So Many Olympic Exertions
The narrator of Chen’s experimental, shape-shifting debut is Athena Chen, a doctoral student of sports scholarship in NYU’s department of American studies. Having exceeded the seventh year of a doctoral program, Athena is confronting dilemmas regarding her academic pursuits when she learns about the suicide of an ex-boyfriend. Though it’s been years since Athena’s last contact with Paul, the news adds fuel to her growing internal strife. A former competitive swimmer, Athena makes it a mission to “keep going” with her goals, engaging in self-improvement drills and drawing on her knowledge of sports as a multipurpose metaphor for life’s obstacles. The book becomes most consequential in its latter half, when Athena returns to her childhood home in California for the summer. The focus sharpens around the Chen family, and the protagonist comes to terms with the loss of her friend. The plot is enriched with a thread about immigration, concerning the narrator’s Taiwanese heritage and the struggles it entails. The current of the narrator’s thoughts and obsessions holds the fragmented, stop-and-start narrative together. Formally unique and inventive, this novel fluctuates in tone, reading at some times like an authentic and unfiltered private journal and at others like a deeply researched academic essay. Often it flows organically into meditative territory, while combining images in a manner reminiscent of the work of authors such as W.G. Sebald or Ben Lerner. This ambitious book is sure to appeal to fans of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?
—it similarly challenges the expectations regarding the rules a novel ought to follow. (Aug.)