Big League Anxiety on the Baseball Diamond
To defenders of baseball and literary fiction, the charges against each are familiar, and overlapping: too slow, too precious, not enough action. The only realistic response is a resigned shrug. Guilty, and so what? You may as well complain that lemons are too yellow. The indictment amounts to a kind of category error; detractors went looking for entertainment, and found art instead.
Chad Harbach makes the case for baseball, thrillingly, in his slow, precious and altogether excellent first novel, “The Art of Fielding.” “You loved it,” he writes of the game, “because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”
If it seems a stretch for a baseball novel to hold truth and beauty and the entire human condition in its mitt, well, “The Art of Fielding” isn’t really a baseball novel at all, or not only. It’s also a campus novel and a bromance (and for that matter a full-fledged gay romance), a comedy of manners and a tragicomedy of errors — the baseball kind as well as the other kind, which as Alexander Pope pointed out also has something to do with the human condition.
But it starts and ends with baseball. The novel centers on the Westish College Harpooners, a Division III team from the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan that sees its fortunes rise and then rise some more with the arrival of a nearly magical young shortstop named Henry Skrimshander. Henry is an infield savant, scrawny but supremely gifted, and by his junior year he’s chasing records and being scouted by the majors as a top draft prospect. Then, in the baseball equivalent of a werewolf movie, it all goes terribly wrong: Henry changes, before his teammate’s horrified eyes, into Chuck Knoblauch. In other words (for those who don’t remember Knoblauch’s struggles with the turn-of-the-millennium Yankees), he enters a prolonged and agonizing funk in which, for no good reason, he finds it impossible to field his position.
“Only two balls were hit to Henry,” Harbach writes in one of many crisp passages about what it’s like to play the game. “Both times he double-clutched and made a soft, hesitant throw. Instead of rifle shots fired at a target, they felt like doves released from a box.” If it’s painful to watch Henry fall apart, it’s excruciating to track his dissolution thought by anguished microthought: “The distance called for a casual sidearm fling — he’d done it ten thousand times. But now he paused, double-clutched. He’d thrown the last one too soft, better put a little mustard on it — no, no, nottoohard, too hard would be bad too. He clutched again. Now the runner was closing in, and Henry had no choice but to throw it hard, really hard, too hard for Ajay to handle from 30 feet away.” This is the paradox of sports novels, which like all novels thrive by leaving their heroes vulnerable and exposed: the worse the play, the better the fiction.
not recommend but that remind us our lives are shaped at least as much by our mistakes as by our ideals.
In fact, the novel is so rife with literary allusions that you have to wonder whether Harbach, who studied English at Harvard, cares more about baseball or books: a sport, or a pastime? Besides Lowell and Melville, there are explicit or implicit references to Emerson and Dickinson and Whitman, to “Death in Venice” and "A Prayer for Owen Meany"; even the title, “The Art of Fielding,” can be read as a winking reference to that other Henry, who knew something about satiric novels. So it feels exactly right that Henry’s crisis is precipitated by overanalysis — he’s paralyzed by thought, by an inability to simply act (or react). This is credible from a sports point of view, and fraught with significance from a literary one. Thinking, after all, is a writer’s primary weapon, but every writer knows it’s double-edged; live too much in your head and you don’t live enough in the world. This is Hamlet’s quandary, and, as one character unsurprisingly notes, also Prufrock’s: “Do I dare, and do I dare?” Harbach’s achievement is to transfer the thinking man’s paralysis to the field of play, where every hesitation is amplified and every error judged by an exacting, bloodthirsty audience. “We all have our doubts and fragilities,” Affenlight thinks, “but poor Henry had to face his in public at appointed times, with half the crowd anxiously counting on him and the other half cheering for him to fail.”
Last year, in an essay in n+1 contrasting the writing culture of M.F.A. programs with that of the New York-based publishing industry, Harbach argued that commercial pressures push nonacademic writers to be “readable” and “middlebrow.” These aren’t necessarily insults — the middlebrow is where art and entertainment get together over canapés and cold beers, and Harbach knows it: in the same essay, he first cited Franzen’s "Freedom" as an archetype of the New York middlebrow, then praised it as “the best American novel of the young millennium.” It’s worth observing that when Harbach wrote those words, he had already received a significant advance for the very Franzen-like “Art of Fielding.” So his reflections on market pressure and the “deep authorial desire to communicate to the uninterested” have, in retrospect, the frisson of a writer anxious he was selling out. He needn’t worry. Failure and success and outsize ambition — “to want to be perfect,” as Henry puts it; “to want everything to be perfect” — these are fitting themes for a crowd-pleasing baseball story, yes, but they are also the natural concerns of a serious artist coming to terms with his powerful talent and intentions. Welcome to the big leagues, kid. Now get out there and play.
By Chad Harbach
512 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $25.99.