Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

The Art of FieldingBizarrely, and completely unintentionally, two of the books I recently read were overflowing with references to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The connections between this classic and the first book are pretty obvious: Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn follows the author’s sea-bound adventures on the trail of 28,800 plastic bath toys that were lost overboard one stormy night on a routine trip across the ocean*. The link between Melville and the second book I read, though, were more unexpected.

Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is, essentially, a coming-of-age novel. Set in small-town, fairly privileged America, it follows five members of Westfield College through baseball season. The baseball team in question is called The Harpooners, a reference to the college director, Guert Affenlight, who, as a teenager, discovered that Herman Melville once visited and lectured at Westfield.

This is Harbach’s debut, a Waterstones 11 and Waterstones bookclub selection, and has been widely hailed as one of the best books of the year, with Harbach suffering comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. The truth is, I never really understood the term ‘great American novel’ before reading Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. I’ve never read Franzen, or Foster Wallace (or Moby-Dick, for that matter), but now it’s as if a little light has come on in my head; its almost as if the term was coined for this book. I can’t quite pinpoint what makes it great, what makes it American - other than the obvious, of course: the setting, the subject. It just oozes something inherently American-like that I can only assume comes simply as a result of the writer being a citizen of the country.

As much as I can’t define its American-ness, I also can’t quite define the actual content, suffice to say it’s good. Very good. It follows each of its five key characters as each goes through normal life type stuff: growing up, the search for happiness, for love; dealing with change. What happens when your dreams change? When everything that always came naturally, that you always believed in, gets flipped on its head? How do you cope with that, how does it change you, and how do you change it? These are the questions our characters are facing, and they face them head-on with, generally, aplomb.

One of the most interesting things I found about this book was Harbach’s approach to his story. It unfolds through the different characters’ eyes - Henry, the prodigal baseball player, who is suffering from a crisis of confidence; Schwartz, the team captain, with a troubled childhood and an uncertain future; Pella, President Affenlight’s lost daughter returned from an unhappy marriage, trying to find out who she is and where she belongs; and Affenlight himself, sixty and in love not only for the first time, but with a student. But then there is Owen.

Owen is as much a part of the book as any of the others, but we never see things from his perspective; all we know about him is what the others tell us. Beautiful, smart, popular, gay; from Owen much of the rest of the book unfolds. Was this a conscious choice on Harbach’s part, to not write Owen’s side of the story, to leave me wondering where he really fitted in, what he thought about the events surrounding him - or did Harbach not feel confident to write from Owen’s perspective (given, perhaps, Owen sexual orientation)? From a storytelling perspective, it’s intriguing because the reader never really gets to see Owen the way they see the other characters; I can never really discern his true feelings and motivations, particularly when it comes to his relationship with Guert - is Owen leading him on, is it just a fling or a bit of a game to take advantage of Guert’s obvious interest, or does he have genuine interest in Guert himself? Although I felt like I knew Owen, when I stopped to think about it, I realised that he’s actually a bit of an unknown quantity.

And Moby-Dick? Well, as I said, I’ve never read that one, so I don’t know whether it infuses The Art of Fielding in more ways than one. Despite never selling through the original print-run in Melville’s lifetime, the whale is now considered to be ‘a great American novel’. Is The Art of Fielding in the same league? Well, some of the storylines do work out rather conveniently, perhaps more so than such things would do if experienced in ‘real’ life, but that’s no different to a thousand other good books, and I almost certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much had that not been the case. A satisfying ending, where all the strings come together is, after all, part of the joy of reading. Aristotle’s emotional carthasis and all that. Plus, I’m pretty sure that at this point its sold a chunk more than its first print-run, and made Harbach a few bob more than Moby-Dick made Melville.

To sum up The Art of Fielding, life-affirming is the word that springs to mind. Chad Harbach is definitely worth the hype.

(* I reviewed Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck briefly on my other blog, The Plastic Diaries, so won’t repeat that here)

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