Monday, November 7, 2011

Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding"

by Jason Wojciechowski

Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding made a buzzy trip around the baseball blogosphere a short time back as we discovered that baseball bloggers are apparently so starved for contemporary lit that involves the greatest game as to swarm all at once when they hear word that such a novel has arrived. That Harbach was the co-founder and current executive editor of one of America's most famous literary journals, n+1, gave the book additional gravitas.

Small-college baseball

Don't make the mistake, though, of thinking you're getting a Mark Harris-like baseball book. It's a college novel, really, that happens to involve three baseball players (one of whom is also a football player, another of whom is a rising academic star), the college president, and the president's adult daughter understanding how to escape the traps that their actions and stations in life have led them to up to this point. The inciting incident does happen on a baseball field (or, technically, I suppose, just off to the side of the field proper -- more on this in just a few words), but most of the action thereafter takes place in the president's office and quarters, the dining hall, the dorms, the gym, and, most importantly, in the heads of the characters, who are forever (I say this in a positive sense), especially when interacting with others, circling around their problems, considering them, probing at them, trying to determine just what exactly it is they're supposed to do, if there even is a supposed-to-do, who is doing the supposing, and why they owe that person anything at all.

With your expectations duly placed, the briefest of plot summaries: at the beginning of the book, Mike Schwartz is a sophomore catcher playing American Legion ball on summer vacation from Westish College, a liberal arts school in Wisconsin, when he spies Henry Skrimshander, a prodigiously gifted defensive shortstop despite his diminutive stature and unimposing manner, taking fielding practice after a game. Schwartz recruits Henry to Westish, where he is roomed with Owen, that year's top incoming student, awarded a full scholarship and wooed from better schools. Owen is black, gay, from California, precocious both intellectually and emotionally, and a middling ballplayer himself. Jump ahead three years and Henry has been trained up by Schwartz into a legitimate professional prospect, a very good hitter and still otherworldly defender who has led his team to the cusp of Division III greatness. One day, as happens to even the greatest of players, a ball slips from Henry's hand by the tiniest of margins. Disaster, actual true physical disaster, ensues, and our five characters (these three along with President Affenlight and his daughter Pella, newly arrived at Westish after escaping a hellish marriage entered into in lieu of Yale) deal with the fallout along with the other traumas of aging into young adulthood (or reliving certain aspects of young adulthood, in the case of the still-dashing Affenlight).

Harbach's prose is lovely without beating its chest. He does not employ Devices or Tricks (like capitalizing certain words for emphasis) and his diction is relatively simple (which helps the characters speak in believable (and distinct) ways) while still providing descriptions of the world and the characters' states of being that feel true and lifelike. This adds up to, despite being a book in which plot is secondary, a propulsive ride through the lives of these five struggling with semi-forbidden love, doubts about the future (and the past and present, to be honest), and honest-to-god existential crises.

All is not perfect, of course. While the characters act and speak in ways that set them apart, they all seem to think alike, as I mentioned above, in circles, lost in their thoughts, unable to break certain habits of mind that got them into their present troubles in the first place and still threaten to keep them there. This spoke to me in certain ways, but I fear that those with different outlooks on life may not be drawn into the inner lives of all five characters as I was -- more variation might have felt truer and provided a larger swath of readers with the opportunity to latch onto at least one of the characters.

In more quibbly territory, the book seems in some ways to be structured around the idea that Henry's misguided throw described (vaguely) above is, as I called it, an inciting incident. The play doesn't happen until 1/3 of the way through the book, however (giving that first third the feel of a lengthy prologue), and the stories of Schwartz, the power-hitting catcher, and Pella, the president's daughter, do not depend in any meaningful way on that throw. Schwartz's dedication to turning Henry into something more than Henry ever could have achieved alone becomes something to question as Henry spirals out of control, but the main thrust of Schwartz's arc is the question of where he, a person of no small talents on and off the baseball field but no particularly large ones except in the one field in which he does not want to find himself stuck (coaching), goes now that college's end looms. Pella ends up briefly touched by Henry's plight, but, like Schwartz, her own arc (escaping her past, starting fresh in a world in which no one actually gets to start fresh) depends little on the throw.

Also, while I've described Owen to this point as one of our five main characters, he's really something else. The perspective switches from chapter to chapter between the other four without ever landing on Owen, and he doesn't actually have a story of his own. He's a fully-formed human, preternaturally calm and aloof. In certain ways, this works -- I laughed, often times out loud, at much of what Owen says and does. His general attitude and outlook provide much of the humor of the book. Those same qualities, though, sometimes served to push Owen far outside the realm of humanity. He's an angel of amusement, but angels aren't real. This isn't objectively a problem -- there are books in which this type of character works perfectly well -- but Owen too often felt out of step with the rest of the characters and their relatively grounded situations. Everyone is exceptional in this novel (Affenlight was a young academic star once upon a time, Henry is the best defensive shortstop since Ozzie Smith (here turned into a gnomic genius, the author of the book-within-the-book that gives Harbach's novel its name, and rebranded as a Venezuelan named Aparicio Rodriguez), Schwartz is absurdly gifted in the art of motivation, and Pella was a gifted child, independent and ahead of her peers in so many ways that the race to stay in front eventually resulted in the previously mentioned misguided marriage), but Owen could've done with a problem or two, not necessarily as crippling as for the four protagonists, but something to leaven the purity, to render some humanity unto his blessed soul.

Like I said, though, I'm quibbling. The freshness and energy of a good first novel is present in The Art of Fielding, and one hopes that Harbach's second won't be long in arriving.


William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Thanks. I will add this to my reading list.

David said...

Sounds like an interesting read. Jason, by the way, I hope you don't mind a little constructive criticism, because I'm going to give some to you. You're a really great writer, but you have a problem with which I, too struggle. Some of your sentences are absurdly long. There were two in this essay that went over 100 words, with lots of asides and parantheticals. That's actually exactly how I write (in fact, once in high school, I wrote a 300-word essay in only three sentences, much to the chagrin of my teacher, who asked that I make it at least 5 if I wanted credit), but some people find it very off-putting, because it's so easy to lose track of subject and even content. It's usually a symptom of writing how we speak (which I think is almost always a GREAT quality and makes for engaging reading), but it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. Sorry if that sounds too critical. I actually really enjoy the things you've posted here since joining, but I thought you might appreciate it. Nice article, and I can't wait to read more like it!

Jason Wojciechowski said...

David, thanks -- please don't be hesitant about such feedback. Long sentences are sometimes a conscious choice on my part and frequently something more like an affectation / mimicry of writers I enjoy. (Chad Harbach does not use long sentences. Perhaps I need new heroes.)

hugh said...

I, too, enjoy your writing, Jason.

I'm a teacher in England. Though a math teacher, I enjoy the sound of my own pen. When I started teacher, my report editor commented more than once that my sentences contained more sub-clauses - and length - than were desirable. Though I did not side with him immediately I realised that he was was in fact correct. Brevity is the soul of wit and all that.

What one takes to be a well-constructed, multi-clause sentence does not always come across so to the reader, I realised. And that is so no matter what pretensions I may have held on the matter of my own style. To the point where I tend to think it preferable to begin a sentence with "And" than make the previous one too long.