May 18, 2021

It seems I have a doppelgänger: a self-described “vigorous type” with a lifelong obsession with exercise, although this minor variation on Shriver happens to be gay. Born three years after me in 1960, Alison Bechdel grew up in roughly the same America as I did — as she notes, “before the dawn of the exercise epoch”. Girls weren’t expected to bestir themselves beyond 15 seconds of jogging in place in gym class, while bulging muscles on females were still considered gross. Nevertheless, Bechdel and I both resolved in our scrawny childhoods to become physically strong. We both invented ball games in the yard with rules of our own devising.

As I learned from her new graphic novel The Secret to Superhuman Strength, we both eschew team sports, preferring to compete primarily against ourselves. (Bechdel skis, and though I play tennis instead, I prefer rallying for hours on end to matches.) We were both regarded by schoolmates as mediocre athletes; that is, we were both chosen in the middle of the pack for kickball teams. We both took up running as a lark, beginning with short solo distances — in junior high, I did circuits of the football field while the rest of the class scarfed down miniature pizzas; Bechdel started spontaneously running to visit her grandmother. We both steadily increased this distance, and we both pushed our route to ten miles. Over the course of artistic careers, we’ve both been as dedicated to working up a sweat in a literal sense as we have been to our exertions on the page.

We’ve both gone through similar phases: weight training, long-distance cycling. Why, I positively seized on the fact that Bechdel spurns swimming — a difference! — and has got into yoga, which (so far) I’ve resisted. But over the last 50 years, we’ve both also been subjected to the larger western world’s gathering fixation on fitness, which has overtaken our meagre private labours and crashed over our heads like a 30-foot breaker. Overwhelmingly, then, what Bechdel and I have most in common is that at nearly the same time we both took a step back from what Bechdel calls an accelerating “cardio-pulmonary frenzy” and wrote books about it.

A word from our sponsor: my 2020 novel The Motion of the Body Through Space regards a woman of 60 who’s pursued a rigorous, albeit intensely private, fitness regime since childhood.  At the very point that regime has almost entirely destroyed her knees — so much for those ten-mile runs — her sedentary husband announces he’s going to run a marathon. When he ramps up to the triathlon, for which he engages a sexy younger trainer, the marriage, to put it mildly, is imperilled. The purpose of my project was to examine what in God’s name is propelling this latter-day preoccupation with fitness and whether the trend is a force for ill or good. (Answer: both. Now you needn’t buy the book.)

Yet the graphic novel may be an even better form than the straight prose kind for exploring this topic. Illustration brings to life various forms of self-torture, and Bechdel’s rendering of her multiple exertions throughout the years is dryly self-parodic. The drawings are stylish as well as entertaining. The narrative moves nicely along. Simultaneously detailing her romantic and career travails, Bechdel’s accompanying text is lush enough to parse with some profundity our mysterious exaltation of roundly unproductive suffering. The whole package is presented with more than a soupçon of welcome self-derision. I loved it.

Nevertheless, I confess to some ambivalence about discovering that the powers-that-be created two of me, just in case something unfortunate happened to the spare. One reason people like Bechdel and me avoid competitive sports is that by nature we’re too competitive, and so might take conclusive defeat fatally to heart. Thus the rivalrous devil on my shoulder jeered over these pages, “Oh, yeah?  You’ve biked a hundred miles in a day? Well, I’ve cycled so-called centuries cross-country for months!” I know. Pathetic. Indeed, an aim of both my novel and Bechdel’s is to question why we’ve come to invest so much status in fitness. How come many of us now compare ourselves to others in accordance with who does more repetitions of deltoid dips, even more so than with who earns more money or builds the more dazzling career?

When I started running around the football field at lunch and keeping a secret chart of my daily sit-ups, I imagined that these quirky absorptions were entirely my idea. Now I’m not so sure.  Recognising my double in Alison Bechdel (though she’s massively taller than I am, damn her) made me suspect uneasily that there might be other copies of me out there, hundreds, thousands, even millions.

Rare must be the parent who looks up “1,000 most popular names for girls” and exclaims, “Look! ‘Olivia’ is number one! Let’s call our baby the same name everyone else is choosing!” Something more enigmatic and subconscious propels “Olivia” to that top slot. “Olivia” is in the air. It burrows into the brains of parents-to-be from the side like an earwig. Meanwhile, all those parents who christened a daughter “Olivia” last year thought the name was fresh, unusual, and their idea.

So with fitness. I think both Bechdel and I were suggestible. The nascent cultural obsession with exercise was already in the air. We were early adopters. But we were still earwigged.

I acknowledge this apparent conformity with no pleasure. Like any proper American, I prefer to regard myself as self-created, not as a predictable product of outside forces, like pasta dough forced through the mould for fusilli. But the amount that Bechdel and I have in common cannot be a coincidence. We started out the same loner, high-achiever type and grew up in the same country at the same time.

In one respect the graphic artist and I may part ways. Strewn throughout Superhuman Strength are mini-bios of philosophers and poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jack Kerouac. These inserts are a little tedious. The bolstering of Bechdel’s personal story with historical heavy hitters suggests an insecurity about the worthiness of her theme. Writing my own novel about exercise, I shared that insecurity: is this topic meaty enough to justify a book? For me, what came to seem important about the subject was making it seem less important.

Despite her playful, self-deprecating approach, Bechdel portrays her churn through multifarious routes to exhaustion as a form of spiritual seeking. By contrast, I’ve come to see this mystical elevation of exercise as a route to enlightenment as part of the problem — and there is a problem. Obviously, a greater focus on fitness comes with undeniable health benefits, but worship of the hard body is a form of idolatry. Taken to excess, fitness fanaticism naturally nurtures narcissism (the endurance-sport-convert husband in my novel becomes unbearable). What we need is not to go back to being slobs, but to restore a sense of proportion.

Keeping the body in working order is a mechanical matter, one best decoupled from status and virtue. I adore tennis. I happily impute to the sport an element of, yes, spiritual satisfaction — because for me tennis engenders joy in its purest form. By contrast, plain exercise — calisthenics, running when you’re not in the mood (almost always) — is drudgery. Exercise constitutes the dullest part of my day. The fact that I keep doggedly at it is one of the least interesting things about me, and I’d rather talk about almost anything but.

The elevation of fitness to the highest of attainments is a sure sign of a culture grown neurotically inward and stunted. It’s a sign of diminished aspirations. When “self-improvement” entails not learning German but doing star jumps, we’re aiming to clear the lowest of bars. We’re not producing superheroes, but gym bunnies. In the end, no matter how much agony we undergo to build our biceps, those perishable muscles will still atrophy in old age and then end up on the scrap heap — at which point, what have we got to show? We could stand to demote the press-up back to the floor where it belongs.

The whole purpose of maintaining a functional body is to be able to do something else: write books, invent new software, land a rover on Mars. Theoretically, Michelangelo could have spent all his time on chin-ups and never have got round to the Sistine Chapel. Alison Bechdel won’t be remembered for her running time, but for exuberant drawings, droll captions, and candid self-reflection. The West’s obsession with physical strength, perversely, is a weakness.

 

Lionel Shriver’s novel The Motion of the Body Through Space is now out in paperback.

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