P&P Reading Club: Patrick Dubuque on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18-33

he art of fielding by chad harbachI have a hard time with modern novels.  In a comment last week, Carson noted that he is “largely prejudiced against books in which characters have ’emotional problems’ and in which they make ‘poor life decisions.'”  I tend to feel the same way.  The hand-wringing of the postmodern world, and its infatuation with the struggle of mankind against the self, wears on me at times.  Sure, we’re thrust into an unforgiving and chaotic world, isolated and aimless.  I get that.  But this doesn’t mean we have to sulk about it.

And in a sense, that’s why I had high hopes for The Art of Fielding: because baseball is designed to avoid this, to provide an agreeably meaningless diversion that entertains us and passes the time.  It’s meant to be fun.  But as we move into the second quarter of the novel, the game (and the novel itself, at times) loses this merriment: Henry and Mike both find themselves praying for rain, and the game has become a chore to play and to read about.  We’re lost in the maze of each person’s head, impotent and surly.  Henry is basically mimicking Camus’ Stranger, who developed his own form of Steve Blass Disease as he gunned down his Algerian.

Harbach’s characters are rich, intricate, and alive; all except Henry, who bores me.  His predictable fall and rise forms the skeleton of the novel, which we accept out of necessity.  Yet the character himself, so myopic in his pursuit of success, has little connection with the world around him.  His tight-knit relationship with Mike is told, rather than shown, and he’s nearly useless around every other character, even as a foil.   His insecurities are buried so deep that they rarely break past the barrier of the third person singular.  Even Siddhartha was worth a laugh before getting his life in order.

Instead, I find myself drawn to Pella, who orbits farthest from the game.  Part of her charm, of course, is that her fall predates the start of the novel; she’s already in spring when the others face winter.  But there’s also a sporadic, attractive tendency in Pella toward order; she’s scarred and wise, but she’s also willing to throw herself into someone else’s pile of dirty dishes.  I hope that her wit (and Owen’s, who reminds me of Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited) can find its way into the hearts and minds of these poor tragic heroes, and liven the place up a little bit.

2 Responses to “P&P Reading Club: Patrick Dubuque on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18-33”

  • I think you actually nailed down the dilemma that is Henry’s character: the novel hinges on his abilities, but he is the least interesting. He is as simple as the game he plays, and when it becomes complicated, he flounders. This could be taken as a commentary on the modern athlete–our obsession with people who are actually much less complicated than we the fan are.

    A question that keeps coming up for me is: would Henry handle failure better if he had experienced the complexities it offers prior to nailing Owen in the face? Then I think of Affenlight, Schwartz, and everyone else and it’s not like the more complicated characters in the book are dealing with hardship any better than Henry, which leaves the audience feeling like Harbach is saying that you’re screwed either way.

    But then I think back to how Henry was just fine when he didn’t think, when baseball was just a game. (And, yeah, we might be treading into cliches here.) And that’s when this does become ultimately a modernist novel in the way that Sherwood Anderson defines Modernism in Winesburg, Ohio, where George Willard is torn apart by “the sophistication” of his being, impulse/instinct rocketing him forward, memory pulling him back. Take it or leave it, but I’m not sure how else you write a novel these days, and the fact that Henry was walking in circles, in the dark, on a boat literally breaking down does have me wondering if Harbach does what all modernist works pretty much do: try and solve the world’s problems with a girl.

  • I’m hoping it’s a bit more complex (or nuanced) than that.

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