Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding has as of today been released for just shy of two weeks but this book’s been a large spot on the radar for awhile, as anyone who tried to finagle an ARC after the initial fifteen hundred ARCs were distributed. One’s got to assume few debuts get an initial ARC run in four digits. Plus of course there was the news of the book’s sale itself, the high six figures Little, Brown shelled out (all of this stuff is well covered in Keith Gessen’s article in the latest Vanity Fair, which to this reader seems like the absolute easiest article to ever have been written in the history of ever: I like Gessen quite a bit, and I’m as into VF as the next guy, but seriously? You write a huge article [which'll be turned into an e-book for $1.99] on your friend, the co-editor of the magazine you work? For what it’s worth: it’s moves like those that get folks up in arms about MFAs and networking vs. artistic merit—I’m glad Gessen wrote the article, and I’m happy Harbach’s getting the attention, but it’s just…the whole thing’s about as nepotistic as it comes). anyway: all the background info you need about Harbach’s book’s out there: The Art of Fielding has been the publishing of the story of the year so far.
Regardless of whether the story of the book’s birth and existence Matter or Last in any significant way is up to others to debate. What’s for sure is that The Art of Fielding is one of the most satisfying, fantastic long novels to have been released in a long, long while. Harbach’s clearly trying to take his place at the table alongside Franzen and the rest (worth asking: who exactly is the rest? I can’t think of any who are working that Dickensian seam quite like Franzen: Eugenides, maybe, and Powers to a degree, but Wallace isn’t quite part of that group, I’d argue, and ditto some of the other guys that used to be clumped in there [Moody, Antrim]). If you’re looking for a book that will suck a solid weekend of yr life and offer all the essential and mesmerizing joys of fiction, this is your book.
Yes, to get the obvious and perhaps necessary stuff out of the way: Harbach’s an n+1 guy, which, if you’re into inside baseball, puts him in the post-Eggers, more serious milleu (someone should make flow-charts of how Wallace led to Eggers/McSwys let to n+1). Harbach’s also the guy who wrote the awesome old article about how Franzen’s The Corrections was the follow-up to Infinite Jest, an article which is necessary reading according to this reviewier. Also, through homage or whatever, Harbach’s made a cast of characters which shares similarities with lots of Wallace—anyone who comes to Fielding with Jest in mind will notice all sorts of overlap (big and little things: chewing tobacco, surnames built around variations of the word light in various languages, a parallel between lead characters [Hal in Jest, Henry in Fielding]). Anyway, enough of the other shit: that’s what a keen, score-keeping reader may wish to have acknowledged before entering the book.
But oh lord, what a book. Seriously, just such a book. I unfortunately recently read the latest Eugenides (who has his own Wallace-based issues), which I was expecting to be a big, satisfying novel with an immersive narrative world and etc (how could I not expect that, given Eugenides’s past works?). I was massively let down by Eugenides, as I imagine most people will be, but I left the book just bereft, hurt that the book absolutely did not deliver on that rarest magic, the believable and sustained fictional world (there’s really just a ton wrong with the new Eugenides).
So it was with that hellhound of disappointment on my ass that I dug into Harbach’s door-stop last Friday, and I spent the day gladly on my back, getting up at 7pm feeling that wonderful, strange way one does on finishing a great book: thrilled that I’d been in the world, disappointed that I was now finished with the world. The story centers around Henry Skrimshander, a college short stop playing for Westish College, a fictional school on the coasts of Lake Michigan. Henry’s an almost magically gifted short stop, a mistake-less monster on defense, and, at the book’s start, we trace him moving quickly from high school through the first two years of college as he plays and works out, bulking up and becoming a hitter as well and, of course, playing the whole time without committing an error.
Henry’s Fielding‘s bright sun, and it’s strange: the characters which orbit him are, arguably, more fascinating and riveting than he is. There’s Guert Affenlight (see what I mean about surnames and light?), Westish’s president, a Melville scholar who gave up a faculty position at Harvard to return to Westish; there’s Pella, Guert’s drop-out, young-married daughter, who arrives at Westish and tries to start a new life (or pick up where her old one went off the rails); there’s Schwartzy—Mike Schwartz—who is absolutely the heart and soul of this book, a year Henry’s senior, the team catcher, habitual tobacco chewer…Schwartz is the reason, I’m guessing, most folks’ll love this book; there is, finally, Owen Dunne, Henry’s roommate, and Owen happens to be gay and who becomes involved in the relationship for which most readers’ll feel most powerfully. There are other love relationships, one of which is fantastic, one of which will give you a stomach ache. There is, of course, Henry’s fall from perfection: 164 pages into a 517 page book, Henry’s errorless streak ends.
Henry’s streak ending actually provides perfect insight into how badass Harbach is, for two reasons. First, Harbach lets the story just go: real early on in the book two full years of college pass in a matter of pages. This was, to this reader, jarring on coming upon them: it’s too early in the book to fully understand the author’s sense of pacing, sure, but two years in a matter of pages seems much. Turns out, however, that Harbach’s doing exactly the right thing. Here’s a sideways route to Harbach’s badassery: the latest Colson Whitehead and Jeffrey Eugenides both move like stuck muck, so slow you’ll find yrself flipping pages just because otherwise you’ll pass the F out, and both make for terrible reading because of such speed—whole pages devoted to microdetails one finishes reading about only to be pissed, borderline hurt that one’s been made to focus on something that feels trivial. Harbach’s speed through such moments builds massive trust rapidly: not once, after that first two-years-in-a-blink blip, did I question his moves.
The second big reason to love Harbach and Fielding: the plot’s just a fantastic zigging thing. You already know the big plot pivot point—that Henry eventually earns an error, and that that imperfection dogs him. But, again: that happens 164 pages in. You’ll spend the rest of the book—350+ massively satisfying pages—wondering how things’ll shake out, only very occasionally being able to see clearly the upcoming moves (and those moves you can see coming are fairly well telegraphed, meaning you’ll actually get satisfaction from being able to see it coming and then seeing it actually transpire as imagined).
There’s plenty else to love about this book—the writing’s clean and open, feels in the best ways like the midwestern school and people the book’s set in and with and around: the writing feels true, mostly without guile, mostly attempting to do both good and well. I can’t think of a book that’s gonna come close to this in terms of satisfaction, story, character, plot…it’s gonna be awhile. You’ll see.