In the red corner we have book blogger Ann Morgan, fresh from a year of reading women and apprehensive about taking on a beefy, testosterone-drenched book about boxing.
In the blue corner, weighing in at 256 pages, it’s Martín Kohan’s Seconds Out, a novel built around the controversial 1923 world title fight between American champion Jack Dempsey and Argentine challenger Luis Angel Firpo, and backed by world literature heavyweight Richard Lea (he of the Guardian‘s World literature tour).
A hush falls as the first round begins. The combatants close in. Morgan attempts a jab at the book’s narrow focus only for Out to parry the blow with a series of dialogues about Mahler and Richard Strauss’s careers and friendship, meditations on the role of the media and the passage of time, a suspicious death, considerations of photography, popular culture and the role of the critic, and a remarkably detailed description of a game of dice.
Morgan is clearly shaken, but she stands her ground and eyes her opponent, looking for a chink in the armour. She thinks she sees it and goes in for the kill, blasting the book for its simplicity of style, its spare prose, which surely makes it devoid of subtlety?
Out ducks, feints and counters with a rich, complex structure, drawing in the thoughts of the fighters, the referee, the photographer, the judge, a rookie journalist more than 50 years later, two critics, and an elderly cellist. These it places with vigorous clarity, such that even through all the shifts in time and perspective, we never lose track of who’s in the driving seat.
Out continues its onslaught, powering its points home. If it gets a little carried away with the rhythm of its own rhetoric at times and spins out its combinations longer than strictly necessary, who can blame it? It’s clear Out is no slugger: we are watching a master at work.
The referee steps in. Morgan is down but not out. She retires to her corner to pull herself together for the last round. She comes out fighting, but before she has a chance to land a blow, Out serves up a sucker punch, packing its constituent parts into one muscular denouement that fuses its disparate worlds and blows Morgan clean out of the ring.
It’s a knockout.
Seconds Out by Martín Kohan (translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor). Publisher (Kindle edition): Serpent’s Tail (2010)