Books May 2012

A Swing and a Miss

Why the latest hyped-up work of staggering genius fizzles

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.

Presumably he had some kind of readership in mind? Early on in the story, someone muses that universities have become like high schools, which is true, but the narrator doesn’t seem to wish it weren’t. The book is of a piece with the people and values it describes so cheerfully, so blandly. Affenlight’s purportedly too-clever daughter has enrolled in Westish College after years of sitting in on Harvard classes. “Pella could cruise through James or Austen or Pynchon at seventy pages an hour and remember everything,” another purportedly bookish student marvels, “like she’d been born to the task.” That’s a child’s notion of intelligence, and of reading literature. Here is how the well-read young lady comes to terms with her father’s newfound homosexuality:

“I mean, if my dad’s gay, and he’s happy, then it’s no big deal, right? Or even if he’s gay and unhappy, it’s still not that big a deal. A certain number of people are gay, just like a certain number of people have blue eyes. Or lupus. Don’t ask me why I just said lupus. I barely know what it is. And I know being gay’s not a disease. The point is, it’s all just probabilities. Numbers. How can I be upset about numbers?”

The same shallowness marks everyone’s thoughts and feelings in The Art of Fielding, even when, as is fortunately often the case, the narrator relates them in his own concise words. This is one of Pella’s lovers:

Schwartz sprawled on the couch in his boxer shorts and cracked his second forty of Crazy Horse … His penis slipped through the slit of his boxers into the open air. He flipped it speculatively from side to side … He couldn’t remember the last time he had jerked off.

Pella’s other lover fills a bottle with his own urine every night:

Part of him, the truest Henry part … wanted to keep the pee forever … It was a three-year-old’s freedom, yes, he recognized that.

God help us. So much for the themes promised on the dust jacket; the ambition, friendship, and love of people like this cannot be more than trivial.

People used to expect literary novels to deepen the experience of living; now they are happy with any sustained display of writerly cleverness. But The Art of Fielding falls short of this new standard too. Not much distinguishes it from young-adult fiction, a genre in which explicit gay romance is no longer out of the ordinary, except for the frequency of wannabe-erudite allusions: “April is the cruelest month,” “You’re only Jung once,” and so on. (Most of these references would once have been considered high-school level; the worldly cousin on The Patty Duke Show talked like this.) Let no one claim that the characters develop in any profound way. Four hundred pages into The Art of Fielding, Harbach’s protagonist is still dithering around like this:

He opened the pantry out of boredom … Once he’d even tried to cook vermicelli on the stove. He’d never cooked pasta before, and the job was made more difficult by the fact that he had to keep running to the living room window to make sure that Courtney and Noelle weren’t about to come in and catch him stealing their food. He didn’t boil enough water; then he put in way too much vermicelli; then he cooked it way too long. The water evaporated from the pot, and the pasta sat there in a dull lump like an animal’s brain. Now he preferred not eating. Not because not eating meant not stealing, not because not eating meant not cooking, but just because.

I should stop drinking coffee too, he thought. He’d almost thought give up coffee, but that was a misleading phrase. There seemed to be meaning in it, meaning that didn’t exist. When you gave something up, who or what did you give it up to? Giving something up implied that your sacrifice made sense, and Henry knew this was untrue. The days did not accumulate and turn into something better than days, no matter how well you used them. The days could not be used. He did not have a plan. He’d stopped playing baseball and eating beans and now he would stop drinking coffee. That was all.

Yes, that was all. Obviously the nation’s M.F.A. programs still teach no solution to the main problem facing today’s young “social” novelist: How to offer a realistic portrayal of the most garrulous generation in American history without boring the reader? Decades ago the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran wrote that he found novels from Latin countries less deep and moving because, or so he suspected, the writers in those more sociable climes talked their thoughts to death before putting pen to paper. In that sense, ours may now be the most Latin culture of all. In an effort to offer something, anything, that is not already on Facebook, our writers seem less likely to go big than to go small, writing in great polished detail of the most trivial thoughts and deeds. You cannot be too critical of the literary establishment’s annual picks without being thought an antiquarian, but wouldn’t it be much nastier, much harder on contemporary fiction in general, to say that this stuff really was some of the best writing published in 2011?

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B. R. Myers is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of A Reader’s Manifesto (2002).

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