Books May 2012

A Swing and a Miss

Why the latest hyped-up work of staggering genius fizzles
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.

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—

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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