The New Rules Of Golf Is An Ode To The Masochist

December 17, 2018

Illustration by Patrick Faricy

Don't be fooled. Despite its slender, friendly appearance, the new Player's Edition of the Rules of Golf is a work of Nabokovian artistry and cleverness. In fact, it's not unlike the Russian master's Pale Fire, a novel disguised as an index and a commentary to a long poem. Rules of Golf is a novel disguised as, of all things, a rule book. Here is how it begins: "Golf is played by striking your ball with a club, and each hole starts from the teeing area and ends when your ball is holed on the putting green." With those fussy italics, the insistent spelling out of the perfectly obvious, this is an almost pitch-perfect imitation of musty, pedantic rule-book prose. But note how the text says "your ball," and not, as a proper rule book would, "one's ball." This is a clear allusion to the beginning of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, the novel that begins, "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of morning. ... All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian marching powder."

Like Bright Lights, then, Rules of Golf is a novel told in the second person, and the main character, "You," a hapless everyman simply trying to get in a round of golf, gradually emerges as someone in deep existential trouble. The world of Rules is not a benign one. The reader gets a hint of this early on when the novel introduces what will become an ominous, recurring theme by pointing out that if you make any one of countless small errors, you are not just in error, you are "disqualified," and for good measure "disqualified" is printed in red type, like the rubrics in old Latin texts.

Disqualification, you come to sense—You in the book, that is, and you who are reading it—is a fate not unlike damnation.

Another theme that comes up often in the novel is the related one of "penalty." It manifests itself most ominously near the end of Chapter 4, when in one of the book's most disturbing moments, You has found his ball overhanging the lip of the hole. He waits for 10 seconds, nothing happens, and then, miraculously, the ball does drop. So what should You write on his card (which is already blotted, needless to say, with a lot of high numbers)? In a confounding passage, Rules says that the ball should be considered to have gone in on the previous stroke, but that one penalty stroke (again, in red) must be added. It's not enough, in other words, for poor You to just add one more to his score if the ball doesn't drop. He has to imagine that the ball did indeed go in and then punish himself for thinking that very thought!

This same wrathful, vengeful spirit pervades Chapter 7 (it's called "Penalty Relief," but there's much more of the former than the latter), when woebegone You finds himself plunged into one fraught situation after another: His ball goes from one penalty area (a literary way of saying "the drink") into another, or even back into the same one; he finds himself with an unplayable lie in a bunker; he loses his ball completely. At this point the perceptive reader realizes that Rules is essentially an anti-version of Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's great allegory of salvation. In that book, the pilgrim extricates himself from the Slough of Despond—essentially a giant water hazard—and makes his way to the aptly named Celestial City. In Rules, on the other hand, You starts off on a seemingly innocent walk in the country, but then must dodge shame, disqualification, all those penalties—including one just for thinking—only to find himself staggering from one hazard to the next. And he has brought all this upon himself just by being mortal—by being You.

You close Rules, or this reader did, with relief and disquiet but also with admiration at its great artistry, the author's cunning ability to employ such seemingly prosaic language to conjure a world so vivid and transfixing. It's only a story, thank goodness. Its message, otherwise, would be hard to bear: You might as well rip up your card now—you're doomed.

Charles McGrath is a former editor of The New York Times Book Review.