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We Begin Our Ascent, by Joe Mungo Reed

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Tour de France
Tour de France
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Title: We Begin Our Ascent
Author: Joe Mungo Reed
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (US) | The Borough Press (UK)
Year: 2018
Pages: 245
Order: Simon & Schuster (US) | HarperCollins (UK)
What it is: An ambitious attempt at a literary cycling novel from a debutant British writer recently graduated from George Saunders’s creative writing MFA at Syracuse University
Strengths: It tries
Weaknesses: It fails

There is the cliché said of the improbable that ‘you couldn’t make it up.’ But that is exactly what fiction writers try to do.
~ Reed

We come from our rooms and stand in front of the elevator. We assemble quietly, treading slowly over the thick hotel carpet in our flip-flops. We breathe lightly. We do not talk. We watch the progress of the elevator in the illuminated runes above the door. We do not consider the stairs. Do not walk unnecessarily. This mantra is not merely practical but ideological. Energy is to be expended in only one way. ‘Sleep and cycle’ our directeur sportif, Rafael, likes to say. ‘Sleep and cycle.’

So opens British author Joe Mungo Reed’s début novel, We Begin Our Ascent. If that title feels like a riff off Jean Bobet’s much loved Tomorrow We Ride, suck it up and get used to it, for We Begin Our Ascent us chock full of the familiar repackaged for your reading pleasure.

At its heart, this is the story of a naïf who gets sucked into cycling’s doping culture, only to be spat out with a team-mate dead, his wife arrested for couriering drugs, his career tossed on the dung heap of sport. This is served with a side plate of half-baked metaphors for how sport is a lot like life and the career of a professional cyclist is a lot like a marriage.

The world sketched by Reed for We Begin Our Ascent is both familiar and foreign, full of recognisable borrowings but still somehow disquietingly different. There’s the climber in need of oxygen at the end of a stage (Eddy Merckx). The breakaway rider doing it for his wife’s birthday (Bradley Wiggins).The DS singing over race radio (Bjarne Riis). The rider pushing on with a crocked collarbone (Tyler Hamilton). The madcap escape artist with a penchant for karaoke (Marco Pantani). The agèd veteran able to tell a young pro’s pedigree by feeling his leg (Biagio Cavanna).

All these exist in a world in which a directeur sportif tells his riders he believes them “each capable of outputting a steady four hundred and fifty watts,” a world in which “lunches are canvas bags thrust out into the road,” a world in which the narrator marvels at “pedals creaking on their spindles” or “can see the breakers strung into a short line.”

Between the familiar and the foreign falls the death. In the 115 years of the Tour’s history only three riders have been killed racing. In the last decade I’ve seen many more die in fiction’s faux Tours, from Ralph Hurne to David Coventry. Rarely has it been done for any greater purpose than showing off the author’s Wilde side (each man kills the things he loves). Never has it been done with anything that even approaches the majesty of Pedro Horrillo’s near death, as written about in Amigo. Here, it just seems like a cheap device that speeds a sagging plot toward an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Making Reed’s world even more foreign is its strained lack of specificity, the arch manner in which it is shrouded in anonymity. The novel opens twelve days into its Tour - only ever identified as “the Tour” but clearly an ersatz grande boucle - with, we are told, “eleven more days of riding, and two rest days to come.” Over the novel’s first half we suffer through four stages before reaching the first rest day and then the final week of racing. Throughout, stage towns are all anonymous: “the town in which we will finish”, “the alpine town”, or just “the town”.

Nor do any of the teams in the race merit names. One is “sponsored by a northern European banking group”, another by “a French manufacturer of farm machinery”. How, you wonder, do fans cheer on these teams? Do they chalk the road with “Allez! Équipe machines agricoles françaises!” or “Gehen! Mannchaft bankengrupe!”? The narrator, he refers to them as “the bankers” (or “the Germans”) and “the agricultural machinists.”

Some will applaud this as taut plotting, the author seemingly tightly focused on what is essential. Others will see it as being like a cheap soap opera with no budget for background artists.

Giving the lie to the notion of tautness are Reed’s repetitions. Here’s our hero anticipating banging in a bag of blood: “It was harvested at the height of our training, all those lush red cells, healthy and ready to carry oxygen. Our own blood is now dilute, diminished by all the trauma of racing.” And here he is actually receiving that transfusion a few pages later: “It was harvested at the height of our training and is rich in red cells. The blood in our veins, meanwhile, is ever more dilute, its capacity to carry oxygen diminished by the attrition of racing.”

Adding to the problems is our British narrator speaking American. Though he uses the metric system he still for some reason counts in meters and liters. He rides on highways. He passes a lumber yard. Bile rises in his esophagus. He recalls being a kid and drilling out his aluminum rims.

That bit of techs mechs lore is another jolt. The novel exists out of time but in a world of microdosing, mobile phones, and Wikipedia. This millennium, sometime. Which would put our narrator’s Drillium years in the late eighties or early nineties. Taking a Black and Decker to your bike was really a thing of the seventies.

All of this feeds into a Time Out of Joint vibe that permeates the whole novel. Something, it’s clear, is being hidden. Cack-handedly so, to the point where on the rare occasion the narrator is specific about something it just feels wrong (“He smells of Tiger Balm and saddle cream.”). To work out what’s being hidden you puzzle over what you know of the narrator.

His name is Solomon, Sol for short. An odd name for a Euro-pro peloton not famed for its cultural diversity. But one right for an American novel wanting to be seen in the company of DeLillo or Updike. (It’s also the sort of name you might imagine a needy author dreaming up, hoping Sol will subliminally cause a reviewer to call torpid prose luminous.)

Sol lives in London’s suburbs, “the northern periphery of the city”, and his training route takes him “up along the river, out into the countryside above the M25”. In a story that could have been sourced from Stephen Roche’s chamoir he tells of wiping out in a nocturne in Bermondsey when trying to impress his future wife, Liz. She’s a research biologist, the type of person who feels the need to “have an opinion on the books which made the Booker short list, the artists who had been nominated for the Turner Prize, on contemporary political events and the quality of the coverage of them in the newspapers.”

That Liz is a research biologist feeds into expectations for where We Begin Our Ascent might take its doping narrative. Is it going to be a reworking of James Waddington’s Bad to the Bone (already reworked in part by Jonathan Budds in Consumed)? Actually, it goes absolutely nowhere and Liz is just another superficially drawn member of fiction’s vast army of Lady Macbeths, pushing Sol deeper into doping when he’s infirm of purpose. And, of course, she’s the one who gets to suffer the consequences of her partner’s doping when – à la Edita Rumšienė, wife of Raimondas Rumšas - she gets busted in possession of his dope and thrown in chokey.

Sol’s doping is yet another thing that feels off in this sorry attempt to bend familiar stories from reality into fiction. This is a world where Armstrong didn’t fall, where Landis didn’t fuck up, where Fuentes didn’t happen, where there were no affaires named after Cofidis or Festina. Doping in this world is still such an open secret that a bottle of testosterone can be shared post-race on the team bus.

In a flashback scene we see Sol’s indoctrination into cycling’s doping culture. How? His DS offers some painfully obtuse shoe-based metaphor which is essentially about how Sol needs to be doing what everyone else is doing. You might think that’d mean forsaking living in London and instead training like a pro in Monaco or Girona. But actually it means “some painless injections, drops of a substance taken orally during stage races, and the collection of a couple of liters of your blood sometime in spring.” As simple as that: no Mephistopheles bargaining with Faust, just something no more challenging than ‘Do you want fries with that?’.

Sol is a badly drawn innocent abroad, too easily sucked into the game, his journey from clean aspirant to doped seasoned pro a bit too morally effortless to be believable. But then - as with Michael Barry and Shadows on the Road - he is the one telling us this story. And clearly hiding much from us as he does so. Hiding the names of towns the Tour visits or the names of rival teams might somehow be excused. But even his own team is veiled in secrecy: that it is sponsored by a chicken nugget company and its riders wear brown shorts is about all he wants us to know.

What’s most unsettling about this subterfuge is when it happens in reported speech, such as in one stage when “a couple of young riders from the German team sprint off up a short climb” and one of Sol’s few team-mates who merits a name, Tsutomo, says: “The blond one was chewing his handlebars at the start.” Later, another rider is identified in speech as “Slovenian Eric who rides for the bankers.”

Reported speech is especially problematic when Liz gets her one phonecall after being arrested and tells her husband: “I am detained, Sol. [...] The police apprehended me. [...] They looked in my car. They found controlled substances for which they say I have no legal use. They have taken me into custody.” You’d get less robotic conversation from Siri or Alexa.

Still more problematic is that Reed seems to think a cycling novel should actually be a Dummy’s Guide to Bicycle Racing. This is a problem with a lot of people who write about cycling, fiction and non-fiction alike, a compulsion to mansplain the sport, a need to detail basic rules and roles:

We are competing to get our team leader, Fabrice, across the twenty-one stages of this Tour in as little time as possible. This cumulative time, the criteria on which the winner of the Tour is judged, is all that matters to us. Our own results are not important. We shade him from the wind, pace him, will give him our own bike if he punctures. These measures have just small effects on his time, yet this is a sport of fine margins - decided by differences of seconds after days of riding - and so small advantages, wrung from our fanatical assistance to our strongest rider, offer our team the best chance of victory.

Do baseball novels feel the need to explain basic rules and roles or do they just trust that if the reader doesn’t already know something they’ll pick it up from the context in which it appears in the story? Do the novels of any other sport bog the reader down the way cycling novels do with such heavy-handed exposition?

Cycling is about moving through the air. There are also technicalities - distinctions like ‘turbulent’ and ‘laminar flow,’ for instance - but really it is that simple. To push alone through the air is so much harder than moving along in the slipstream of another rider. The peloton - the group composed of the majority of riders, moving close together - is much more efficient than any solitary cyclist. Victory in a tour is about staying with the peloton first of all and then breaking away from it to gain time when other factors, such as steep gradients, crosswinds, conflicts, or confusions temporarily diminish its capability. The role of myself and Tsutomo is to keep Fabrice ensconced safely within the group for most of the race, to leave him enough energy to push ahead when the rest of us falter.

Because We Begin Our Ascent comes blurbed by George Saunders (“fast, harrowing, compelling, masterfully structured, genuinely moving”) the reader feels they should make an effort to excuse all this nonsense. And, actually, you can, all of this leaden exposition can be justified. With just a little work on your part you can see it as part of the narrator’s hiding. It’s like Geraint Thomas in The World of Cycling According to G, it’s talking without talking, hiding in plain sight. But, again, we’re back to the big question: what’s being hidden?

This: that We Begin Our Ascent is an attempt at meta-fiction. The Time Out of Joint feeling Sol’s obfuscations and miscues engender is vital to understanding it. What Sol is hiding from us is the realisation that he’s a Truman and this is his Show. The tell? The moment his DS forgets he’s a character in a cycling novel and turns into yet another author telling yet more stories about story-telling:

I had the sea. I could go any day to the sea, but that was too easy. I wanted the mountains. There was probably some boy in the mountains dreaming about the sea, and why was that? Because he could not have the sea. Who likes to read more about money than the poor? Who likes to read more about beauty than the ugly? What are our favorite stories about? Flying, magic, living forever: the things we cannot have. There might be some place where people fly around and never die and what would their favorite stories be about? Walking and death. [...] And do you know what our most popular fantasy is? Do you know what is the core of every human story? [...] Somebody changes.

That clumsy bit of foreshadowing becomes what saves We Begin Our Ascent. Without it, all you’ve got is another cycling novel that - like the Booker-nominated Jane Urquhart’s riff on the Rás in The Night Stages - is really just a rather trite story unimaginatively riding on the coat-tails of reality. With it, all the thinly drawn characters, all the poorly edited together tales from reality, all the clumsy miscues, they all make sense. This is a novel that aims to be bad. And boy does Reed hit the mark.

‘We Begin Our Ascent” by Joe Mungo Reed is published in the US (left) by Simon & Schuster and in the UK (right) by The Borough Press
‘We Begin Our Ascent” by Joe Mungo Reed is published in the US (left) by Simon & Schuster and in the UK (right) by The Borough Press