The Art of Fielding -- A Review
Have you read Ender's Game? What about The Fountainhead? More charitably, I guess, what about The Great Gatsby? All of these are books about individual greatness and the cost of achieving such greatness. All of them have protagonists whose lives are winnowed down to a core point of ambition, and who inspire us through this ambition. Willy Loman, to be a character we can identify with at all, has to have a house he's giving up a lot to make payments on. Julien Sorel wants to be Napoleon. Lucien de Rubempre just wants someone to publish his book about archers.

At one point in 2008 or so, probably just around the time the Fiction Circus site started, Miracle Jones and I were walking around our violent criminal neighborhood in Brooklyn talking about a concept: Was 'fictional power' a kind of objective quantity in the world? Could you raise your fictional power by, say, moving to a hostile or economically uncertain city or by entering into a kink-sotted relationship with a senator, much as you would raise the potential energy of a bowling ball by carrying it up a spiral staircase? Are certain kinds of stories just better than other kinds, no matter what? Or, put another way: do we invariably like certain kinds of stories more than other kinds? And if we doâ€"if human readers naturally establish a pecking order among the plots we prefer to readâ€"then what, if any, are the ethical implications of that preference?

Before I follow this maybe unpleasant line of thought much further, let me be unambiguous. n+1 cofounder/editor Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, just released this Wednesday, September 7, is a brilliant piece of fiction. Harbach has, indeed, "knocked it out of the park." It is one of those books that establishes a kind of pocket universeâ€"in this case, the Melville-obsessed Westish College and environsâ€"and that does its best to exhaust the possibilities of that universe, tracing the comings and goings of its characters across the Small Quad, around the lighthouse and back, into the impeccably-maintained dorm room of Owen Dunne, against the Big Buck Hunter IV cabinet at Bartleby's. Note the Bartleby's, one of the implications of the college's Melville fixationâ€"the sports teams called The Harpooners, the statue that serves as a kind of geographical touchstone for the secret comings and goings of different characters throughout, the T-shirts saying OUR DICK IS BIGGER THAN YOURSâ€"that are all delightfully and intricately worked out and employed in the way that good artists employ such details, like gargoyles on churches or bare asses in medieval manuscript illuminations. It is the kind of book that makes you want to get out your graph paper and colored pencils and make maps. The Art of Fielding is a really, really good book in the way that Ender's Game and The Fountainhead are just not. And yet: is it a better story?

Essentially, the book tells the story of young Shortstop of Genius Henry Skrimshander, from his earliest years a man dedicated to completely embodying the teachings of Hall of Fame shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, the author of a book called "The Art of Fielding" that is full of awesomely Sun Tzu-esque aphorisms: "To field a ground ball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension," "The return to thoughtless being [is attained] by a very few," "Death is the sanction of all the athlete does." (The fact that this is a ludicrous and hilarious premise for a book is one of the best things about Harbach's book, this kind of demented transcendental nobility ascribed to the position of shortstop.) In short order, Skrimshander is swept away to Westish college by the slightly older Mike Schwartzâ€"an angry, obsessive Chicago South-sider and a devotee of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, another good premiseâ€"in the hope that the natural grace and genius of Skrimshander might be cultivated through Schwartz's brutal training regimen, and that Skrimshander will then lead the flagging Harpooners to a new era of greatness in college baseball.

And Skrimshander succeeds! And then he begins to fail. And this arc of success and failure contains the largely unrelated doings of the book's four other major characters: Schwartz and his personal ambitions, the affable and isolated college president Guert Affenlight, Henry Skrimshander's politically active self-described "gay mulatto roommate" Owen (kind of the Spock of the book), and the affably isolated college president's artistic and prodigal daughter Pella, all four of these bouncing off of one another as Henry faces his demons and various championship games, departures, and other external matters ever loom in the background.

To my mind, this wonderful and brilliant book is guilty of two venial sins. It is also guilty of one mortal one.

The first venial sinâ€"killing off a particularly likable character almost solely to set up a fantastic set-piece endingâ€"is no big deal. Everyone is a sucker for this kind of thing, and the set piece in the ending is so good that I don't know anyone who could really resist it, and the suspiciously minimal impact this death seems to have on the other four major characters is more than offset by the cool logistics played out in the final pages. Noah Baumbach does this in every movie he writes and most people forgive him. It's cool.

The second venial sin has to do with the relationship between Henry Skrimshander and Mike Schwartz, which in theory gives the entire book its emotional power, and which in practice is almost nonexistent. The relationship is like a silent dinner guest: no one is distracted by empty chairs, but there?s not much of a contribution being made either. I could wish that the book was 150 pages longer, those pages entirely about Skrimshander's glossed-over first two years of college and the wax and wane of his strange relationship with Mike and his self-improvement program. Yet apart from a few nice touches early onâ€"Schwartz forcing Skrim to consume massive amounts of a horrible protein mix called SuperBoost, Schwartz going hundreds of miles out of his way to convince Skrim's sketchily-defined father to allow him to go to Westishâ€"we get mostly assertions that Skrimshander completely idolizes Schwartz, that he does much of what he does for the benefit of Schwartz, that Schwartz does much of what he does for the benefit of Skrimshander. The authorial voice waxes about the great link between the two. Such link is blamed for the dissolution of other key relationships, not entirely convincingly. And the book's final pages and the choices made within them entirely depend on us understanding that link. What is it really made of? How was it forged? How strong is it under pressure? And yet we just don't understand that link.

An example: The act catalyzing Skrim's fall from grace is a botched throw to first base that causes Terrible Consequences for another character. The botched throw happens, in Schwartz's mind, as a direct result of Schwartz's failure to get into a good law school. This raises questions: Is this what trips Skrim up? Or is this a sly point by Harbach, that Schwartz thinks Skrim screws up because he's so crestfallen at Schwartz's great failure to make the grade at Yale, whereas Skrim couldn't care less and screws up totally at random? I don't know the answer to these questions, and this is a problem, because much of Harbach's ultimate point with the ending depends on my having some inkling at least of what the answer is. And I don't have such an inkling; I have the author?s explicit assurance. This is Wrong, yet it doesn't mess up the book too much: Harbach is too good at moving everything forward, and all of the other major relationships between the characters hit the right note.

And yet here's the Mortal Sin that does mess up the book too much: all of these characters are defined exclusively by their ambitions. Henry wants to be the greatest shortstop ever and to play baseball for a living. Mike wants to achieve personal, Stoical greatness as a lawyer of genius. Owen wants toâ€"actually, I don't know what Owen wants to do, as he exists largely as the object of desire of another character and doesn't have a huge amount of personal agency (and, bummer of bummers, vanishes from the book almost immediately upon the other character's vanishing.) But even though we actually meet Henry's family and Owen's mother in the text, and even though we get a brief exchange between Pella Affenlight and Mike Schwartz about how the Reduced Circumstances into which he was born have given him both great drive and the personal rage he needs in order to succeed, we don't actually get any firm sense that this is true. Mike is nothing but the guy who wants to go to law school and doesn't get in. Owen is nothing but the level-headed love interest/victim of circumstances. Henry is nothing but the shortstop of genius. When he can't be the shortstop of genius, he almost literally degenerates, regresses to an infantile state. There is no sense that he has any inner life, personal history, or personality at all, apart from his function as an avatar of ambition. Same for Mike. Same for Owen. The only characters for whom this is not entirely true are the two who are actually related to one another, and who are thus defined in relation to one another, and who are thus a relief when the narrative turns to them for a while. I mean, seriously; even Lopez, the bartender at Bartleby's, talks mostly about how he's going to work really had to become a great mixer of drinks, adjust the masculinity of the Long Island Iced Tea and everything. Even Chef Spirodocus, the guy who runs the school dining hall, talks incessantly about "how food was art, the kitchen a studio, the dish a canvas, and could you make art on a messy canvas?" as he teaches different characters about the true greatness involved in making hollandaise sauce. Make no mistake: it speaks really, really well of Harbach-the-guy that fanatical personal striving is the one note all of his characters strike, but it's still one note.

More: there are not really forces of conflict in this book at all. Henry is defeated by his own fear of failure, which he conjures for himself essentially out of nothing. (The book makes noise about it being caused by maybe Mike, maybe Owen, maybe the great potential for professional success looming, but that's all.) There is some material about Mike's problems with substance abuse, but they never have actual consequences. Mike also has money worries for about twenty pages before a personal loan from an admiring coach eliminates them temporarily, and a lucrative job offer descends from the clouds in the book's final chapters and eliminates money troubles altogether. Pella has a husband whom she ditches without much looking back, and her job with Chef Spirodocus puts her many thousands of credits in the black of whatever balance of redemption the novel deems she requires. President Affenlight is the only one who meets any kind of serious external opposition, and the problem of how he will act in the face of such opposition is sidestepped with alarming efficiency in the final chapters. [1]

This is the mortal sin of the book. It's also, worrisomely, what makes it such an appealing book (apart from, again, Harbach's crazy writing talent and attention to detail.) Basically, we all like this kind of story: human potential pushed to its limits, succeeding in spite of itself. It fires the imagination, personally inspires us to do greater things. The power of this kind of story combines with Harbach's talent to excuse all of the story's sins. And maybe it's folly to question something that is innately appealing to human beings, a story that is deeply ingrained in our basic nature: We are the beings who want every year to be better than the year before it. But shouldn't we question that desire? It seems like that desire has gotten us into a lot of trouble.

And yes, grim as this is to admit, Ender's Game and The Fountainhead do this kind of plot better than The Art of Fielding does. In Ender's Game, the situations Ender faces grind him down to the point of exhaustion, and the ultimate escape from the brute logic of genius vs. external forces = success involves questioning that logic and finding alternatives. In The Fountainhead, we never really doubt that Howard Roark is going to build some cool shit, but we can doubt that the world will let him build cool shit. That these two books work with these themes both much more clunkily and that the authors of both books come to much more frightening and gross political conclusions is not relevant; the fact that they really do work with these themes is. The former book asks questions about what success means. The latter asks questions about under what conditions success is possible. The Art of Fielding says that we can cheat ourselves of success through self-doubt, but then we can get over that and try again.

Or, if we don't get over that and try again, then The Art of Fielding says that success of a different kind will be thrust upon us. Mike Schwartz's big conflict is that he would rather be a brilliant lawyer or athlete than a brilliant coach; his great act of humility is to accept a position as a brilliant and handsomely compensated coach. Skrimshander's great act of humility is to wait a year before he Goes Pro. These are not actually great acts of humility. And the notion that there may exist perfectly valid and meaningful lives apart from people of rare ability is not really on the table. Even Pella's great act of redemptionâ€"leaving a life of privilege to work in a college dining hallâ€"is cut with our awareness that she's really really good at working in a college dining hall, that she moves old Chef Spirodocus to tears with the way she juliennes carrots. (Plus she also later gets a full ride to the school through wacky nepotism, further redeeming her.) This is a novel whose major plot element is failure, but failure never actually seems present or possible within the novel in any meaningful way, or at least not for these characters. Quoting Martin Amis's Success: "April is the coolest month for guys like me."

The Great Gatsby is about the American Dream being fundamentally foolish and rotten. The Art of Fielding is about it being maybe at times too stressful.

Yes, this is a condemnation of this book. But it is a condemnation of this book on by far the least important dimension of this or any book. In Search of Lost Time is about a well-off guy who spends a lot of time thinking about his childhood. So what? The important thing about fiction is completely not its ethical dimension. The man-of-genius plot is good to read about without necessarily being good to contemplate.

And in aesthetic terms, this is a wonderful book. Harbach can move characters around like a motherfucker, move them in such pleasant ways that the larger questions aren't really important. That Werner von Braun made your rocket shouldn't matter when it's taking off. And Harbach can write, too. The book is full of really nice, jarring moments and imagesâ€"Skrimshander lying Christlike in a bath of his own filth, Pella and Schwartz stumbling to bed through his lightless cluttered apartment, the beer floor at Bartleby's, the mugs in President Affenlight's cupboards, the slick way cell phones and Facebook get slipped in to the nicely switched-on-Emerson prose without seeming obnoxious, the whole way in which the ending plays out with shovels and liquor and sailboats. Here are my two favorite pieces of writing, strictly in the charm department:

"We have three options," Mike said. "We can go to Bartleby's, which is a bar. We can go to my house, which is a mess. Or we can drive around until my car breaks down, which will be soon."

Pella imagined in a flash the restaurant she would own: small and white, all painted white but warmly so. And every so often she would take a white chair or a white table and paint it according to her mood, paint a door frame or a section of filigreed molding, hang a canvas on the white wall, so that bit by bit the whiteness of the restaurant would emerge into color. So as customers sat there over the course of weeks and months and years the place would slowly bloom and change before their eyes, sliding from whiteness into something ingeniously raucous, a riot of green and mango and orange. And then when the job was finished she'd obliterate what she'd done with a blizzard of white paint and start again. That was the kind of restaurant she?d like to own.

The Art of Fielding is wonderful, graceful fiction. It moves and ducks and flows just as you would want. And I'm totally glad that this book came out now: as James Patterson says in his blurb (seriously, what kind of book gets blurbs from Jonathan Franzen, John Irving, and James Patterson?), "you nearly lose your breath from . . . the unexpected news-blast that the novel is very much alive and well." People will read this book. They will be fired up about novels about Americans, ones who live in a recognizably contemporary world that has a distinct social dimension, and ones who do have actual souls and desires beyond and against of their socioeconomic circumstances. They will go off and write such novels themselves. This is what we all want. This is awesome.

But.

The Art of Fielding performs the graceful and wonderful and brilliant fictional actions it performs without really looking at who its characters are, outside of their ambitions, and worse: without really, truly, and with great prejudice questioning its central premise that ambition is a thing good unto itself. And this is a central premise in need of a good, long questioning, perhaps more now in America than ever.

Again, one assumes that there is a lot of Harbach in his characters. And it clearly took a long time to write this book, and that time is clearly well spent, and The Art of Fielding is clearly going to make Harbach into One of His Generation's Great Voices, as determined by those who determine these kinds of things in the Great Literary Inside. So the question levied at the book becomes a question levied at the author: Ambition and work are rewarded, the struggle over self is overcome. What else about people is there to write about? Now what?



[1] Not really brought up, aside from a couple of due-diligence conversations here and there, are some larger issues: all of these characters are either well off or so recognized as geniuses that their social circumstances are irrelevant; all of these characters attend a pretty affluent college; all of them will go on to good and successful lives as a matter of course. But one need not compulsively bring up such issues as long as one is comfortable with knowing who's being excluded from the Community of Readers by not bringing up such issues. Just saying.

Posted by future on Thu, 08 Sep 2011 16:57:01 -0400 -- permanent link


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