Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

This voluminous book was a surprise bestseller when it was published in 2011. A 500-page story ostensibly about baseball set in academia hardly seemed likely to become so popular. In fact, when Novel Conversations chose the book, I was not excited--and the first couple of times I tried to start The Art of Fielding, I just couldn't get into it. But some months later, I finally managed to get past the first chapter and am glad I did.

The Art of Fielding gets its title from a book by the legendary Cardinals shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, full of numbered bits of wisdom applicable to baseball and life. Examples: 3. There are three stages. Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.  and 33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone; the return to thoughtless being by a very few. Henry Skrimshander is obsessed with baseball and The Art of Fielding. Playing in a summer baseball tournament in Peoria, Henry is discovered by Mike Schwartz, a two-sport athlete (and unofficial athletic director) at Westish College. Mike recruits Henry to Westish; Henry is assigned to room with Owen Dunne, a fine student who also happens to be gay and a baseball player.

Late in Mike's senior year (Owen and Henry's junior year), all three suffer crises. Despite being an outstanding student, Mike has applied to five of the nation's top law schools and been rejected by all of them. He realizes he has spent the past three years developing Henry's baseball career and neglected his own future. He falls for Pella Affenlight, daughter of the college president, who has just gotten out of a bad marriage; that relationship, too, is fraught. Henry, who has not made an error in years and is getting calls from scouts and agents, makes a throwing error that injures Owen (who sits in the dugout reading during games) and triggers a crisis of confident. Owen, meanwhile, enters a relationship with college president Guert Affenlight, a circumstance that is more treacherous for Guert than for Owen but perhaps not well-considered for either.

The events of the spring semester are told from the perspectives of Mike, Henry, Pella, and Guert. Interestingly, Chad Harbach has described Owen as feeling like "the author of the book, or the presiding consciousness"--but, perhaps because he doesn't write from Owen's perspective, I didn't get that feeling. For me, Mike and Henry are the heart of the story--they both have worked hard but are in situations where they feel they have lost control of what is happening to them. The same might also be said of Guert and Pella, although Guert is certainly aware that getting involved with a student is a bad idea.

Certainly, the book could have been edited down a bit. For me, the descriptions of baseball plays and games got a bit tedious (and I'm a sports fan). For other readers, the many references to literature, reading, and literary analysis might seem a bit much (Affenlight is a Melville scholar, Mike is writing his senior thesis on Marcus Aurelius's Meditations). Nonetheless, the book has a strong core about how our lives are shaped by our own decisions, happenstance, relationships, and what and how we think about our lives and our art (whether baseball or writing). Despite wishing it were a little shorter, I recommend The Art of Fielding.

Favorite passages:
It was easy enough to write a sentence, but if you were going to create a work of art, the way Melville had, each sentence needed to fit perfectly with the one that preceded it, and the unwritten one that would follow. And each of those sentences needed to square with the ones on either side, so that three became five and five became seven, seven became nine, and whichever sentence he was writing became the slender fulcrum on which the whole precarious edifice depended.

For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we're alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.

Literature could turn you into an asshole; he'd learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.

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