The Futility of Rowing

I’ve never seen a more fitting description of a rowing machine than in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man:

There was no fitness center in his hotel. He found a gym not far away and worked out when there was time. No one used the rowing machine. He half hated the thing, it made him angry, but he felt the intensity of the workout, the need to pull and strain, set his body against a sleek dumb punishing piece of steel and cable.

DeLillo captures the essence of the rowing machine: more than any other piece of exercise equipment, the rowing machine is a punishment, a throwback to the ancient days of galley slaves. But here the Barbary overlords with their whips and chains are internalized. Beset only by his own thoughts, the exerciser rows for dear life, chased by nothing and chasing nothing.

The rowing machine is a self-imposed disciplinary sentence. With every stroke, one’s very life seems at stake. It’s like trying to outrow death itself. A strenuous workout on a rowing machine is as close to drowning on dry land one can come.

It is also a pointless endeavor, and for DeLillo’s character, who has become a professional gambler in the wake of 9/11, its pointlessness is its very point. In true gambler fashion, he “half hates” the thing yet continues to submit to it. The anger it provokes is all that matters.