Beyond Bodybuilding: Stranger in a Strange Land — A Book Review

When America’s foremost literary critic, Harold Bloom, professor emeritus at Yale was asked to define literary greatness, he did so as follows,

“I have tried to confront greatness directly: to ask what makes the author and the works canonical. The answer, more often than not, turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange. Walter Pater defined Romanticism as adding strangeness to beauty…when you read a canonical work for the first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfillment of expectation. {The great works} have in common their uncaniness, their ability to make you feel strange at home.”

I have been at home in the strange, odd world of bodybuilding for two decades and Pavel’s Beyond Bodybuilding has made me feel strange at home. It has taken a stranger in a strange land to write something fresh and vital about the art and science of physical renovation. This is not old wine in new bottles this is something strange and different and entirely new. Bodybuilding in the abstract and in practice is at once both repulsive and seductive: as a competitive sport bodybuilding is form without function, bloated appearance is heralded as benchmark, pompous preening triumphant over functional grit. On a fundamental level grassroots adherents combines progressive resistance training with cardiovascular training and nutrition. In its simple form bodybuilding is the healthiest, sanest, most effective and balanced fitness system known to man. The true bodybuilder seeks synergy and balances three component parts (eating, cardio and weight training) in a precarious, delicate ballet. Handled deftly and precisely, results are profound and the successful application produces complete physical transformation. Pavel is no bodybuilder – what he is, exactly, defies description – yet he has written a profound book, a genuinely strange treatise on the art and science of physical transformation. His book is both profound and baffling. His workbook is strange, in the best sense, in the sense Harold Bloom and Walter Pater ascribe to.

I was left with an unsettling feeling after I read Beyond Bodybuilding. His perspective is unlike anything I have ever encountered. As an athletic scribe with three decades under my belt, I have seen and read it all; yet this is unlike anything I have encountered and it jars me. I am not easily jarred. This 327-page workbook could only be written by an outsider, someone with enough distance from the prevailing orthodoxy to see clearly. Someone not at all concerned with fitting in with what is; rather, like Faulkner, he establishes an entirely new reality. Those of us within the box could not have written anything other than a clever recapitulation and recasting of the contents of the box. Only someone outside the box – someone not yet co-opted – could write what Tsatsouline has written…a strange tome that brings a fresh perspective to bodybuilding. This is not a book  SARMs for Sale for the elite; this is a book for Everyman. This is a book for the serious individual without a lot of baggage or preconceptions; this book is for someone seeking to improve their physical lot in life. Pavel’s particular and peculiar circumstance led him from the Ukraine to Santa Monica. What better geographical dissimilarity for spawning something strange, fresh and different?

By blending empirical experience with a thirst for knowledge – and given a decade of seasoning – he is coming into his own and his voice is clear and resonant and worth hearing. Ken Kesey once quizzed Sonny Barger, the Maximum Domo of the Hell’s Angels on how exactly he selected Hell’s Angel’s. “We don’t select them, we recognize them.” And so it is amongst the athletic elite. Pavel’s effortless entry into the stratosphere of the athletically gifted in this country was not contingent on grudging acceptance rather on an obvious recognition of a peer. Academically he has done his homework. How well I remember him visiting me many years ago here at the Mountain Compound. He was exposed to my own brand of strangeness and at the end asked, “So Marty, you old collective farmer, where are the books, magazines and periodicals?” I laughed and directed him to a musty attic where stacks and stacks of ancient Strength and Health magazines, Muscle Mags, Muscle Builder, All American Athlete and Iron Man lay, plus my autographed copies of books by Paul Anderson and Bill Pearl. He asked if he might be given a few hours to peruse, ponder and absorb. I insisted he borrow what he considered essential and he treated the materials with reverence, as if he’d hit a mother lode. His thirst for knowledge was, and is, unquenchable.