Monday, May 11, 2015

The Art of a First Novel

Courtesy of goodreads.com
Literary critics are always looking for the next big novel; they're looking for the next Scarlet Letter, the next Great Expectations, the next To Kill a Mockingbird, even the next Harry Potter series.  Yet, it appears that critics are missing the point of literature.  They look for the weird factor, the shock factor in your face, the factor that makes a novel seem edgy and hip.  However, edgy is not always what a novel needs.  A classic is supposed to capture the feeling of the moment, to reveal to an audience a timeless concept, to resemble life and human error and triumph.  A masterpiece novel is supposed to make you think, to make you feel, to stay with you long after you have put the book down.  A reader will learn something without even realizing it; you will be slightly uncomfortable, but the pull of finishing the story is too great to ignore.  The Art of Fielding (2011) will make you slightly uncomfortable; but, in the end, it will make you think, it will make you feel, and you will not be able to put it down.  Rarely has a novel seemed so contrived, yet so beautiful.  It is difficult to classify The Art of Fielding into a genre; it mixes romance, drama, and baseball, which is the default Americana coming of age formula.  However, American author Chad Harbach manages to take this overdone motif and make it into something more.

The Art of Fielding, simply, is a story of self-discovery.  The main, twisted archetype is of self-discovery and the pains of trying to imagine yourself on a different life path.  The novel starts off with the audience meeting Henry Skirmshander, a poor, country kid who has an incredible talent for playing shortstop. He is recruited by (sheer luck) by Westish College's baseball captain, Mike Schwartz.  The Westish Harpooners flourish under Schwartz's lead and Skrimshander's brilliance.  The novel's main thread is about the, at times, parasitic, relationship between the two men.  Harbach does a wonderful job at contrasting the love and hate between the two; the reader can feel the adoring animosity between the two, the warring emotions of self-absorption and helping your friends.  Yet, just like in life, the story is not driven by the two alone.  Other characters come along, and their trials and triumphs are deeply intertwined with Henry and Mike, creating several threads of stories that weave into the culmination at the end.  The variety of characters, an estranged daughter, a lonely and conflicted college president, a confident lover, all collide on a path started by a single action of Henry's that changes all of theirs lives, good and bad.

The novel is written in a style that could be considered a near homage to baseball.  Baseball becomes another character in the novel, one that is lived for, revered, despised, and most of all, surviving.  The descriptions in the novel are sparsely written... unless its about the baseball games.  Then Harbach writes intricate, descriptive narratives about baseball, whether it be the practices or the games. Despite having the novel revolve around college baseball (something that most people do not experience intimately), Harbach manages to convey a story that is full of realistic human emotion and conflict.  Readers can easily relate to the characters; we have all been in a place of self-doubt, rebirth, rock bottom, and the hard journey to get back on your feet. Harbach propels the novel with realistic dialogue and mosaic character reflections.  His prose is elegant, but not highbrow. There is never a time where the reader is not learning something new about a character. This constant stream of revelations is at times overwhelming.  Yet, this in itself is reflective of life.  You cannot put life on hold because it is overwhelming; one must roll with the punches, just like the characters learn to do.
Author Chad Harbach

There was a lot of controversy from literary circles concerning this novel.  Some felt it had been too played up and received too much acclaim, that the accolades only stemmed from the fact that Harbach is a co-founder and editor of the literary magazine n+1.  Many criticized the perceived 'pointless' interactions between characters, saying they were not helpful to the plot and came off as almost purple prose-ish.  However, I do not buy into these arguments.  Many of the critical reviews harped on the fact that Harbach is a part of an elite literary circle, a fact that for some reason discredited him as an author to people.  Who he is as a person and an editor should not take away from this FANTASTIC novel.  It has all the elements of a classic: the emotions, the timeless struggle to be great, the sense of despondency and then triumph. Although perhaps not a masterpiece, The Art of Fielding should definitely be considered a great for this generation.  Harbach perfectly captured the sense of panic in college (and life) and worry of the future in all his characters, themes that definitely resonate with today's readers.  For a debut novel, The Art of Fielding is beautiful, haunting, and entertaining.    It is simply a story. The Art of Fielding, although revolving around baseball, is really all about living and how people have to make the choice to either embrace life and roll with it or be eaten alive by anxiety, pressure, and life itself.  And isn't that the story of life?

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