Blending elements of memoir and sports writing, Anelise Chen’s debut novel follows Athena Chen, a graduate student who, at the start of the novel, has just found out her ex-boyfriend has committed suicide. Through anecdotes and close readings of moments in the sometimes harrowing world of sports, the novel questions the validity of our current narratives of success.
When should one push herself for once, and when learn to take it easy already? Anelise Chen’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, So Many Olympic Exertions, takes on these questions with sly aplomb through a cheeky hybrid form ... the novel is also a philosophical text, as well as a meta-self-help book ... In addition to pop psych mantras and high-minded philosophical texts, major moments in sports history are painstakingly dissected and examined as part of Athena’s dissertation-writing labors. This is an effort to get to some bigger truth about what it means to succeed as a human, and gives rise to the most thought-provoking passages ... So Many Olympic Exertions manages to be a very funny book, because there’s so much incisive humor in the novel’s observations.
Chen’s subtle, probing, and ambitious novel is about how this threat of loss and failure looms in the background of these all-consuming careers, and it works as a portrait of the strange, compelling, and competitive little worlds that build up around them ... So Many Olympic Exertions makes competitive sports into an allegory for contemporary life ... the narrative treads water. The writing is an account of her consciousness, but it is descriptive rather than confessional ... Much of the narrative consists of descriptions of this sort, detached and yet vivid ... Chen’s novel, joining a chorus of other recent ambitious art and literature, reveals contemporary life as a strange kind of game ... By working philosophy and sports, autobiography and fiction, history and reflection into a cohesive narrative form, writing like this tries to imagine something else, a space in that world for something like true diversion.
...experimental, shape-shifting ... The plot is enriched with a thread about immigration, concerning the narrator’s Taiwanese heritage and the struggles it entails ... Formally unique and inventive, this novel fluctuates in tone, reading at some times like an authentic and unfiltered private journal and at others like a deeply researched academic essay. Often it flows organically into meditative territory, while combining images in a manner reminiscent of the work of authors such as W.G. Sebald or Ben Lerner ... it similarly challenges the expectations regarding the rules a novel ought to follow.