7 May, 2012Issue 19.2FictionLiterature

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Prose Games

Hanna Bailey

BritishChad Harbach
The Art of Fielding
Fourth Estate, 2012
450 pages
ISBN: 978-0007374441


“Writing is exciting and baseball is like writing. | You can never tell with either how it will go | or what you will do.” So wrote Marianne Moore in “Baseball and Writing”. For Moore, the work of the writer and baseball player are analogous. They’re both willing to waste effort. They’re both prepared to be hard on themselves. They’re both attentive and must strive for precision. It’s a startling comparison, and makes an extraordinarily pertinent motto for Chad Harbach’s voluminous debut novel The Art of Fielding. We might even read Moore’s statement as a diagnosis of Harbach’s own condition: he worked on the novel for almost ten years. After these labours he perhaps surprisingly turned down a marginally higher manuscript bid in order to work with publishing house Little, Brown and Company and their executive vice president and editor Michael Pietsch, who worked with David Foster Wallace on Infinite Jest (1996). Like Wallace, Harbach uses long rhythmic lines and experiments in point of view. Indeed, his tragicomic style and dramatisation of academic, family, and sporting life link his debut to a long tradition of modern and postmodern American fiction, from H. G. Bissinger to Don DeLillo to Richard Ford.

Nonetheless The Art of Fielding has created its own space in the literary world and has become something of a phenomenon, gaining similar levels of critical and commercial success to Jonathan Franzen. And yet, unlike Franzen’s Freedom (2010), The Art of Fielding lacks an overt political agenda. Its covert message of resistance lies in its rhetoric. The novel starts and finishes with baseball, as we follow the lives of Westish College’s team, The Harpooners. Westish is a (fictional) liberal arts college in Wisconsin, set in an era of “roommates, beer pong and Salvation Army furniture”. The protagonist is shortstop Henry Skrimshander, “the baseball messiah”, “the must-see kid with the magic glove”; he is unnaturally talented and set for superstardom until he suddenly loses the ability to throw the ball. His struggle with self-doubt and its consequences provides the novel’s narrative; it also sparks tangential plot lines involving Henry’s friend and mentor Mike Schwartz, his roommate Owen Dunne, the college’s president Guert Affenlight, and Guert’s daughter Pella.

Henry takes his cues from a book of meditations called The Art of Fielding, written by his hero Hall of Fame shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez (another invention). Henry’s goal is to achieve a set of successive errorless games in order to surpass Rodriguez’s NCAA record. Errors, as Harbach informs us (and he is kind to those who may know little of the sport), are cruelly posted on a scoreboard for everyone to see, making it clear who has made the error. As Henry’s errorless streak increases, his good fortune multiplies and he is inundated by countless numbers of crazy offers from agents and scouts. But when he falters, his breakdown is agonizingly public.

The outlandish character names will already have intrigued the cetaceous-minded. These are the first of the novel’s sea of references to Melville and Moby-Dick. The “Art of Fielding” book within the book has more than just length in common with this ninteenth century predecessor. At Westish College there is a statue of Melville to commemorate his visit in the late 19th century. The college team is the Harpooners, its shortstop’s name is Skrimshander, its pitcher’s name is Starblind; and the team’s obsessive quest for championship takes on the trappings of Ahab’s search for the white whale. The comparisons with Melville’s masterpiece are far-reaching.

Henry’s attempts to do what he loves are interrupted by paralysing bouts of self-doubt after a routine throw injures a fellow teammate. He is haunted by a fear of messing up and starts over-thinking everything, obsessing over minute details and exhausting himself to correct the mistake. But one mistake leads to another, and another. Melville’s captain, Ahab, voices similar sentiments when he laments the continual flipping between monolithic faith and cerebral doubt. Ahab would rather move forward linearly in “unretracing gradations”; so would Henry. Harbach’s allusions to Moby Dick can, nonetheless, complicate the reading experience beyond easy decipherment and can seem out of joint with the novel’s familiar context of time and place.

This contradictory but constant preoccupation with the unachievable works its way into several of the characters’ stories. The purportedly intelligent Pella undermines her sense of casual privilege by dropping out of high school and racing into a dead-end marriage to an uptight older man. Similarly, her father, the school’s president, the charming and sophisticated Guert, is made to feel at once too old and too young by an unanticipated romance with Henry’s self-described “gay mulatto roommate”. And perhaps most importantly, Schwartz’s body is swiftly falling apart despite his young age, as are all of his “reasons for suffering”, whether the prospect of law school, his thesis, or his relationships with Henry and Pella. “He didn’t get into law school only because he hadn’t applied to any of the hundreds of schools that would have him.” But in such egocentric writing there is the danger of a peculiar hubris. Once the writer has committed himself to himself, and no one else, he runs the risk of writing for the writer’s sake. With this comes the possibility of denying that there is any world of genuine worth except the one the writer can create. Harbach alludes to this danger when he writes that “Each of us, deep down believes that the whole world issues from his own precious body, like images projected from a tiny slide onto an earth-sized screen. And then deeper down, each of us knows he’s wrong”. He catches himself in the act of trying to achieve a sort of heroic, even cosmic, insight; but he pulls back. It is this easing-up, this modesty, in Harbach’s writing that saves the characters, to use an American phrase, from being down pat.

The majority of The Art of Fielding focuses on Henry, since he provides the vehicle for Harbach’s allusiveness. While the allusions to Ahab generate some pity for his sufferings by placing him in the company of other tragic sufferers, the attitudinal thrust of the allusions is mainly pejorative. However, Henry should not be considered in isolation. The relationship between Henry and Schwartz is at the core of the novel and articulates its most serious themes. Some of these are more easily recognizable, most obviously a painful co-dependency that can afflict trainer and trainee; Henry exists as an extension of Schwartz: “Without Schwartz there was no Westish College. Without Schwartz, come to think of it, there was hardly even any Henry Skrimshander.” Henry doesn’t make a move without thinking of how Schwartz would want him to proceed. Yet Schwartz realizes that “it was a bad thing to do: to distance himself from Henry… because he couldn’t handle Henry’s success.” Schwartz has always wanted what Henry possesses, certifiable talent, “an art to call his own”, but knew that his ambition and his understanding outshined his talent.

Harbach’s talent or artfulness is one of minute detail, a gift for observation, for finding the exact words for some human experience or feeling. This attention to detail contributes to commentaries on a wide range of serious topics: intense friendship, betrayal, the loss of a talent, a strained parent-child relationship, and drug dependency. As the pages glide by, filled with the author’s fondness for both baseball and Moby-Dick, the realization of having to leave the world which Harbach has comfortably created sets in. It’s a feeling of isolation like that of batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball, or sailors on a ship, solitary and lonely. And the same could be said for the act of writing. As with writing (and baseball) you can never tell how it will go, and it’s hard to tell whether Harbach will become another great “American Voice”. What is certain is that Harbach has the patience, skill, and discipline required for the lonely, obsessive quest to write great literature.

Hanna Bailey is reading for an LLB degree at King’s College, Aberdeen University.