Books May 2012

A Swing and a Miss

Why the latest hyped-up work of staggering genius fizzles
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Alex Nabaum

Most people’s interest in contemporary “literary” fiction, if they have any interest at all, is a matter of wanting to read the latest Big Novel while it’s still being talked about. If they like it, so much the better, but a sense of connection to their peers is what they’re really after. It would be wrong to think them gullible. They succumb to the loudest promotional campaign every year only because they recognize the recurring need for an “it” novel, something everyone can agree to read at about the same time.

Last September, Chad Harbach’s campus-baseball novel, The Art of Fielding, released in paperback this month, was published to great fanfare, but after the Franzen-Tolstoy comparisons of 2010, the praise seemed subdued, almost credible. Like the inner dust jacket, which promised “an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love,” the cover blurbs stopped well short of attributing profundity to the book. The most extravagant praise came from Jonathan Franzen himself, who wrote, “Reading The Art of Fielding is like watching a hugely gifted young shortstop: you keep waiting for the errors, but there are no errors.” An error-free novel! But no one in his right mind would take that claim seriously.

By a not so strange coincidence, the same month sawVanity Fair put out a long puff piece on the novel, presented, à la movie puffery, in the form of behind-the-scenes reportage. Keith Gessen, a declared close friend of the novelist, took readers through The Art of Fielding’s production process: from first draft to final manuscript, then through agent hunt and auction, right down to the cover design. Little, Brown’s $665,000 advance was held up as a vote of confidence in literature, one “especially eloquent after the darkness of 2009.” Left unmentioned, though it should not be made too much of either, was the fact that, all things being equal, publishers generally pay more-eloquent sums for writers well connected to testimonial providers and puff-piece writers; Harbach co-edits a literary journal in New York City, and Gessen himself admitted, “We knew so many people.” Nowhere in the very long article was a single quotation from The Art of Fielding’s narrative proper, though at the end came a bit from a fictitious baseball handbook that one of Harbach’s characters reads. This as opposed to dozens of crawling lines e-mailed to the novelist by the young man who became his agent. “I can only imagine how long a novel this finely crafted must have gestated … If you’ll give me the chance, I’m going to work like hell,” and so on. It’s that kind of piece.

The market reacted as it was supposed to; when people have been waiting for a starter pistol to go off, they don’t listen critically to the bang. Within weeks, The Art of Fielding had climbed into the top 20 of the New York Times best-seller list. There ensued a minor variation on what happens every autumn. Avid readers who had not yet heard of Harbach were gaped at by their one-novel-a-year friends. Those with no plans to read him had to come up with a good excuse, or be thought intellectually lazy, curmudgeonly, even envious. “How do you know you won’t like the book, if you haven’t read it yet?” The question is routinely asked by people who know full well which movies to steer clear of. It’s as if orchestrated hype were a bad sign only outside the world of letters. The abused term catch-22 is in this case perfectly apt: you may not dismiss a highly praised novel as unworthy of notice until you have finished it. Never mind the classic fiction you’d rather take care of first, things having become very quiet on the immortality-drug front. We must all get our campus-baseball tale out of the way before the next Big Novel comes along, or the system falls apart.

Should we let it fall apart? By all means. But a reviewer should either obey his instinct to ignore such a novel completely, or read it and review something else, or read it and try to offer a reasoned judgment. Having in the meantime finished The Art of Fielding, I have to say that while Gessen is wrong about its being “impossible to dislike,” it’s not terrible either. The vaunted first pages are well done, with an undeniable flair for sportswriting.

The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond … He didn’t seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone.

One reason this opener works so well is that the prodigy is seen by an observer, from a distance. Unfortunately, the young man ceases to be an enigma even before the page numbers get into double digits.

But being fair to The Art of Fielding means recognizing that it was clearly not conceived in order to make a fuss, which is not to deny the courage demanded, even in this day and age, to juxtapose a baseball story line with a gay romance. We have it on Gessen’s authority that after five years’ writing, the manuscript seemed “light” and “insubstantial,” which doesn’t sound like something a clever Ivy League graduate in an M.F.A. program would have produced, even as a first draft, had he intended something completely different. For all his friend’s talk of transformative rewrites, the final version is still as light and insubstantial as a 512-page book can be. It’s not so much what happens or doesn’t as the elfin tone in which everything is narrated; baseball, aging, lust, death, even an actual corpse—all get the same twinkly treatment. I was occasionally reminded of lesser John Irving efforts like The Hotel New Hampshire, but even those are funny in places. Harbach seems content keeping us just this side of seriousness, so that reading his novel through is like submitting to a long and almost imperceptibly light tickling.

In America, as that Vanity Fair piece demonstrated, you may praise a book at great length, even a close friend’s book, while quoting next to nothing from it. Use excerpts to back up adverse criticism, on the other hand, and you will be accused of seeking out the bad bits, or taking the good bits out of context. This is especially the case with a Big Novel. Many refuse to believe that a reviewer could disinterestedly approach something so important, so gloriously exalted. (These same people would not be caught dead reading it three or four years after its heyday.) Be all that as it may, here is a typical passage from The Art of Fielding, in which Affenlight, the 60-year-old president of Westish College, reflects on the furniture in his office:

The chair was sturdy and comfortable, suitably presidential … but sometimes Affenlight pined for a sleek modern one, with casters and a medial axis on which you could spin. Having shuffled the big chair to the window, he leaned his forehead against the glass, which felt cold despite the sunlight, and dragged his neatly trimmed nails across the exposed portion of the screen, producing a scratchy metallic sound. The word for what a chair should do had been escaping him: swivel. Melville had once called America a seat of snivelization; what Affenlight wanted was a seat of swivelization.

I don’t care what Franzen says; if Harbach is a shortstop, that paragraph is a ball rolling slowly between his legs. On almost every page we find the same flawless if not especially distinctive prose squandered in similar fashion. All the same, it took about a third of the book for the curiosity I felt in the first chapter to subside completely. It’s not every day that one finds a young novelist expressing himself so carefully and lucidly, turning out one well-paced paragraph after another; there’s hardly a clumsy formulation in the whole narrative. A few pieces of brilliant imagery come along too, like the plastic scoop lying in a can of weight-gain powder “like an abandoned beach toy.” And how about this sentence: “The mood in the dugout turned from optimistic, to determined, to gloomy, to gloomy with a venomous edge.” There is real talent here, no question. Harbach just doesn’t have anything urgent to do with it.

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