Books May 2012

A Swing and a Miss

Why the latest hyped-up work of staggering genius fizzles

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?

Again, though: I don’t believe that Harbach intended for his book to be made so much of. My impression is that it was written for the none-too-intellectual people it depicts, both to amuse them and to plead for more inclusiveness on campuses. If my hunch is correct, the novel’s Westish College—where everyone says “freshperson” with a straight face, and ballplayers may read in the dugout when the game bores them—was never meant to be true to life. On this point I have to defend the book from its many detractors on Amazon.

While I’m at it: I don’t find it as implausible as so many evidently do that a straight or straight-acting 60-year-old man should suddenly fall for a handsome youth, or that this love should be reciprocated. (Hubert Selby Jr. handles an at least comparable story to great effect in Last Exit to Brooklyn.) Harbach could have made this romance more convincing, had he tried. For whatever reasons, he chose a narrative tone that precludes the depiction of passionate love. Affenlight seems to desire Owen about as strongly as he wants a swivel chair. His feelings for the young man are sprung on us as a feeble “gotcha” gag—at first we think he’s after a woman—and made light of thereafter. He feels “on the verge of country-music tears,” “like a child whose goldfish has died” and so on. (No, I don’t think such a childhood experience trivial, but it’s obvious the narrator does.) Things are not helped by Owen’s being such a repellent caricature of gay archness. At the end he bids farewell to his lover with a speech that must surely have been meant to move the reader to some degree. Its triteness beggars belief. The only feeling elicited by the entire non-romance is mild embarrassment, particularly during the intimate scenes. Here is Affenlight:

“‘I have heard that stiff people lose something of their awkwardness under high ceilings, and in spacious halls,’” he said, quoting Emerson’s The Conduct of Life.

“I’d hardly describe you as a stiff person.” Owen slid a hand down between Affenlight’s legs, toyed with him gently. “At least not right now.”

Back to the baseball. I found the games in the novel unpredictable yet easy to follow; Harbach deserves credit for the ingenuity with which he defies so many sports-movie clichés. But the more we learn about the talented shortstop at the center of these sections, the duller he becomes. Perhaps he was meant to hold our interest as a kind of Kaspar Hauser, but if so, there isn’t enough contrast between him and his surroundings. At Westish College, he fits in all too well. Hearing an impassioned (and very contrived) exchange of groans and shouts emanate from the weight room, he leans against the door to eavesdrop, then falls inside when it opens, whereupon—

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