Thrown is wide-ranging and fiercely cerebral, spanning metaphysical transcendence, masculinity, MMA, and the American Dream. Readers follow Howley’s protagonist, Kit, on her search for transcendence through immersion into the savage spectacle of professional cage fighting.
The book begins with Kit stumbling onto an underground cage fight in Iowa featuring a mid-30s fighter named Sean whose lionhearted, if technically unspectacular, performance electrifies Kit into a state of ego-less euphoria. Kit (a philosophy Ph.D. candidate who has clearly read her Sartre) casts aside bad faith and dedicates her life to recapturing this feeling by joining Sean’s fighterly retinue as a “space taker.”
What is original about Howley’s approach to writing about fighting, a subject that has inspired innumerable writers from Norman Mailer to George Plimpton, is her spectator-centricity. The New York Times Book review called Thrown “a ferocious dissection of the essence of the spectator.” Where Howley’s effort sometimes falls short is when her philosophical musings serve to assure us that she is in fact separate from (above) the fighters, rather than taking us deeper into her insights.
She is, in fact, so far removed by inclination from fighting herself that I found myself laughing often as this young philosopher weaves herself into the lives of professional head-bashers. But of course, Kit (and by extension Howley) shows us the truth: that these head-bashers are in fact capable of giving us an ego-dissolving experience matching the best LSD or orgiastic ecstasy. The most transcendent fights expose the primordial universals inside us all, and in doing so they transform an entire arena into a great mind-meld.
Kit eventually adds another fighter to her reverse retinue, a young UFC-bound fighter named Eric on the opposite side of the career arc as Sean. Eric, while technically more skilled, struggles to deliver the transcendence of Sean’s more rugged performances. Howley’s abilities are on full display as she shows how certain fights lead to spectator transcendence where others fall short. As Time puts it: “Howley writes like someone who’s been flayed, all nerve endings exposed, no barriers between her and the world around her.” And it is while flayed and exposed that Howley makes her deepest incision into the reader.
Transcendence in Thrown
Kant’s metaphysics, Jung’s universal unconscious, the Buddha’s nirvana, and Emerson’s Transcendentalism (“every man is an inlet to the same’’) all share the insight that inside all of us is a great mass of sameness disguised only by a paper-thin veneer. Biology in fact tells us that less than one in every thousand DNA base-pairs is unique to an individual. We are all cut from the same cloth.
The stodgy-business school types I met as an economics undergraduate would laugh nervously and check their portfolios at the notion that the great mass of themselves could be swapped out and no one would be the wiser (perhaps especially true in their case). But it is nevertheless an experiential fact that these transcendent feelings, sometimes called peak experiences, are possible. It is Howley’s implicit metaphysical claim that getting in touch with this great mass of sameness is the key to transcendence and momentary emancipation from suffering. Not by taking LSD or meditating for months, but watching two people beat themselves to a bloody pulp. How do fighters take us there?
It is not an easy question to answer, and the fighters themselves are often the most clueless. I wrestled in high-school, which is a slightly nerfed version of mixed-martial arts, where anything goes but biting and ball-grabbing. The opponents I most dreaded were those whose gazes betrayed nothing but a glassy-fierceness. I knew they would go the entire match without suffering from self-doubt, or breaking from a complete focus on the corporeal. I have a hunch that Sean was one of these. I am drawn to this pre-fight image of Archie Moore (left) and Harold Johnson because of how much I relate to Johnson’s gaze. I don’t have to tell you who won the fight (to Johnson’s credit, he did make it 14 rounds).
David Foster-Wallace says in his essay “Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” that it was hard “to reconcile the vapidity of Austin’s narrative with the extraordinary mental powers that are required by world-class tennis.” Wallace concludes that “blindness and dumbness are the price of the [athletic] gift because they are its essence.”
As such, we have to accept that when fighters and athletes give us transcendence they do so outside their conscious control. Which, paradoxically, is exactly why they are able to give it to us at all.