Photo credit: Jo Hanley
I realized that I wanted to write a book about cycling in the fall of 2012. As a casual fan of the sport, I had been following the slow drip of revelations about Lance Armstrong’s drug use over the previous months, interested in the extent of the scandal and in the way these discoveries recast the recent history of races I remembered. What made me think that cycle racing could be a subject for fiction, however, was a revelation by Armstrong’s teammate, Tyler Hamilton, which would later appear in Hamilton’s book, The Secret Race
According to Hamilton, Armstrong’s US Postal team had a special code for the banned hormone — Erythropoietin, or EPO — which had fueled so much of their success. They called it Edgar Allen Poe, sometimes Edgar for short.
The absurdity of this fact thrilled me. What on earth were these riders thinking? The code did not seem particularly hard to decipher. To get from EPO to Edgar Allen Poe did not, I supposed, require an enigma machine. Secondly, the alibi it implied was bizarre. What was a bystander who overheard one rider asking another for some "Edgar Allen Poe" supposed to think? That after a 100-mile day of cycling through Europe’s highest mountains the man was planning to unwind by reading The Masque of the Red Death
This was the first detail that revealed to me the human angle of these drug revelations. It had been easy, hearing about this sustained project of doping, to assume these guys to be pathological cheats, but their shoddy code revealed another side of the story. They were also very young athletes, inexperienced in the wider world, making things up as they went along. They were fallible and sometimes ridiculous, and this fallibility allowed me to really imagine a world around them. I could picture them as confused, conflicted actors. I could envision them making the choices that led to their rule-breaking and could imagine that those choices had not been simple, automatic decisions.
One of my favorite moments in the stories of Chekhov occurs in "The Lady With the Little Dog
." Gurov, a married dandy, has managed after much effort to seduce the young, unhappy bride, Anna Sergeevna. After the seduction, she finds herself devastated. She says to Gurov: “You’ll be the first not to respect me now.” On hearing this, Gurov’s reaction is not what one might expect: “There was a watermelon on the table in the hotel room. Gurov cut himself a slice and unhurriedly began to eat it. At least half an hour passed in silence.”
The absurdity of this fact thrilled me. What on earth were these riders thinking?
It is, to my mind, one of the strangest reactions in literature. Why a watermelon? Why such a silence? It is bizarre, yet it also works. Readers get a sense in that moment of so many crucial aspects of the story: Gurov’s instinctive coldness towards his romantic conquests, Anna’s paralyzing indecision regarding her own desires, the sense they both have of waiting for something they do not understand.
The detail is effective because it is both weird and right: strange enough to draw attention, real enough to mean something. 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.
During my MFA, I had a teacher whose most effusive form of praise was to identify a passage or piece of prose as "weird." For her, that meant it made the work unusual, that it led the story in a direction that one wouldn’t naturally expect. A great value of weird writing, well executed, is that it respects the reader’s intelligence. They don’t get the familiar deceptions of a Lothario in so much soap-opera speak, but a new image of him — in this case, silently munching on a melon — which tells them all that talking would have and more.
The Edgar Allen Poe code, I thought, had some of the texture of that moment in Chekhov. It made the subterfuge of these cyclists seem vividly real. When I began writing my novel, We Begin Our Ascent
, I did not put the code into the novel — it was already a compelling detail in Hamilton’s own book — but I tried to invent and incorporate similar types of details. I gave riders odd nicknames and imagined they had unusual hobbies; I tried to embellish my race scenes with unexpected images. It was a process that required thought and revision. Intentional randomness is very hard to pull off: any trip to a college improv show will remind one of that.
For inspiration I read the works of masters of the uncanny: Joy Williams
, whose stories seem to proceed with a logic that is always just out of reach, and Denis Johnson
, who wrote from a universe two degrees separated from our own.
I was also helped by the fact that cycling is
a fundamentally weird sport. Riders have to be a bit unhinged to want to race 3,500 kilometers around France each July. Those who throng the roads to cheer them on have their own idiosyncrasies too. When I need to cheer myself up, I still think of TV footage of race leaders ascending the road up Mont Ventoux in 2013. It was a baking day, the hardest of the whole tour, and as the favorites tried desperately to increase their pace up the mountain, a strange figure appeared sprinting along beside them: a middle-aged man in his underpants holding a stuffed wild boar under his arm.
I didn’t put the wild boar detail in my book. Like any novelist, I’m always looking for material I can smuggle into my work. Yet writing in the boar man seemed too much like copying. Before the Tour de France comes by, the roads along which it will pass are closed for hours. The man must have either waited for half a day in the relentless sun or walked for miles with the boar under his arm. I remain in awe of such dedication. His appearance on television screens was a work of art in itself.
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Joe Mungo Reed
was born in London and raised in Gloucestershire, England. He has a master’s in philosophy and politics at the University of Edinburgh and an MFA in creative writing at Syracuse University, where he won the Joyce Carol Oates Award in Fiction. He is the author of the novel, We Begin Our Ascent
, and his short stories have appeared in VQR
and anthologized in Best of Gigantic
. He is currently living in Edinburgh, UK.