Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why is Kevin Pietersen's book unreadable?

In The Information, Martin Amis' novel about literary envy, the protagonist Richard Tull publishes Untitled, a book so impenetrable that not only can no-one finish it, no-one can really start it, either. They become ill trying: headaches, nausea, narcolepsy.  Tull ends up lugging the only remaining copies around America in a sack, which duly puts his back out. I'm starting to feel the same way about KP: The Autobiography.

There it sits, on the coffee table, in the same place it has sat since it arrived three weeks ago, the year's most anticipated cricket book, and certainly its best-selling. Having skimmed it once, I am on page 79, and I'm not sure I'm going to get any further. Its moment already feels over.

I got a copy for free, too. My friend Tom blagged us in to the London launch, where Pietersen spoke for almost an hour and a half. It was comfortably the longest period I or probably anyone else in the audience had listened to him for, and as he loosened up and his natural defensiveness fell away, a more rounded man emerged from the public image.  He may be hard to get along with sometimes, but he's not that hard to understand.

His insecurity, in cricketing terms, is a rare strain of the same insecurity that dogs every batsman, certainly every introverted batsman. It's the highwire act of batting itself, and Pietersen walks it without a net. He is constantly telling himself not to look down.

Unlike every other great of the modern era, he did not grow up with a bat in his hand. He didn't begin batting seriously until he came to England to play for Nottinghamshire; instead he bowled off spin. He doesn't have the emotional and psychological foundation, that rock-solid confidence that comes with a lifetime's endeavour. He is obsessive over practice, perhaps to compensate.

One of the most revealing moments of his talk came when he described the days when he felt like he couldn't play at all; how he would know as soon as he took guard that the bat "felt wrong" in his hands. He didn't really understand why it happened, and his good days appeared from the same kind of haze. He admitted to having long sessions with the England team psychologist to try and unravel the reasons why. I would guess that they are rooted in the very rootlessness of his batting. In a way, the height of his talent has surprised him.

His insecurity is reinforced by the role he plays in the team, where he is encouraged to take the game away from the opposition. When he can't, or when it doesn't happen right away, he gets out and faces the familiar criticism of not caring enough (or perhaps being 'disengaged'.) He protects himself by saying he's never been scared of dismissal. That may be true, but equally, getting out can sometimes be an escape from the pressure.

The enigma of Pietersen is actually the enigma of batting itself, and its great psychological depth. It was evident from the way he spoke that he has a grasp on this. It was easy to feel the mood in the hall shift: what had begun as an already familiar run-through of his split from England became something far more diverse and interesting. During the Q&A at the end, someone asked the obvious question:

"When are you going to write a cricket book, Kevin?"

"I definitely want to," he replied, perhaps unguardedly.

KP: The Autobiography is not it. In fact, KP: The Autobiography isn't an autobiography, either, at least not in the conventional sense. It's a howl of rage and pain, a distorted scream coming through tinny speakers. Like the angry mind, it is (so far, anyway) repetitious, circling around recurring thoughts. The rest is just window-dressing, thrown in there to make it look like something it is not.

His criticisms are not invalidated by this approach. He's particularly good on the IPL and what it means for cricketers, and the dressing room intrigue that he finds so hard to navigate feels oppressively real. But it presents a skewed view of his career, lacking in worldview, lacking in nuance.

What makes it unreadable is the voice it's told in. It's flat, didactic journalese that relies on repetition at the end of almost every key paragraph.
Short. Sharp. Like that.
Yeah, just like that.
It gets old. Fast.
Real fast.

After listening to Pietersen talk for ninety minutes, it's clear that this is not his voice, or even his character. It may have the cadence of some his post-match interviews, but when he speaks at greater length he is far more likable and engaging, almost geeky at times, with a high laugh and a thoughtfulness that belies the brash TV persona.

Capturing him on the page would have needed more time than his ghost-writer got, and a different idea of what the book should be. As it is, KP: The Autobiography is a terrific commercial success that reinforces the binary notions of Pietersen as the most divisive player of the age. What a shame, for him and for us.

11 comments:

Helen Devries said...

I wonder if this approach is the one publishers wanted...to cash in on the rumpus surrounding his departure.

From your description I would like to read a future book which better depicts his character.

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James M said...

Miffed to have only just seen this. Was looking forward to your thoughts on the book. I've not read it myself yet, but I was a little surprised with the praise heaped on Walsh after seeing the staccato prose in so many of the extracts. The odd pithy soundbite does wonders for the reviews...

I've only ever really seen Pietersen let his guard down a couple of times. Once larking about with Dada doing studio analysis of - I think - the last WT20, merrily having the proverbial taken out of him, and secondly in that wonderful masterclass he did with Ian Ward, where he was so overcome with passion for batting he forgot to be standoffish. It's a great pity he's never quite managed to get across his unshackled, unhackled self. Things may have been considerably different.
Also, a great pity Amis likes darts instead of cricket...

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