Archive for the 'Reading Club' Category

P&P Reading Club: Compassion, the Yips, & Chapter 50 of The Art of Fielding

he art of fielding by chad harbach If I was going to pick one chapter of The Art of Fielding to excerpt on Pitchers & Poets it would be Chapter 50. Chapter 50 deals explicitly with none of the story’s main characters – Guert Affenlight is there, but only as a literary device allowing Chad Harbach to philosophize about baseball. The chapter, less than three pages, is a self-contained meditation on Steve Blas Disease, also known as the yips.

Affenlight, scout Dwight Rogner, and philosopher-shortstop Aparacio Rodriguez are sitting behind the backstop watching baseball. In the beginning they talk about “Sasser. Wholers. Knoblauch. Sax.” (With a great dig by Aparicio at Sax’s failed Republican campaign for the CA State Assembly.) There is a lot happening in the dialogue. Mainly, baseball men are sympathetic to the sufferers of Steve Blass Disease – principally Blass himself. In a slightly stilted, slightly portentous bit of expository dialogue, Aparicio establishes the Blass history:

“Clemente was named Most Valuable Player, but the honor could have easily gone to Mr. Blass,” Aparicio says. “He had an exceptional ability to control the baseball.”

Clemente’s death is presented as a possible cause for his loss of control.

“When spring training began, Mr. Blass could no longer do what he’d always done. It happened very suddenly. Walks, wild pitches. One year later, only two years removed from the height of his career, he decided to retire.”

Then, half-a-page later, Rogner delivers the line of all lines. The one that gets at the essential futility, the cosmic joke, that is trying to understand the ruined or un-ruined baseball player’s mind. He is talking about Chuck Knoblauch’s move to the outfield where the throws are much longer than from second-base. “Sometimes harder is easier,” Rogner says.

(Off-topic slightly: one day we will do a Reading Club or some other extensive project on Pitchers & Poets about Sadaharu Oh’s memoir “Sadaharu Oh! A Zen Way of Baseball,” the very premise of which is exactly that: “harder is easier.” In the meantime, Ted wrote a great essay about Oh and Jeff Bagwell during 90s first basemen week.)

All this sets the stage for the key exchange between Aparcio and Affenlight, who is wisely afraid to bring up Henry Skrimshander directly because he is afraid of violating one of baseball’s codes. Affenlight asks if the yips really never happened before Steve Blass in 1973. Then Aparicio gets all postmodern:

“How many times does something happen before we give it a name? And until the name exists, neither does the condition. So perhaps it happened many times before but was never named.

“And yet. Baseball has many historians, including among its players. There are statistics, archives, legends, lore. If earlier players had experienced similar troubles, it seems likely the stories would have been passed down. And then the name would be applied in retrospect.”

To this Affenlight begins an inner-monoloue that reads as a parody of this very website. He starts off with the year: 1973. The year of Watergate, Roe v. Wade, etc. etc. He thinks of Prufrockian paralysis (the inability to say something you want to say) and of Modernists, finally arriving at the conclusion that “the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his aim.”

But, because everybody in The Art of Fielding is likable, Affenlight quickly backtracks. He sees the humble Aparicio and remembers “literature can turn you into an asshole.” Affenlight’s warning about literature, about our tendency to treat real people like characters, seems like a fundamental part of what Harbach is doing with this novel. His characters – Aparicio Rodriguez excluded because he is more of a spiritual presence than a person– are drawn with extreme humanity. The entire novel can be read as a plea for civility, a grand reaching toward a society where everybody acts like they are on campus at Westish College all the time.

The line about treating people like literary character also gnaws at me because what I do when I write nonfiction is try to draw characters out of real life people – especially athletes. I spend hours trying to build a rounder character out of Milton Bradley, for instance, or Luke Scott based on fairly scant information: the way they stand in the batter’s box, the way another writer portrays them after an interview. In narrative-driven sports writing, which is something that interests me a great deal, we are making the characters of athletes (statistical profiles, selected quotes, on-field style) into real people and then turning back again and using those real people as literary characters.

Harbach doesn’t seem to be warning against projecting – all writers project. And I don’t think the mask of fiction lowers the stakes any. What I do see in Chapter 50 is a case for awareness. The dialogue, the Affenlight monologue, the sympathy ultimately extended to Henry and Steve Blass and all literary characters fictional and nonfictional – they amount to a subtle argument for all of us, readers and writers both, to be more conscientious.

P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on The Art of Fielding Chapters 34- 52

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Adam at Everyday Footnotes.

I have made a point of avoiding anything that might spoil any part of TAF for me. I *did* buy last month’s Vanity Fair so I could read Keith Gessen’s article on TAF as a snapshot of the publishing industry (Interesting and infuriating note: when you get to the end of the Keith Gessen article there’s a notice that Vanity Fair is selling a longer version of the article in ebook format) but I read the article carefully, skipping over the paragraphs describing the TAF’s plot and the ways the book changed over the last 10 years. I remained in the dark, exactly where I wanted to be.
So I was pretty upset when I came across a Facebook comment a little over a week ago about Henry’s case of Steve Blass disease. Last week the same diagnosis showed up on this website from other bookclubbers. Had I fallen behind on the reading schedule? Had I skipped the chapter where Schwartz and Pella dragged Henry to the doctor?

If “Steve Blass disease” had been an obscure enough baseball term to show up in the Rogue’s Baseball Index, I might have remembered it from my studies.

I can no longer pass. My baseball knowledge is so shallow that I thought Steve Blass disease was a medical condition. It feels good to get that out in the open. (Your turn, Guert.)

Last week I wrote that Henry’s collapse wasn’t as interesting to me as the anticipation for what comes after the collapse. Then comes a the riveting scene in which Henry calls it quits mid-game. I’ll need to retract my previous comment.

I would wrap this up by remarking that Pella’s amous bouche of earring is the most compelling example of pica in a baseball novel, but for all I know there was a character in The Natural that ate pencil erasers.

P&P Reading Club: Megan Wells on The Art of Fielding Chapters 34-52

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Megan Wells at Around the Horn from Aerys Sports.

Noted things:

  • Pella does everyone else’s half of a fight for them. Chef Spirodocus didn’t even know he was in a fight, and seemed pretty unfazed; but her father and Mike both seemed pretty unsatisfied by the arrangement.
  • The notable exception to this proclivity appears to be David.
  • I don’t think I’ve ever heard “The Waste Land” and the word “natch” uttered side-by-side before. It made me want to punch David in the face.
  • UMSCACs is one of those acronyms that causes an obsessive-compulsive hitch in the flow of my reading, because I’m not sure how to pronounce it in my head. The best I’ve got is Ummskaks, which sounds like some kind of Nordic animal.

Because I was covering it for Around the Horn, I was required to watch all of last night’s NLCS Game 2. As a lifelong Cubs fan, this was pretty painful to begin with; but it became merciless when the Cardinals offense wound up being a virtually unstoppable juggernaut.

Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer–you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error.

Said juggernaut was, predictably, anchored by a four-extra-base-hit performance from Albert Pujols – nicknamed “the Machine.” At what point – or for which players – does the elimination of error become a thing of inspiration? Can a player turn becoming a machine back into an art?

P&P Reading Club: Bryan Harvey on The Art of Fielding Chapters 34– 52

he art of fielding by chad harbachBryan Harvey, who has previously written here about Brian McCann and Jason Heyward and John Henry, is a high school teacher and poet, who writes for The Faster Times and The Lawn Chair Boys. His poetry has appeared in the Cold Mountain Review and DeckFight Press released his eBook, Everything That Dunks Must Converge, in April..

The great dilemma for just about almost every character in The Art of Fielding is that they can’t seem to make up their mind if they love or hate something enough to continue it or let it go, from baseball, to women, to men, to men’s beards. Westish College is home to everyone, no one wants to leave it–whether they’d be leaving for law school or the minor leagues–and this refusal to leave is so strong that individuals might even sabotage their own dreams and futures to keep living what they’ve always been. It’s about a fear of success. It’s about a fear of the unknown. It’s about boys refusing to be men–the President of the college basically lives in a dorm room–and it all seeps out of the idea that what’s familiar, repetitive, and habit forming is simultaneously beautiful and neurotic. In other words, this book is very, very modern, but we all knew that. In fact, this book is so modern that, at times, I feel like I’ve already read it, yet my familiarity with its themes, plot, and characters isn’t ruining it for me–it’s actually enhancing my appreciation of Harbach’s talents:

It’s one thing to name a bunch of great books, but it’s another thing entirely to make it appear as if your book belongs alongside with them, like it was already a part of the canon.

The Art of Fielding makes explicit nods to Melville’s Moby Dick, is reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and carries with it the dull Midwest of Fitzgerald’s imagination, but the book also makes subtle nods to Hemingway, like in Chapter 34 when Schwartz and Pella break up. She obviously feels that Henry is a wedge between them, and Schwartz senses that friction: “She was trying to insert herself into his relationship with Henry ” (239), which actually makes her the wedge. And then Harbach even drops the phrase “the end of something” (280), in reference to Affenlight and Owen’s relationship, which has gotta be an allusion to Hemingway’s short story of the same name, or at least one hell of a coincidence, seeing as how it follows six chapters worth of Schwartz and Pella stewing over what went wrong between them. I mean, Hemingway’s story features Nick Adams breaking up with his girlfriend, Marjorie, by a river, that flows on by as he sits stagnantly on the bank with Bill (who comes out of nowhere) eating a picnic basket of food that most people would have eaten with their girlfriend. Replace the river with Lake Michigan and Henry/Schwartz/Affenlight with Nick, and Hemingway’s story becomes Harbach’s, minus a Melville statue that is more capable of attaining happiness than any of the characters in either story appear to be.

So, I guess aside from seconding Pete Beatty’s earlier question (does the midwest make you gay?), I’m wondering how others are perceiving the sheer been-there-done-that modernity of the book? Is it bloody brilliant, or is it off putting? Does it ring true, or does it feel like Harbach is overreaching, forcing comparisons to past greats that would be unwarranted if he didn’t keep reminding us of the similarities? And why is it okay for a writer to do this, but if, for lack of a baseball example, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James were to wag their tongue like Michael, we’d all become anal retentive?

And no matter what your answer is, if you’re like me, you’ve become just like the characters and are procrastinating against reading the rest of the book, not wanting it to end, peering out onto whatever body of water just happens to be the closest to you, wishing it were an escape route.

P&P Reading Club: David Matthews on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18 – 33

he art of fielding by chad harbachDavid Matthews is a former Deadspin scribe and nnow one of those freelance writers in Brookly. Durng 90s First Basemen Week, he wrote about the stylish Fred McGriff.

Through the first 230 or so pages, The Art of Fielding has introduced me to a wonderful small community (near Door County, Wisconsin, where I have summered before–if one can call getting drunk with high-school friends at or around bonfires, sneaking into resort pools, and playing far too much mini-golf “summering”) in Westish College. I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting and spending time with these characters and relating to them–Pella’s inner monologue concerning whether or not she should clean Schwartzy’s dishes perhaps most of all. I admit it, I am a fussbudget. While it sucks for them, watching Henry and Mike deal with disappointment is nothing short of compelling. As much as I have wanted to race ahead of this reading club, I am holding back in order to prolong this reading experience (and also because I share Pete’s sentiment that things are going to get exponentially worse before returning to the brightness that peaked with the montage of both Henry’s and the Harpooners’ rapid ascension–I mean, I hope).

However, something has been nagging at me thus far: This novel’s striking familiarity, the small-town setting, the host of characters dealing with their own struggles amidst their standing within the greater community, etc. What I’m getting at is the book reminds me a whole hell of a lot of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. According to Bartleby, that work “allows us to enter the alternately complex, lonely, joyful and strange lives of the inhabitants of the small town.” If that doesn’t describe a wunderkind shortstop coming down with the case of the yips, an eloper attempting to make up for lost time, and a preeminent Melville scholar holing up (?) at a small liberal arts college in rural Wisconsin, I don’t know what does. Where Anderson was focusing on the loneliness and isolation of living in a small town, Harbach is probing the very same among an even smaller set of people: A father and daughter who might only be connected by a tattoo, friends whose relationship resembles a teeter-totter, one that is just now starting to change direction.

Most of all, I am reminded of the character George Willard, the young man about town and central character in Anderson’s collection. I see parts of him in the relationship between Guert Affenlight and Owen Dunne. The George who is looking for sexual experience and later wants to fall in love in order to have material for a short story. Guert seems in a state of infatuation with Owen, and it would be sweet if it was May-December love, and not a last-semester fling. Like George Willard eventually does, I feel Guert will also find Owen, or someone else, to stimulate him in a multitude of ways, and Harbach’s laid the groundwork for that to occur.

However, and I may just be thinking this to support my own theory, Owen reminds me of the darker side of George Willard. The one we meet much earlier who acts superior to his surroundings. Whereas George just sort of wants to hightail it to the big city, and get laid if he can, Owen seems to have undergone trauma before having his cheekbone crushed by an errant throw. We don’t know all that much about Owen’s breakup, but it seems like he may be playing with Guert thus far, something Pete seems to have seen as well. I hope I am wrong, but I am reminded of the following passage in the “Nobody Knows” section of Winesburg, Ohio, where Willard takes advantage of a young woman named Louise in order to lose his virginity:

“He remembered the look that had lurked in the girl’s eyes when they had met on the streets and thought of the note she had written. Doubt left him. The whispered tales concerning her that had gone about town gave him confidence. He became wholly the male, bold and aggressive. In his heart there was no sympathy for her. “Ah, come on, it’ll be all right. There won’t be anyone know anything. How can they know?” he urged. They began to walk along a narrow brick sidewalk between the cracks of which tall weeds grew. Some of the bricks were missing and the sidewalk was rough and irregular. He took hold of her hand that was also rough and thought it delightfully small. “I can’t go far,” she said and her voice was quiet, unperturbed.”

Now, Owen is by no means a virgin, and unfortunately for both men, he currently cannot open his mouth, but their secret affair or courtship rings out when I reread this passage. Is Owen, someone for whom everything comes easy, tired of moderating the Prison or High School games and looking for a new challenge before heading off to Japan for his prestigious fellowship? Or something else entirely?

So am I grasping at straws with these comparisons? Is the Guert-Owen relationship just the normal fumbling and bumbling that comes with new love, or are we on the cusp of seeing immeasurable heartbreak handed down on one or both of these men? Bigger picture-wise: do you think Chad Harbach is going to be inducted into the American literary canon? Is such even possible anymore?

P&P Reading Club: Dayn Perry on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18 – 33

he art of fielding by chad harbachDayn Perry is a senior writer at NotGraphs and skilled Reggie Jackson biographer.

My thoughts on Phase Two of the novel that binds us? I have little to add that hasn’t already been laid out on these pages by previous, smarter readers. I do, however, suspect that Pella and Henry will have, at they very least, a romantic dalliance in the pages to come. The problem is that any plot turn that I can anticipate is likely too obvious by half, so part of me hopes this doesn’t come to pass. Besides, I have already developed an unhealthy interest in seeing Schwartz and Pella work things out to my satisfaction.

Anyhow, instead of regaling you with my lack of insight, I’m going to cast “The Art of Fielding: The Movie.” Since I’m but halfway through the book, I reserve the right to fire any and all cast members should circumstances dictate. For now, though, I decree the following:

Henry Skrimshander – Jesse Eisenberg

He’s gangly, awkward and withdrawn. I have no idea if he can feign the necessary athleticism, but that’s what body double David Eckstein is for.

Mike Schwartz – Chris Pratt

The unimpeachable tells me that Mr. Pratt is 6-foot-2. He also seems capable of thesis-beard growth and related bearishness.

Owen Dunne – Thomas Hobson

If Jeffrey Wright were, say, 15 years younger, I’d bestow my casting blessings upon him. Things as they are, however, I am mandating, in my Judge Lance Ito fashion, that Mr. Hobson be given the job. And, yes, my spawn inflicts Nick Jr.’s “Fresh Beat Band” upon me, which is why I’m familiar with Mr. Hobson’s work in the first place. So Hobson is the choice. Hobson’s choice. Ha!

Guert Affenlight – Victor Gerber

When I think of “accomplished third-generation cracker with sublimated homosexual longing,” I think of James Mason. But then I remember than James Mason is dead and also terribly British. So then I think of Victor Gerber.

Pella Affenlight – Greta Gerwig

Effortlessly attractive, smart, complicated without striving to appear so … Also, I believe I’m in love with her. Greta, that is, not Pella. Yet.

Genevieve (What’s her surname?) – Lisa Gay Hamilton

The hair works, as does the yoga-toned body. She also seems capable of playing a television anchor who is orders of magnitude more lucid than you’re garden-variety television anchor.

The floor is now open for complaints, well-mannered or otherwise.

P&P Reading Club: Pete Beatty on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18 – 33

he art of fielding by chad harbach Pete Beatty is a future boss at The Classical and P&P’s resident Jim Thome scholar.

Early-onset Steve Blass Disease. May-November blow jobs. Menial labor as an anti-neurotic therapeutic. Getting rejected from law school. Everyone at Westish College is bugging. At least some people are getting laid. After a hundred pages, we had a few ingredients for the conflict that would sustain narrative tension in The Art of Fielding–a prodigal daughter arriving at MKE, an inconvenient gay crush, Henry’s creeping jitters. A hundred pages later, everybody’s shit is falling apart. We might have seen Henry’s neurosis coming, but Schwartz’s crisis of confidence really deflated me. We are probably all suckers for a lower-middle-class character with a will to power, but Schwartz was really talking to me, as a bald pudgy guy who used to be a pudgy little league catcher. More worrisome to me than his money troubles or his law-school admissions woes (feel better, Schwartzy) is the dangerous relationship he’s fallen into with Pella–both seem cautious, preoccupied with other things–Pella with rebuilding her world after the probable end of her marriage, Schwartzy with repairing his bond with Henry. It seems like they’re going to hurt each other’s feelings, badly, and soon.

Meanwhile, across the quad, President Affenlight and Owen are just as awkward–Owen seems almost to be taking advantage of the older man, and our dude Guert just sort of seems like he really, really wants to be with Owen. This week’s reading was filled with some great passages–the best-of-20 sprints between Henry and Starblind were a brilliant piece, and Henry’s affectless brooding is pitch-perfect (not to mention deepening). My question though–is everyone on board with Affenlight’s motivations in romancing, or being romanced by, Owen Dunne? What is the older man seeking that he couldn’t have found in the willing arms of Owen’s mom or elsewhere? Does the Upper Midwest make you gay?

P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18 – 33

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Adam at Everyday Footnotes.

These pages are packed with charm and dread. I loved the Westish Harpooners playing High School or Prison from the bus. Pella’s over-thought panic over whether or not to clean Schwartz’s dishes was hilarious and perfect. Even Owen’s inability to widely open his mouth keeps me smiling widely a few days later.

My favorite moment in these chapters: “Opentoe College had some sort of evangelical mission that involved perpetual kindness and hopelessly outdated uniforms.”

All of these moments of relief keep us moving through growing tension in the scenes while Affenflight’s crush turns into an affair but his relentless self-doubt continues unabated. There’s no comedy for me in Pella and Genevieve’s misunderstanding of Guert’s intentions during the dinner — but I still enjoyed the heck out of it.

My guess is that no good comes from getting yourself mixed into Guert Affenlight’s life. Schwartz’s preference for drinking the president’s Scotch instead of running off with his girl seemed like a bad omen and I am especially worried for Owen’s mom, Genevieve. It’s dumb to make predictions here only to be proven wrong in a matter of days — but I think Genevieve will meet some sort of tragedy. Guert’s secret love for the child, Owen, instead of the mother reminds me of the early chapters of Lolita and Dolores’s mother’s abrupt, parenthetical death (“picnic, lightning”). I’m sure there are more apt literary comparisons (Guert is no Humbert Humbert) but the necessary research would require the following uncomfortable search query: mother son love triangle.

As for Henry and his string of errors, more than anything I’m looking forward to learning what it leads to than reading about each poor throw. Henry’s fall from perfection has already led to the introduction of college reporter, Sarah X. Pessel, who I hope will keep turning up. Which reminds me, does that X. even stand for anything?

P&P Reading Club: Ted Walker on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18-33

he art of fielding by chad harbachAs the carefully built structure that Henry Skrimshander has committed his life to fortifying against disorder systematically caves in on itself, our anxiety-ridden shortstop seeks solace in the ritualistic circular walk around the deck of the ferry, in the prescription drug-addled, disappointment-laden voyage that takes the boys back to their home at Westish College. These circular turns, which Rick O’Shea manages to transpose into a winding-down “like a toy,” exemplify what had been gnawing on me as I read these chapters: performance.

Mike Schwarz employs “The Stare” to stir his teammates, employing motivational techniques that come less from experience than from some tape recorder buried within his reptile brain, to the point that he “felt a little off, a little odd, like he was playing himself on TV.” He buoyed even himself with the performance, the familiar ritual of the man standing before his comrades on the eve of battle.

President Affenlight, caught up in a torrent of strange passions in his burgeoning affair with Owen, falls back on the deeply familiar ritual of reading out loud, of transposing the burden of his own emotion into the performance of distant, separate turmoil. Not to mention the college president’s continual presence as the prime performer on behalf of the school’s interests.

Baseball is a ritualistic game, and it attracts people who are interested in repetition, in a kind of tortured turning of the metaphorical wheel. The extension of this brilliant observation, of course, is that many people choose rituals of many kinds to manage their daily lives, far out of the realm of sport. College, in its way, is a four-year course in repetition management, in discipline, in regularity. Graduation is the great launch into life’s disarray.

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.