Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Art of Fielding

 By Chad Harbach
New York, Back Bay Books, 2011
512 pages     Fiction

Westish is a small liberal arts college in a small town along the shore of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin—sort of north of Milwaukee, I would guess. It doesn’t matter, for the most part, where The Art of Fielding is set, however. The story could be told at any small liberal arts college. 

Henry Skrimshander comes to Westish College to play shortstop for the baseball team. He has been recruited by a member of the team, Mike Schwartz, and arrives with a perfect arm and an almost precognizant ability to get the ball to the catcher’s mitt. To the reader and to Schwartz, Henry is clay to be molded; we know very little about him other than his ability to mold himself into the perfect baseball player. His life intersects with a varied group of small college characters. Owen, Henry’s roommate, is a baseball player but also a somewhat effete, gay intellectual snob. Guert Affenlight is the college president; a Melville scholar, he is the closeted father of Pella, who arrives on the scene following a disastrous marriage. 

The slow-paced plot of The Art of Fielding evolves over the course of Henry’s baseball career. Ostensibly, this is a book about baseball, so baseball figures prominently as the backdrop, but the story is much denser than a sports story would generally be. And the plot is about as slow as a baseball game. Baseball is given as much play as it would be in any Midwestern college—integral to the lives of the players, but of little consequence to the rest of the college students. For Henry and Mike, however, baseball is their lives. Baseball becomes, then, the literary device around which Harbach frames his plot.

Although the story line includes many illusions to famous literature, including Moby Dick, Herman Melville, and American poets, their inclusion is another literary devise rather than a pivotal part of the plot. The use of famous literature is there to remind us that this is taking place on a college campus, and kids at a liberal arts college spout literary quotations. Even though there is a climax to the plot, it is not shocking, but evolutionary in nature. Frankly, I was more concerned about what was going to happen to Affenlight’s dog than I was about what was happening to Affenlight. (It would be a plot spoiler to talk about what happened to Affenlight.) 

Henry is the most interesting character. He is so focused on baseball that he is a cipher through most of the book. One reviewer calls it his “diamond-pure life.” When life finally intrudes on the purity of his motivation, he has no ability to answer to the intrusion; he has developed no coping strategies. The author says of Henry's thinking: "Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn't matter how beautifully you performed sometimes ...what mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error." Today’s newspaper tells the story of an Olympic athlete who had to declare bankruptcy following his Olympic journey—a similar story in real life.

Before I began The Art of Fielding, and in the early chapters, I thought that this was going to be a “baseball as a metaphor for life" book. I was wrong about that. At its core, this is a coming of age story. Mike can’t get accepted at law school, which has been his dream, and he reluctantly realizes that his calling may be as a coach. Pella faces the reality of the disastrous marriage she has made and makes the first adult decisions of her life. Even the president of the college, Affenlight, comes of age in the novel. Life intrudes on his insulated academic cocoon. Only Owen, the “gay mulatto roommate” and gifted, but half-hearted baseball player, seems to come of age unscathed. He already has a good sense of who he is and where he is going. 

So, why the fuss about The Art of Fielding? It made the list of several publications, including The New York Times and The New Yorker as one of 2011’s best in literary fiction. It reminded me in many ways of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, although I liked the characters better. When I finished both books, I had to ask myself, “Is this the best that literature has to offer, currently?” A couple of days later and I am still asking myself that question. In a article, a high school English teacher poses a similar question. He compares the literary value of The Hunger Games to The Art of Fielding and concludes that they serve a similar purpose, and The Art of Fielding is a “simplistic children’s book in a grown-up costume.” He suggests that it is a good book but not great literature. I guess I would have to agree.

Here is a totally different and refreshing take on the book in the LA Review of Books:

My book club read The Art of Fielding this month, and we had a really interesting discussion last night.

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