I 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.