive in nature, in order to convince others to become fans of the subject being discussed.

Why I Signed "99 Problems" -- An Apologia.

Ever since turning 40 last year, I've discovered a whole new fascination in my life for physical activity (bicycling for me), and especially the complicated role it now plays in my life as far as how it affects my sense of creativity, intellectual capacity, and even simple endurance; it is in fact a subject I've often found myself discussing with Chicago author and full-time runner Ben Tanzer, who I'm proud to count as a personal friend after publishing his story collection Repetition Patterns in 2008 to great success. Ben is a much more serious athlete than I am, someone who used to run competitively when younger and is still frankly pretty competitive to this day, and so has always had some really fascinating observations about this subject to share; this is how his new essay collection 99 Problems came about in the first place, in that I thought his readers would be interested in hearing these observations as well, leading to him keeping careful notes over the course of winter 2009 after every run he did, building by the end an intriguing unified set of nonfiction stories regarding all these subjects just mentioned and more, all of them told through his usual humorous filter of pop-culture that has made him so well-loved in the last few years, and a staple of the national literary tour circuit.

And indeed, here on the eve of the book finally going public in summer 2010, I find that Ben has ultimately done something pretty spectacular with 99 Problems, putting together a manuscript that's not only a wonky tech-filled delight for his fellow runners, but that also stands as a powerful meditation on middle-age, and of the nice and sometimes not-so-nice ways that we males in our forties deal with the suddenly lowering limits that happen to our bodies during this period of life. Apart from his bigger points regarding the relationship between physical activity and creative intellectualism, I have to say that it's his thoughts on aging that are my true favorite moments in this book, because of them so often mirroring my own -- this sense that our bodies are somehow betraying us, the frustration of no longer being able to accomplish certain goals simply becuase you're determined to, the start of the disconnect between willpower and capability that just becomes worse from this point on, especially shocking in middle-age because of most of us still considering ourselves too "young" to experience such a thing. Regardless of whether you yourself are an athletic person or not, I suspect that many people will respond favorably to 99 Problems just for this subject alone, making it a worthwhile read no matter what your personal relationship to running.

But like I said, the main point of 99 Problems precisely is to examine the complicated relationship between physical activity and creativity; and it's here where Ben really shines, even more interesting in this case by him taking a sort of sideways approach to the subject, delivering not grand summing-up observations but rather looking at the nitty-gritty details from each of the runs themselves, examining the specific insights he had on that particular run regarding whatever creative project he was working on that particular week, whether that was a new story, his latest novel, or his perpetually frustrating efforts to finish his latest screenplay. This is such an interesting subject, I think, because it seems to belie the traditional image of the boozing, drugging, chain-smoking artist one step from death; more and more these days, it seems, not only are the most successful artists the ones to incorporate regular physical activity in their lives, but even our definition of what is "hip" for artists to do in their spare time is profoundly changing. It seems that we as a society are realizing more and more just what an integral role physical health plays in our mental and creative health as well; and Ben really examines this issue in a legitimately deep and complex way in 99 Problems, precisely by doing what he's so good at in his fiction as well, by focusing in on the small and personal, by making it one person's story that by extension becomes an entire society's.

As with his first story collection for CCLaP, I'm immensely proud to have my name associated with this book, and I have a feeling that there will be as many passionate fans for 99 Problems once it comes out as there is for his inventive, funny novels and short stories, and especially when it comes to my fellow sore, perpetually injured, middle-aged exercise enthusiasts. I urge you to download a copy for yourself whenever you have a chance, and become either a new or continued fan of this remarkable writer.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:10 AM, August 17, 2010. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Chicago news | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |