Howley’s character, Kit, is enrolled in a philosophy graduate program when she wanders into a local-circuit fight and finds herself, at least temporarily, liberated from her brain. Justifying her new obsession on the grounds that mixed martial arts is a high expression of the pursuit of ecstasy, Howley attaches herself first to Huffman and then to Koch, following them through training and to matches. A scene in which Kit watches Erik stalk a Las Vegas buffet, planning how he will gorge himself once he no longer has to make weight for a fight, is as dark and funny as anything I have read this year.
Kit is an astute observer of fight mechanics, but she has directed all of her analytical capabilities outward with such determination that she has little capacity remaining to devote to self-analysis and self-awareness.
This marks Kit as different from the young women cranking out memoirs and personal essays, though no less prone to tip over into the ridiculous (which has a tendency to keep company with the sublime she is so ardently pursuing). And in a paradox that shadows “Thrown” but that Howley never confronts directly, Kit constantly uses jargon to distance herself from the purity she experienced at her first fight and uses her new obsession to set herself both above her colleagues in academia and the men she sets out to study.
Kit is a snob who discovers her vocation as a spacetaker when she wanders away from a conference that forces her to “explore Husserl with nonsmokers who did not understand him.” As she becomes more absorbed in mixed martial arts, Kit e-mails the director of her graduate program to explain that “I supposed my ongoing study of the phenomenological basis of ecstasy to be more important than taking a few survey courses at what was, after all, a midranked philosophy program.”
Like plenty of highly educated people before her, Kit comes to think of herself as superior to her peers and professors in academia because she believes her attraction to violence to be more honest than their squeamishness. She sees her first fight as “the honest kind of butchery in which the theory-mangling, logic-maiming academics I had just abandoned would never partake,” and indeed, “a portly, well-liked Floridian epistemologist” demands to know if Kit has become desensitized from her time observing the fighters in the octagon.
She rationalizes pulling away from her program as a sort of testament to the purity of her research methods: “I would not fraternize with the healthy-minded; better to leave them to their prenatal yoga, their gluten-free diets, their dull if long lives of quietest self-preserving conformism.”
There is an element of pure, contrarian rebellion in Kit’s attraction to fighting, though, beyond just her dissatisfaction with the requirements of her degree. Mixed martial arts “had been decreed illegal by some undereducated legislators in Des Moines. They replaced the glorious spontaneity of old with prefight paperwork: insurance, licenses, blood tests. Not that I’m complaining, because these paper-pushers only gave credence to my conviction that I’d found the true center of ecstatic activity. It would just take a little more work to get there.”
“John McCain and his state-level cohorts” is as decent an answer as any to the question “What are you rebelling against?” But you have to be awfully young to think that the pursuit of ecstasy ought to be paramount in public policy, or that whatever feels fresh and revelatory to you at the moment must necessarily be new and important to everyone else.
And of course, Kit is guilty of many of the same sins of obfuscation and condescension for which she judges her academic colleagues so harshly.
“I remember well that first real conversation with Sean, wherein we lunched on satisfactory dive-bar burgers and I told him I thought his performance an extraordinary physical analogue to phenomenological inquiry,” Kit recalls. “He cocked his head, arched an eyebrow, and said, in a way that seemed quietly pleased with my observation, ‘You’re insane.’ He stirred his soda with a straw. ‘I just like to feel things.'”
There’s a strain of reactionary and awfully prosaic thinking in Kit’s observation that some men “longed merely for this playful absorption, this reprieve from the healthy-minded world of annual reports and sexual harassment training.” And Kit becomes resentful of Alexis, an occasional girlfriend to her first fighter, Sean Huffman. Alexis has become pregnant, and Kit is concerned about the presence of another attachment that might prevent Sean from seeking out more opportunities to be pummeled for Kit’s study.
“I hated this story in a nonsensical way that somehow made me feel implicated, as if Alexis and I were on the same side, in league, both of us using Sean for what we wanted and then watching him crumble from the rearview mirror,” Kit grouses. “But of course my wishes were aligned with his interest in living a worthwhile existence, while Alexis merely sought to extract small amounts of cash.”
Kit may not be doing prenatal yoga or writing her moral judgement of fighting into state law. But finishing “Thrown,” I felt like Kit had succumbed to a ritual just as powerful as the transformation of the fighting octagon into a spiritual space. Rebellions can last only so long before they become sanctimony.