Books May 2012

A Swing and a Miss

Why the latest hyped-up work of staggering genius fizzles

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—

Enough; writing too much about a novel this slight is as unfair as writing too little. Sometimes the only way to counter the literary establishment’s corruption of standards is to take a highly praised trifle apart, for one’s own benefit if no one else’s, but as I have said, the publicity that launched The Art of Fielding was a rather innocuous affair. Just the year before, a mediocre book that is already half forgotten had been touted as a classic for the ages, and its author likened to the greatest novelist of all time; that was some serious bullshit. Misrepresenting a dull story as an engrossing one is nothing in comparison. I realize some reviewers mentioned Moby-Dick and The Art of Fielding in the same breath, which was certainly a bit much, but the point being made was at least an arguable one: just as we don’t need to like whaling to enjoy the one novel, we don’t need to be baseball fans to enjoy the other. Exactly what it is we need to be, I’m not sure.

All of this will come as small consolation to serious readers suckered into buying Harbach’s book, but they should have known better. As long as the classics remain more deeply relevant to our lives than the novels our own time produces, we should remain “untimely,” in Nietzsche’s still-dangerous sense of the word. This means being more and not less skeptical of advertising when it deals with new books. Testimonials solicited before publication are exactly that: solicited. They are scarcely worth reading at all, as the back cover of The Art of Fielding demonstrates. No articulate person who really “gave [himself] over completely” to a novel “and scarcely paused for meals” would then describe it (as Jay McInerney did) as “an autonomous universe, much like the one we inhabit, though somehow more vivid”—which is either meaningless or deranged, depending on how seriously you take the “vivid” part. To quote the British scholar Ian Robinson: “An emotion can safely be judged a fake if the language does not convey it.”

I don’t trust my own language to pull off the sweet nothings customary at the end of a negative review, or else I would say something about The Art of Fielding’s being “only” a first novel, as if any other kind had a better record, and claim to be looking forward to the author’s next effort. Let’s end on a positive note anyway. In a certain sense, every year’s Big Book delivers on the hype, and 2011’s was no exception. Whether those who bought The Art of Fielding liked it or not, they most probably got to discuss their impressions with one or two friends, or guests at parties, perhaps even strangers who spotted the familiar cover from across the subway aisle. They got the fellowship they paid for, in other words. I challenge anyone who reads “off the grid” not to admit to a little envy.

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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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