Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach (2011)

I decided to read The Art of Fielding after it was recommended to me by the same anonymous poster that suggested The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.  The comments are worth reading, but I will not re-post them in the body of this review.

Did I find this book truly amazing?  It may not surprise you, but, as is often the case: yes and no.  During the first 150-200 pages, I was flirting with adding it to the "best books" list (which can be found on my profile on the right) at the time, but then I foolishly checked what Entertainment Weekly had to say with its nifty letter grade.  They gave it a B+.  They said it was great, totally great--but the characters were a bit undeveloped.  I totally agree--but I would personally give it an A- because it is close to being a great book.

I am wary of spoiling this book by providing deeper detail to my criticisms, but I feel that I must.  Do not read below the asterisks if you don't like spoilers (I do know at least one person that actively seeks out spoilers).

This book is about a lot of things, but it's mainly about baseball.  It's the quintessential campus novel.  There are probably tons of references to Moby Dick, but I can't really be sure since I haven't read it yet.  The different themes in the novel work very well together, and nothing exactly feels out of place.  But after a couple hundred pages it's almost as if Harbach is content to finish the book on auto-pilot.  There are still wonderful, beautifully written passages, and some truly off the wall happenings, but the characters oddly seem less believable at the end than they do at the beginning.  It's almost as if their decisions are random, that Harbach outlined the plot of the novel and forced the characters to do things that feel unnatural.  Again this will be gotten into beneath the asterisks.

It's pretty easy to describe the plot.  Henry Skrimshander is an antisocial baseball nut who has obsessively read The Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez, a former shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals who took a very philosophical approach to his profession and nearly became the President of Venezuela.  Henry is "discovered" by Mike Schwartz, who is one year older than him, and catches for the Westish Harpooners.  Mike recruits Henry for the college, and a "beautiful friendship" develops.

Westish is a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin not far off the shores of Lake Michigan.  At first I thought it was going to be a stand-in for Northwestern, but it's probably closer to Beloit College (though that is further from the lake).  The novel contains a series of unlikely events, and it starts with the school: the recruiting for the baseball team is all over the place.  They do find Henry, and a couple other players destined for big league franchises (*cough*cubsandcardinals*cough*), but then they have a bunch of random players that just seem to be on the team because they feel like it.

Obviously this is where I need to start in on Owen, who casually owns a copy of Henry's favorite niche-specific book and doesn't seem to care at all about the coincidence.

But quickly: the novel is not about Henry.  This is one of the more pleasant surprises of The Art of Fielding: it's not content to just sit with one or two characters, and sports a more classic approach to the novel.  There are five main characters, and their stories dovetail with one another up until the final scene.  They are Henry, Mike Schwartz, Owen Dunne, Guert Affenlight (the 60-year-old college president) and Pella Affenlight (his 23-year-old soon-to-be-divorced daughter).  Now I have said above that this is a great book, and that it should make the list of best books reviewed on Flying Houses, but really considering these characters I have to say that only the Affenlights are well-developed characters--and Pella should be qualified by a "barely."

Before we get to the spoilers (and my specific criticisms), I want to reiterate that I do recommend this book and cannot recall reading a better book about baseball.  It appears popular for authors to blurb that, while they don't love baseball, Harbach got them into it.  Baseball is an endlessly mythological game that has unfortunately been overshadowed by flashier athletic competitions in recent years, along with frequently being derided as "boring."  Personally, I have been watching and following baseball since roughly 1991, and I love the recent history that has defined the last couple generations.  Unfortunately again, today the words "baseball" and "steroids" will almost always be found together, and some of the more outlandish accomplishments (*cough*barrybondsrogerclemens*cough*) can't be celebrated like the 1998 home run race.  This is significant for Harbach's focus.  The star player of the Harpooners is not a power hitter, but an Ozzie Smith-esque shortstop whose landmark accomplishment is consecutive error-less games.

Another thing: why isn't Aparicio Rodriguez just called Ozzie Smith instead of being some pretend amalgam of Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith?  I understand if Smith hasn't written a book like Aparicio's Art of Fielding, but he played shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals for his entire career, bolstered by flawless fielding--and I even think there is a reference somewhere to Aparicio performing a full flip on the field, as Smith once famously did.  Then again, there are bigger problems with the book than this.


The Art of Fielding has a terrific opening, and is relatively engrossing.  However, it becomes a "novel" when Affenlight betrays his inappropriate gay crush on Owen--and this is not very deep into it, maybe fifty pages or sixty pages.  It really comes out of nowhere and catches the reader off-guard (unless they like spoilers).  And to me, a reader that has gushed about Death in Venice, the references to that work are either eerily coincidental, or intentional.  I prefer to think they are intentional, the most obvious of which is Guert Affenlight's initials mirroring those of Gustav Aschenbach, not to mention their literary pedigrees, deceased wives, and middled-ages.  Even more noteworthy is the way Harbach describes the "silent crush"--until the novel makes its first of several missteps.

I understand, okay.  Unless Affenlight and Owen become an "item," the book lacks a certain profluence.  I don't think that's a problem, though, because there are three other characters that are pushing the action forward.  And I don't think I'm wrong, either, that this relationship is the most engrossing aspect of the novel.  Anyone that wants can come pick on me and say, oh, of course you would think that, but I truly believe that is the case for everyone.  The rest of the characters are pretty ordinary, but these two characters break out of the comfort zone of collective consciousness.

So when they kissed, I was like, okay, this is one-upping Thomas Mann, but it felt like a cop-out.  I personally think this novel would have been way more interesting if no consummation had ever happened.  And if at one moment it seems as if the book will also take a Lolita-like turn, then it is all the more impressive for awakening such references.  This is of course, the scene with Genevieve, Owen's mother, who seems to be overtly flirting with Affenlight, who even suggests that Owen might get turned straight by Pella, who also joins them for an informal dinner party.  This was one of the most memorable scenes in the novel for me, and made me think this could actually make a really entertaining, humorous film, but then again maybe not.

There are nice moments though that I think would be stronger if Affenlight kept constantly trying to think of ways to get Owen's attention, which maybe might not work until page 500 rather than page 200.  I would have liked that ending better than the actual one.  Some nice details emerge before both characters know exactly what is what:

"'Oh, I'm sure you do,' Owen said coyly.  'He was much better-looking than I am  He might even have been better-looking than you.' Owen scratched his chin, his tone evaluative and probably slightly teasing.  Affenlight blanched.  If Owen though Jason was slightly better-looking than Affenlight but much better looking than Owen, then Owen thought that Affenlight was better-looking than Owen.  Which was a compliment.  But to be compared unfavorably to an ex-boyfriend: that was a slight.  But the conditional had been used: might even have been.  It was like an SAT for gay flirting.  Not that gay flirting differed from straight flirting.  But if it didn't differ, why was Affenlight so bad at it? Genevieve had returned and was perusing Affenlight's bookshelves, her back turned, sipping her wine." (185)

I'm trying to find "beautiful" passages, but I can't seem to find them from pure memory.  They're all over the place, though I seem to remember at least a couple taking place during a game.  The sports sequences are well-written, as is the entire novel.  I've already expressed my displeasure to the "consummation" of the relationship above, but it's not that bad of a miscue compared to the relationship between Pella and Mike, then between Pella and Henry.  It feels cliched that Henry would hook up with his teammate/mentor/best friend's girlfriend, as it does when there is much commotion about it in the locker room.  Given the way the novel ends, I think it's unnecessary, except to show Pella as a "nurturer," which I don't really believe anyways.

Pella was married to David who was like ten years older than her and he comes back to visit at one part of the novel that was memorable but seemed sort of anticlimactic in relation to its build-up.  I found Pella the least interesting of the characters--though probably more interesting than Mike.  Mike's story is only notable in that he only applies to six law schools and gets rejected by them all.  It arouses suspicion that he didn't apply to any more realistic options, but I think his thought process is right on the money.  It feels unintentional, but this novel also offers helpful guidance on whether to attend law school.

Eventually, Henry develops an anxiety about throwing the ball:

"'Do you know who Steve Blass is?' Sarah asked.
'Never heard of him,' Henry lied.  Steve Blass was an all-star pitcher on the Pirates in the early 70's.  In the spring of 1973 he suddenly, inexplicably, became unable to throw the ball over the plate.  He struggled for two years to regain his control and then, defeated, retired.
'What about Mackey Sasser?'
'Never heard of him.' Sasser was a catcher for the Mets who'd developed a paralyzing fear of tossing the ball back to the pitcher.  He would double-, triple-, quadruple-, quintuple-pump, unable to believe it was okay to let go.  Opposing fans would loudly, gleefully count the number of pumps.  Opposing players would run around the bases.  Total humiliation.  When it happened to Sasser, they said he had Steve Blass disease.
'Steve Sax?  Chuck Knoblauch?  Mark Wohlers?  Rick Ankiel?'
If Sarah X. Pessel hadn't been a girl, Henry might have socked her in the face.  Her middle name probably didn't even start with X; she probably just liked the way it looked in her byline.  'None of those guys were shortstops,' he said." (215)

I remember Mark Wohlers being one of the great closers of his day, one of the guys who could throw really hard, like high 90's.  Then I remember him pitching against the Cubs one day after being injured for a while and how he could not throw a strike to save his life, and everyone knew it, and the Cubs just stood in the batter's box and waited to get walked.  Two or three runs were walked in before the manager pulled him.  He retired not long after.  I didn't know about the other guys, though.

I think the amount that Henry works out is unrealistic, as is his scene of jumping into Lake Michigan.  It just seems kind of counter-productive--when you work out as hard as he does, I think you enter territory where toning it down yields the same gains.  And then there is the matter of the ending.  I think it's a pretty cliched ending, the way Henry gets to go to the game, and join the team.  The manner in which he helps the team is not cliched in itself, however, so the last scene is good.  It's everything that comes after that stinks.  I mean, part of me is angry that, when asked to interpret a poem ("The Relic") by John Donne, for a British Literature I final exam, I wrote that Donne wanted the reader to go physically dig up his grave to see if he had really been buried in the same coffin as his wife.  I received an F.  So it seems incredible that at least this famous figure might have known where I was coming from:

"'I can't believe Affenlight's your dad,' he mused.  'That guy gives a hell of a speech.'
'I know.'
'He's the reason I came to school here.  Not that I had a lot of options.  But I drove up here for prefrosh weekend, and he gave a speech I'll never forget.  About Emerson.'
Pella nodded.  She knew the Emerson riff by heart, but Mike clearly wanted to tell it, and if that would cheer him up she was willing to listen.
'His first wife died young, of tuberculosis.  Emerson was shattered.  Months later, he went to the cemetery, alone, and dug up her grave.  Opened the coffin and looked inside, at what was left of this woman he loved.  Can you imagine?  It must have been terrible.  Just a terrible thing to do.  But the thing is, Emerson had to do it.  He needed to see for himself.  To understand death.  To make death real.  Your dad said that the need to see for yourself, even  in the most difficult circumstances, was what educa--'
'Ellen was nineteen,' Pella interruped to say.  She hated the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.  'One of the cures the doctors prescribed for tuberculosis back then was 'jolting.' Which meant going for high-speed carriage rides on deeply rutted roads.  Months, weeks before she died.  Coughing up blood all the way.'" (118)

This probably isn't everything I wanted to say about this book, but I think I've written enough.  You should know by now whether you want to check it out or not.  Just don't blame me if I spoiled it for you.  I warned you!


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you basically enjoyed "The Art of Fielding." One of my closest and oldest friends, someone who's a well-published European writer, absolutely detested it. When I read it -- and why I recommended it -- I was reading it simply for pleasure, and so didn't think about it for as long and hard and deeply as you do, but I enjoyed it a lot. It was kind of an escape from a not-fun time in my life.

I actually thought Mike was the most interesting character in the novel, but it's so long since I read it that I can't articulate why except that I found his actions maddening (you point out one example, the number of law schools he applies to) and at times inexplicable.

Harbach tells a decent story. I think I may have recommended it to you in regard to a discussion about Tao Lin or perhaps another author like him, who seems to have no real interest in "stories." There's something to be said for the non-narrative impulse in fiction -- the only character that seems to interest Lin and the writers associated with them are the stand-ins for the author himself or herself, which is why I suspect they are better poets than novelists or short fiction writers.

Clearly, Harbach -- like a whole bunch of others by writers under 35, the majority of them I admire -- is nobody's idea of "the voice of a generation." But I think the odds are good that he will have a longer career than Lin because pretty much every novelist proclaimed "the voice of a generation" has shot their wad by 35, sometimes earlier.

And if they haven't, it's really hard to transition yourself from a generational writer simply because there's always a younger, more interesting (by virtue of being younger in our media world) generation coming up.

Writers who focus on characters in their late 30s and older will never be considered "the voice of a generation" because -- and I guess this is ageist (against younger people) or natural, because readers consider them to be either more representative of all people or the "default" in the way that white is the default race in Western culture.

That Harbach can create a character around 60 at least as credible as the characters closer to his own age doesn't mean that the "voice of a generation" writers can't also do this, though I don't think Lin has shown he can; maybe they just aren't interested in trying.

I think some of what I said in recommending other writers was apropos of your remark about Lin being the greatest writer of your generation. He may very well have already peaked. John Updike, who might have managed in his Rabbit novels to stay a generational voice -- but he could do a lot more -- said in "Bech: A Book" (very funny) something like this: "Writers aren't like scholars, they're like athletes: they get beer bellies after 30."

Maybe 7 or 8 years ago some younger writers were imagining online how many books they'd have published before they hit 30. I'd think the more interesting challenge is how many they'll publish after they hit 30.

"The Art of Fielding" feels to me like a middle-aged writer's book. Which is to say. . . who the hell knows.

JK said...

Once again, thank you for your comment. I think you are spot-on about the "voice of a generation" appellation. As much as I want to champion Tao because of our shared history, I honestly enjoyed "The Art of Fielding" more than "Taipei" (which is my favorite by Tao), with the huge exception of the ending. The ending doesn't ruin the book for me, but I think Harbach could have easily lopped it off and ended on a significantly stronger note.

In general, this was a much more satisfying read than any of Tao's because the characters felt more fully fleshed-out rather than placeholders with different names.

But I think Tao has made a very powerful statement with his oeuvre over the past six or seven years that is only growing more prescient and true--personifying the zombification of the masses via smartphone culture. Basically, I am looking forward to whatever he does next, even if it is similar to his past work.

Anonymous said...

Well said!!!