Joseph O’Neill on Writing a Socially Relevant Soccer Novel

What kind of world is this? That’s the question prompted over and over by Joseph O’Neill’s new novel Godwin, a novel which is ostensibly about soccer, and the soccer industry, but is really about nothing less than the value of a human life. Godwin is a West African teenager whose talent with a football is, in the words of the character who views it on a bootleg video file, “perceptually alien.” When this boy plays, it seems as though “a hidden dimension of human movement, of the relationship between gravity and physiology, is being revealed.” That video file makes many promises, and all of them have to do with money, and all of them have to do with the relationship between power and vulnerability.

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In his narrator, Mark Wolfe, a technical writer from Pittsburgh who finds himself drawn into the search for Godwin via his hustler brother, O’Neill has created a character of marvelous and often maddening complexity: Wolfe is at once an everyman and an idiot, an introvert and an opportunist, at whom the reader wants to scream sit down, be happy with your lot, but who will never listen. The novel’s second narrator, Mark’s senior workplace colleague Lakesha Williams, is another enigma; overwritten as her every thought seems to be by corporate jargon, she shouldn’t be such a compelling presence in the narrative, but she quickly becomes one. Swerving through all of this is Godwin, and the frenzy which pursues him, if not quite to the ends of the earth, then to a beach in Benin, under the shadow of a monument to countless lost and purchased souls.

Godwin is a novel to induce shudders of recognition, spirals of horrified understanding, splutters of laughter. It’s another brilliant creation from O’Neill, and I was very pleased to have the chance to talk with him about it by email.

–Belinda McKeon


Belinda McKeon: Soccer. What the hell is soccer anymore? In Godwin, the character of Jean-Luc Lefebvre, a semi-retired talent scout, unforgettable articulates the way in which the sport, which revolves around the most childish activity, “loved even by dogs,” has become a force with the power to make and break lives, countless lives; a single soccer functionary can now, with the click of their fingers, “have the power of a wizard,” and transform the fortunes of young men, their entire families, their entire communities—maybe even their countries.

Now, you’ve obviously written about sport before, and about its power—but Netherland showed us sport as a whole different, er, ballgame. Here, the sport is secondary, horribly so, to the power-brokerage, the grubby ambition, the relentless drive of those who seek to profit from it. When did you know you were going to write about football, and was it always clear to you why?

It was essential for the roundness of the book…to conjure both sides of liberal idealism.

Joseph O’Neill: A finished novel stands as a kind of monument to the author’s pristine intentions, plans, themes. The actual making of the text (at least in my case) is actually vagrant and random. I can’t quite remember how I stumbled into writing a book with quite a bit of football in it, but part of the decision must have been that I had to make use of the countless hours, probably adding up to years, that I’d spent playing, watching, and having feelings about this sport, most of them devoted to Manchester United, the team I’ve followed since I was seven years old. I wasn’t proceeding like a complete zombie, however. I had a basic drama in mind—the search for an African soccer prospect who tantalizingly appears in a video—and of course I was aware that in recent years football has become a global industry of incalculable financial value, not to mention an industry of travels, transactions, human adventures—the fun stuff.

BM: So do you now feel differently about this sport you (presumably) love, having lived through it in the way that we live through subjects, writing novels about them?

JO: That’s an interesting question—the degree to which the writer’s sentiments about his or her materials are changed by the deed of writing. My main experience on that front has been in the realm of nonfiction: I discovered that once I put down in writing my earliest, most tenuous memories—memories of Amanzimtoti and Lourenço Marques, as it happens—they migrated almost permanently from my recollection to the page. With fiction-writing, it’s different. I’m not really remembering very much. I’m much more reliant on contemporaneous observation and improvised reflection. What’s happened in the world or in my personal environment in the last week or hours is much more likely to make it into the text than the stuff of yesteryear. So I’m not necessarily transfixed by the material as such, the way a more autobiographical or autofictional writer might be.

My current feelings about football are not very different from the feelings of the seven-year-old self who (I’m told by my parents) wrote a letter of protest to Frank O’Farrell, then the United manager. I still pay a lot of attention to the game. If anything, that attention has only strengthened in recent years, no doubt because football functions as a kind of opiate to combat my ever-intensifying anxiety about the not-good trajectory of political, planetary, and cosmic affairs. I literally fall asleep listening to YouTube personalities talking about Scott McTominay.

BM: Your protagonists, Mark and Lakesha, hold and pursue starkly differing ideas of value and, really, of the whole point of labor and of the utility of energy and talent; for Mark, it’s all a tunnel through which one must force one’s way with a determination which excludes any real thought or care for other people. For Lakesha, value, work, being in the (work) world is a collaboration, or at least an opportunity for that. Where did each of these characters come from for you? To what extent, if any, did they come out of a process of thinking about work, about professionalism, about, indeed, writing for a living?

JO: Mark Wolfe, the male narrator, was the first character to present himself to my imagination. I was interested in his personal dissatisfaction, which to my mind was connected to the strangely pissed-off young and not-old guys who seemed to dominate newspaper comments boards and social media during the 2016 election year, guys who on the one hand identified as leftists and professed admiration for Bernie Sanders but on the other hand were dominated by an animus that was (to my mind) a symptom of their threatened status as members of a favored demographic, i.e., white dudes. The extraordinary self-pity of men in western societies, connected to their loss of gender capital, has, I think, played a very significant part in the resurgence of rightwing extremism and loss of faith in liberal society. So I simultaneously sympathized with Mark, as one must with all of one’s significant characters, and mistrusted him.

Lakesha, the novel’s other narrator, entered the picture only after I’d been tinkering with the book for years. She turned up, initially, as a mysterious, slightly Ishiguro-esque voice—artificial, technical, somewhat bland—and it took me a while to understand that this voice belonged to a Black woman, specifically, the kind of Black woman who has exited her childhood community in the North Side of Milwaukee and has constructed for herself a new bourgeois identity and a new language.

At first, I didn’t know why I needed Lakesha and her story. I soldiered on with her nonetheless, trusting in my unconscious. And eventually everything fell into place in a way that surprised me and, I could therefore be sure, surprised the reader. It was essential for the roundness of the book (I gradually, almost retrospectively, realized), to conjure both sides of liberal idealism–the civic, collectivist ethos of Lakesha’s cooperative, and the lawless, every-man-for-himself, piratical dream of Mark’s football venture.

BM: Ah, my favorite writerly subject (possibly because I need to think about it in order not to despair); trusting the unconscious. Perhaps impossible to talk about, but can we give it a try? What does trusting the unconscious look like for you in your practice? Perhaps you could also talk about the space, within that, for mistakes or wrong turns, as they happen (if they do)?

JO: Before I wrote fiction, I wrote poems. Writing a poem involves small, word-by-word units of surprise, units that were accessible, I discovered, by rolling the verbal dice: if a verbal combination seemed to work, that would go a long way to determine the meaning of the poem, a meaning that does not correspond to the author’s humdrum opinions about things. That process has stayed with me, particularly in writing short stories. I think to myself, “Hold on, this bit doesn’t belong with what I’ve got. Now we’re getting somewhere.” Or, “I no longer understand my story. Excellent.”

In writing Godwin, the main instance of trusting in the unforeseen came in the form of Lakesha, who to my mind is the book’s hero–the ordinary person who must, as it were, save civilization from the barbarians. I strongly associate her with the unglamorous and persistent women who, without fanfare or credit, donated, organized, and voted–and defeated Trump, and his base of white men, in the 2020 election.

I’m often stuck, blocked, stumped. I’m waiting for the unconscious to come to my aid, but nothing is happening.

I should add: the unconscious isn’t impeccable. And it takes its sweet time. A big reason it takes me about a decade to write a book is that I’m often stuck, blocked, stumped. I’m waiting for the unconscious to come to my aid, but nothing is happening.

BM: Through a long set-piece involving Lefebvre, you conduct an absorbing and technically difficult narration-within-a-narration experiment; Lefebvre has traveled to Benin in search of Godwin, and there, he has encounters which range from the horrific (that country’s history of slavery) to the surreal (the machinations of his tour guide). This section of the novel is vital in deepening and complicating the story of Godwin—who he is and what will become of him—but it’s told not through Godwin’s point of view, not even through the point of view of the character who is telling us about this pursuit of Godwin, but through the point of view of Mark, who’s being told this story over a long night in his own house in Pittsburgh. Tell me about the writing of that section and of how you handled the balance of voice and knowledge. Did you have any models for what you did here? And was it key, for you, to getting at deeper truths of the story—truths of appropriation, takeover, thievery?

JO: Writing about “Africa,” particularly from a standpoint that isn’t African, is a vexed and interesting enterprise. My focus wasn’t so much on conjuring the realities of life in northern Benin, an exceedingly complex part of the world that I don’t know much about, as to investigate the narrativity of the “African tale” that colonialism (and then tourism) spawned. This is going to sound technical and teacherly, but here goes: Narrativity, in the terminology of linguistics, refers to a story’s content, medium, and reception.

In the set-piece you mention, Lefebvre, over a few drinks in Pittsburgh, tells the story of his trip to find Godwin to Mark. That is, Lefebvre’s characters—some of them from Benin, some from elsewhere—tell Lefebvre their stories; Lefebvre relates those stories, plus his own, to Mark, on a tropical night in America; Mark, as a first-person narrator, relates Lefebvre’s story, and his reception of it, to the book’s readers; and the readers, like appellate judges, are required to act as these narratives’ finally receivers and interpreters, a role that of course implicates them in the whole dubious, unavoidable venture.

Lefebvre’s narrative is a fairly transparent descendant of Marlow’s narrative in Heart of Darkness. Its reception by Mark, an American lefty who has dabbled in theory, would, inevitably if ineffectually, be infused by critiques such as those contained in “How To Write About Africa” by the late and much-missed Binyavanga Wainana, once my colleague at Bard College.

BM: You write about the toxic workplace, the ridiculousness and pettiness of office politics, with such sharpness that it’s triggering even to this reader who hasn’t spent very much time in that kind of environment. This is not a question about whether you have—but rather, about how you traced and developed the lineaments of a developing (ridiculous) crisis in the workplace, and how you built that tension and compounded it. Perhaps it was a similar process to writing the ever-more-tangled set-piece with Lefebvre? When I write scenes with that kind of mounting tension, I sometimes have to map them on a sort of graph—a graph of fuck-fuck-fuck! I like to think of it. How do you write scenes or set-pieces of increasing tension and messiness amongst people? Do you sit down and get it all out, or come back to it gingerly every morning and add to the chaos?

JO: It was a relief, after being stuck in Mark’s head for a long time, to write in Lakesha’s voice—the voice of a technocratic, strangely private, smart, to-the-point Black woman. Unlike Mark, who narrates in the present tense, Lakesha tells most of her story retrospectively. That story, as you say, involves intense office politics that test her faith in the rules and ethos of the cooperative. I’m glad to say that I have never personally been involved in such a situation. But we’ve all heard horror stories out there about how a determined, bad-faith individual can subvert workplace systems, complaints procedures, etc, and put them to destructive use.

BM: Finally, without giving anything away: that last line. Oof. Note to readers, by the way: nobody is to skip to the end and read it—nobody is to spoil it for themselves. When did this last line show up? What did you do when you realized it? Sit back and laugh darkly, or hang your head and cry?

JO: I can’t remember exactly when the thing that cannot be described came into being. But it felt very important, for all sorts of reasons that the statute of spoilers prohibits me from mentioning.


Godwin by Joseph O’Neill is available from Pantheon Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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