Inside the fragmenting mind: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke

‘Bloch got sleepy. He made a few tired gestures to make light of his sleepiness, but that made him even sleepier. Various things he said during the day came back to him; he tried to get rid of them by breathing out. Then he felt himself falling asleep; as before the end of a paragraph, he thought.’

One of the first things you need to know about Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, is that here are no easy answers here. If you are inclined to believe that literature should purvey rational motivation, moral certainty, and a satisfying denouement, you might want to look elsewhere. This is a novel that dismantles everything that one expects a novel to be, but, because Handke engages in this process from within the mind of man whose own processes of perception and comprehension are unraveling, one can argue that for all its inherent strangeness, The Goalie’s Anxiety approaches a reality of experience that is startling.

goalieAfter all, how do we measure reality? The only measures we have are our thoughts and perceptions. Narrated with an almost clinical, documentary clarity from a limited third person perspective, the reader is presented with an opportunity to exist inside the mind of a dispassionate murderer and face the uncomfortable possibility that rational explanations for behaviour may not always exist–and that someone who may not be in their right mind can be disordered not only in their thinking, but in their emotional responses.

At the outset of the novel we meet Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had formerly been a well-known soccer goalie. He arrives at work one day and interprets small insignificant signs from his coworkers to mean that he has lost his job and, taking the hint, he leaves. He goes to the movies, takes a hotel room and otherwise occupies himself with random activities. Strange moods and thoughts pass through his mind. One night he decides to wait for the cashier at the movie theatre to get off work and follows her home.

When he wakes after spending the night with her, he discovers, lying in bed with his eyes closed, that an odd inability to visualize things has come over him. He tries naming objects, then making up sentences about things, all in an effort to bring the images to mind. He becomes aware of the pressure of things, distressing when his eyes are open, magnified when they are closed. His thoughts and experiences are starting to fall out of synch with the world around him. As he spends time with the cashier, he notices his irritation increasing and then, with little provocation or self-reflection, he strangles the young woman.

An unearthly calm envelopes the narration as Bloch’s actions and thinking processes are recounted with a surreal, slow motion quality. Before long he leaves the city to head out to a small town where an ex-girlfriend runs a tavern. He shows no particular desire to hide from the authorities, but as he spends time in the town his thinking continues to fall apart. Talking and communicating begins to take on a disordered quality. Bloch starts analyzing and double checking his thoughts–the words and expressions that pass through his mind catch him up and he questions the meanings he attaches to the words of others, for example in this exchange with two cape-wearing (yes, cape wearing) bicycle policemen outside a closed pool where Bloch has found himself standing:

‘The policemen, who made the usual remarks, nevertheless seemed to mean something entirely different by them; at least they purposely mispronounced phrases like “got to remember” and “take off” as “goats you remember” and “take-off” and, just as purposely, let their tongues slide over others, saying “Whitewash?” instead of “why watch?” and “closed, or” instead of “close door”.’

Over time his interactions with others continue to grow increasingly surreal, at least from within Bloch’s increasingly distorted perceptions of the world. We are, after all, firmly ensconced in the head of a man whose emotional and cognitive functioning is unspooling. The story may be proceeding with detached and disconnected sequences, but the tightly controlled limited third person narrative is deeply affecting for the reader. We can only see the world as Bloch experiences it, but with just enough distance to watch the internal decline. We are told what he is doing and thinking, but everyone and everything he encounters is filtered through his distorted lens–he imagines that messages are being sent to him, even if he is not certain what they are trying to indicate, objects and events hold meaning. As his paranoia grows, his sense of prescience is also heightened and he observes that his thoughts seem to proceed the words or actions of others.

At the same time Bloch exhibits an enhanced awareness of the world in small, often insignificant details that impose themselves on his consciousness to the point that he is sometimes irritated by the sensory input and his own intrusive observations. His breakdown is skillfully orchestrated. Handke captures his hyper awareness in descriptive passages that reflect the odd acuity of his attention and his internal difficulties with his own fragmenting thoughts. At one point, as Bloch tries desperately to cling to individual words, images briefly replace the terms that have abandoned him. And although, like Camus’ Mersault to whom he is often compared, he never expresses any remorse for his violent act; as the police appear to be closing in on him, his thoughts betray more than he can or will admit to himself.

‘He took a second look: no, the light switches stayed light switches, and the garden chairs in the landscape behind the house stayed garden chairs.

He walked on because–
Did he have to give a reason for walking, so that–?

What did he have in mind when–? Did he have to justify the “when” by–? Did this go on until–? Had he reached the point where–?’

It is sometimes said that Handke’s protagonist stands as an allegory for the disintegration of modern man and society, but I could not help but recognize in Bloch a striking depiction of the internal irrational rationalizing of the psychotic mind. The supercharged sensitivity, the paranoia, and the ultimate inability to string together coherent thoughts all echo my own unfortunate experience with mania and the experiences of many of the schizophrenic clients I’ve worked with over the years.

As the book nears its conclusion, Bloch has a recurring memory that seems to indicate there is an incident that may have been a mitigating factor in the progress of mental decline that plays out in the novel. It is subtly drawn and reinforced with the closing scene, but even then, one would imagine there might well have been an inherent psychological weakness that was triggered by the event. The 1972 movie based on this novel which marked the first collaboration between Handke as screenwriter and director Wim Wenders is more explicit in this regard, but the film proceeds with effectively disconnected and disorienting scenes to maintain the surreal feel of the book.

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke is translated by Michael Roloff and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.