My film critic of choice, Mark Kermode, is fond of arguing that Jaws is not about a shark. And that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not about spies.
In the same vein, The Sport of Kings, by C.E Morgan, which I just finished reading, is not about the horse. Not really. It’s about a lot of things, but mostly it’s about the relative powerlessness of humans in the face of the great forces of the universe.
Perhaps weirdly, I’ve been reading it through the lens of having recently re-read War and Peace. That might feel like an unfair comparison for any novel to stand against, but it’s the only other really big, ambitious, state of people novel I’ve read this year – and The Sport of Kings, stacks up pretty well. It’s big and ambitious, wanting to describe a place, a multitude of people and their stories, and to dig into what makes them tick.
It’s beautiful when it’s about the landscape and realistically brutal when it’s about what the people within that landscape do to each other – but it’s not explicit in its brutality, which feels refreshing nowadays. The main weakness it shows in the comparison with War and Peace is in the relationship the reader forms with the characters, who are compelling and whose flaws are understandable, but who do not inspire the great pained love that Tolstoy is capable of making you feel for his deeply messed up characters – but there is possibly no author who shares Tolstoy’s ability to create that kind of empathy, so what’s to nitpick (I just want to love on Tolstoy a bit).
In a brief (mildly torturous) interview for a *New Yorker* 20 under 40 feature, Morgan listed her favourite writers (over 40):
Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, Denis Johnson, Marilynne Robinson, Terrence Malick’s screenwriting.
I don’t know Johnson’s work, but there is the clarity of McCarthy and Robinson, and their sense of place, the deep desire to understand people of DFW, and ability to move freely in time through character of Malick, in Morgan’s writing. She also shares all of their ambition, and I love it. I’ve often said that I would rather read something hugely ambitious but flawed than something meticulously put together but smaller in its ambition to explain and describe the ways that people are in the world.
Ambition is a form of suicide if it kills the simple self
There are times in where this line, uttered in the mind of Henry Forge in one of his epiphanies, comes close to being true of the book. To a fairly large extent I had to let parts of The Sport of Kings flow over me and through me without worrying what they were doing or meaning, just letting them be part of the world and the background. It teeters on the edge of literary pretension, and if I’d let myself get caught up thinking about them, it would probably have lost me. But I willed it to succeed, and if you let it flow, and look at it out of the corner of your eye, these passages add a depth to the novel. Plus the prose is wonderful.
To go back to the War and Peace comparison, the passages about evolution and geology are necessary in the same way that Tolstoy’s diversions into historiography are necessary. They set Morgan’s people in their place in the world, fighting against history and evolution in the American South. Henry Forge and Allmon Shaughnessy both think they know what the rules are and where they stand in relation to them, and so they try work the rules to work for them. Henrietta Forge, meanwhile, doesn’t think either of them are quite right about the rules but for all she might want to try something different herslf, she also doesn’t have the power to stop them acting as if they are. And therein lies the story. Which they make about a horse.