by Nathacha AppanahBuy at Powell’s »
March 19, 2012
2The Art of Fielding
Jay Caspian Kang
I know it’s bad manners, but I find it impossible to talk about Teju Cole’s Open City without bringing up a certain dead German writer who wrote about taking walks, meeting professors, eccentrics, immigrants, and people who said things like, “I walked around, looking for an entrance, thinking of these nearby waters. Later, I would find the story recounted by the Dutch settler Antony de Hooges in his memorandum book.” The first 50 pages of Open City, in fact, read so much like W.G. Sebald that my ADD-addled imagination began to paste photos of funny owls and thoroughly unremarkable, vaguely European landscapes onto the pages of the book.
I’ll admit my enjoyment of those first 50 or so pages was intensely personal—I’ve never been to Manchester or to Lithuania or in attics filled with dresses on the verge of disintegration, but I did spend two lonely years in Morningside Heights. The opening pages of Open City, then, read a bit like a very good cover band—sure, it wasn’t the real thing, but they were in my neighborhood and they took requests.
As the book moved out of New York, it shook off a bit of the Sebaldian tone and that slow churn of significance, and moved into its own skin. Which I enjoyed. But Sebald still hung over everything and once I put the novel down, I wondered why an author would choose to create a voice with such an immediate, and, frankly, obvious influence. I found myself thinking back to reading Rings of Saturn for the first time in the Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights and the rush of excitement I felt when I first saw the word “quincunx” in print. For the next six weeks, I tried to write something similar and failed miserably. At some point that has forever been erased from my hard drives, I was trying to write like Sebald, if all the books he had read were about baseball statistics and if Sir Thomas Browne had been updated into the language of Bill James.
Which is to say: I still don’t quite understand why someone would write a book that could not escape its influences, but the Sebald trick somehow worked—I found myself deeply engrossed, slowly walking around in that half-dreamlike state. The simple fact that Teju Cole could replicate the Sebald weather and weave in characters that I found myself deeply caring about, sometimes, against type (the first master’s student I’ve ever cared about in the history of reading!), created its own justification for its closeness to the original and made me wonder if Sebald had created a new genre that would see several other books which approximated his inimitable style.
My lifelong obsession with baseball and its arcana made me very much want to like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. When I found out that it was a baseball novel and a campus novel, my heart fluttered. Back in those days in the Hungarian Pastry Shop, I would silently bristle whenever someone would say something disparaging about John Irving, but never quite have the guts or wherewithal to defend him properly. (For some reason, Irving was the perennial whipping boy of that particular sect of wannabe writers, all sinking slowly into MFA debt.) There’s nothing that captures my imagination quite like a novel about sports on a campus—the wrestling team at Gravesend Academy could lift Owen Meany up over their heads, in perpetuity, and I would probably still read their blog. And when I started to pick up on all the baseball references (the book’s title must be, in part, a wink-nod to The Science of Hitting, a book filled with photographs and charts that have been annotated by Ted Williams), I was prepared to advance The Art of Fielding all the way to the finals.
But while I admired many things about Harbach’s debut, I never found myself fully wrapped up in the fate of Henry, the book’s narrator. There’s certainly no reason, really, for a narrator to change or learn anything, (John, the narrator from A Prayer for Owen Meany comes immediately to mind) but Henry’s stasis felt alienating. I never quite got into his head. In these sorts of books, the campus, itself, can sometimes stand in for the characters—John Irving certainly has fallen back on this trick more than a couple times—but Harbach’s descriptions of Westish College never rose to the muscular pitch of DeLillo’s College-on-the-Hill or Pencey Prep. Finally—and this note is only for the SABR nerds in the audience—there was something about the story of a slight, weak-hitting shortstop who learned everything he knew about the game from a book called The Art of Fielding by a mystical wizard named Aparicio Rodriguez that felt dated and a bit out-of-touch. Certainly, people don’t need to synch their literary ambitions with trends on Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, but I couldn’t help but read a tinge of regret and nostalgia in the movement away from today’s OPS-crazy (on-base plus slugging, for the uninitiated) hitting machines. Speaking as a baseball fan who received his copy of The Science of Hitting at Fenway Park in 1987, who, probably, at some point, committed Luis Aparicio’s career batting average to memory (to better win arguments about the Hall of Fame, naturally), and therefore has his own problems with seeing all of baseball through nostalgia goggles, Harbach very much seems to be pining for a style of baseball that no longer exists, and, while this is certainly his right as an author, what was missing the most from The Art of Fielding was some engagement with the way the game is played today. The book is not historical—Henry plays Tetris and the students at Westish stare into their cell phones. So why does the baseball in the book feel like it has been transplanted from an earlier era? Why, when writing in a literary way about baseball, do we always feel the need to have the game played on the Elysian Fields?
By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner
Kevin: If I were to tell you that nothing happens in Open City, and you were to say, “Come on, something must happen,” and then I were to say, “Well the guy walks around mostly by himself for the whole book,” and you were to say “Something’s gotta happen,” and then I were to say, “You’re right, toward the end the very thing you would expect to happen to a guy who walks alone around Manhattan as much as this guy does, in fact happens to him, but it happens way too late for anything else to happen as a result,” and after all that you were to say, “That’s all right, I don’t care,” then you will probably like this novel very much.
Cole can write and he’s frequently profound. There probably isn’t a page of this novel that I wouldn’t have enjoyed a lot in the context of a novel where other things were happening. I found his extremely formalized prose trying at first—it takes a few pages to figure out what century this book was written in—but even Cole ends up pulling that off. I just like it more when stuff happens in a story. It’s probably because I’m getting older. Clearly, your results may vary.
Lots of stuff happens in The Art of Fielding. And to borrow a baseball phrase, this novel is right in my wheelhouse. How many ways is it in my wheelhouse? Let me count them: My father was a Major League Baseball executive for 40 years. I grew up in Cooperstown, NY, the apocryphal birthplace of baseball. I worked three seasons in the front offices of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Houston Astros. I went to college at a small, athletically inclined Midwestern university and I traveled with the baseball team for one season. When I was a second basemen in high school I was obsessed with a book by batting guru Charlie Lau called The Art of Hitting .300 . Before my junior year, just like Henry in the novel, I also got the yips, a syndrome where your muscle memory loses the release point at the top of your throw, an affliction that in the book is called Steve Blass Disease, after the Pirates pitcher who famously suffered from it. Is there anything else? Let me think. Oh, yeah, my parents are friends with Steve Blass.
So I was sure I was going to love this novel. But…
Actually there is no but. I enjoyed the hell out of it.
“Surely there’s a but,” you say. Even with a novel you really like, there’s always some qualifying insight.
OK. Well, see, while I was reading The Art of Fielding, perhaps with an eye toward this commentary, it occurred to me that if I were participating in some imaginary debate-format book discussion where you were given a novel and told which proposition you had to defend, and I was assigned the anti-Art of Fielding position, I could do a pretty good number on it. It’s a campus novel but there are almost no students in the entire book that aren’t on the baseball team. When I was in college, I recall girls being, you know, something of a focal point in terms of my attention, but it was something like page 300 before I realized this school was co-ed. With the exception of the college president’s daughter (who isn’t technically a student) there are hardly any female characters—or ones with names, anyway—at all. The actual day-in-and-day-out details of what it’s like to be on a college baseball team didn’t exactly hold together for me, either.
So the world in which this novel takes place—both on campus and in the locker room—never felt real to me. It felt a little manipulative, like a movie set, a sentiment shared by Judge Kang, I think. But here’s the difference, and also my point. I didn’t care. Because I was really enjoying it.
When most people read, they either like a book or they don’t. And then afterward, if they think about it at all, because they’re in a book club or whatever, they come up with reasons to justify their opinion. It’s not like you check off a list of pros and cons while you’re reading, and after you turn the last page you add up each column and use that to decide whether you enjoyed it. Art is visceral, right? It’s only when you’re reviewing a book that you have to tally up all these reasons and put them on a scale. In a review we’re often trying to express something that can’t be expressed. It’s just a framework for rationalizing what the heart likes.
So on a technical level Teju Cole probably wins this match, just as Judge Kang decrees. But for me, on the abstract level where we actually read, I have Chad Harbach winning by slaughter rule.
John: While there are other opening round matchups that on the surface look like odder pairings (1Q84 v. The Last Brother), this is probably the one that reveals the greatest gap between approaches that can lead to the satisfactory completion of a full-length work of fiction.
Jay Caspian Kang says his enjoyment of the first 50 pages of Open City was “intensely personal,” just as your engagement with The Art of Fielding is colored by your background, which makes you uniquely suited to the book’s material.
While I don’t have a similar investment in either of these books, reading them also revealed a personal divide for me, two different selves I inhabit as a reader and “considerer” of books.
I too enjoyed The Art of Fielding very much when I read it. I got my hands on an advance copy a couple of months prior to its release and tore through it in a weekend, not doing much else. I was wholly invested in the fates of Henry and Mike and Owen and the rest. “Enjoyable” really is the best word for it.
And then I started to think about it more, about some of the issues you noted above, and others like the fact that I thought the book was set in the Eisenhower Administration until a couple hundred pages in and a character pulled out a cell phone. About how the characters are round-seeming, but are more like what former Esquire fiction editor and all-around fiction sage Rust Hills calls “series regulars” in his book Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. The term is derived from television, and is meant to identify characters that may be round, i.e., Mike Schwartz is both a thick-necked jock and a scholar, but are also permanently fixed.
We like series regulars in television because they are a source of constancy and comfort. One of my favorite television shows is Justified, and one of the reasons it is my favorite is because Raylan Givens is such a wonderful fixed character. Bad guys will temporarily get the drop on him just about every week, but Raylan will stay cool and he will triumph and I will cheer and feel good about the world that Raylan Givens polices remaining orderly. Series regulars work in television because they are constantly getting to interact with guest stars, which is why the most interesting character in last season of Justified was Maggie Bennett, the moonshine-brewing Don Corleone of Harlan County.
The fixed nature of the characters in The Art of Fielding make them feel very much like “characters.” Because they have been fixed in pleasing positions, we like and root for them, but the events of the novel as rolled out by the author do very little to actually change (or even promise the threat of change) them in any significant way. Henry’s throwing problems just happen, a stroke of fate. Schwartz engages in a little Schwartzian self-sabotage, but still, he’s Schwartz, right?
At times Harbach seems to acknowledge this aspect of his own work. When Owen meets Henry he says, “My name’s Owen Dunne. I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate,” which is exactly what he is for the duration of the book. Guert Affenlight and his daughter, Pella, are described this way, “When they spoke they spoke in monosyllables, more like characters in a Carver story than real live Affenlights.” Jay Caspian Kang notes Henry’s “stasis,” which is another way of saying we don’t know Henry in any deeper way on page 500 than we do on page 1. The mechanics of The Art of Fielding unspool in a satisfying way, but I can’t shake free of the feeling that what I’ve experienced is mechanical. It’s ultimately a book that feels like it’s made out of other books. Because I like books, it’s only natural that I would enjoy The Art of Fielding.
The Art of Fielding seems designed to soothe and comfort, to present a world that will find its way back to order, which I would never argue is a bad thing, but I would also argue that from an artistic point of view—which is another part of me as a reader—it is an extremely limited thing.
Open City is the opposite. Even though nothing much happens, I felt unsettled by the book from the get-go. When it comes to explaining the literary arts, I’m a Kafka guy, so I’m going to quote him at length:
I think we ought to read the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy…? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.
Julius is a walking, talking, frozen sea. Action in Open City may be limited, but I thought the book bristled with tension. For someone who is so observant and perceptive, Julius is curiously quiet about himself. Contemporary American literature tends to be the opposite, particularly in books with first person narrators, which are often orgies of feelings, and here is a character who can only look outward. Each moment felt pregnant and weighty to me, and when some actions and revelations come, they hit me hard.
In short, the book wounded me. I didn’t read it as quickly, or with as much moment-to-moment pleasure as The Art of Fielding, but I carried it around for days afterward. I re-read whole sections, and I continue to think about it still as an example of one of the ways one can solve the problem of writing the novel.
Some of my cooling feelings towards The Art of Fielding are likely due to the reception it’s received and a decent helping of sour grapes. It’s good, but it’s not that good. Why can’t we talk about some other books that came out late summer of 2011? This isn’t any fault of the book’s or Chad Harbach’s. He delivered as promised, and then some, but in reading Open City, I had no idea what was being promised, and that experience was thrilling in ways The Art of Fielding can’t touch.
Kevin: You and I have had enough of these debates that I know when I’m losing one. But I’ll soldier on.
I loved reading Kafka. Actually, that’s not true. I loved sitting in a college classroom (or on the floor of a dorm hallway) talking about reading Kafka. Relative to a lot of other stuff I was reading in college, I’m not sure how much I enjoyed the actual reading while I was doing it. (OK, The Trial I definitely enjoyed, actually.)
Of course, Kafka would establish an almost unbearable amount of narrative tension before he’d let nothing start happening. Still, I have no doubt that I would also enjoy a smart discussion of Open City. (Wait, we’re having one now! And I’m enjoying it! Q.E.D!)
(I honestly don’t know from Sebald, but for my money, if you like your Kafka, you should also read some Jesse Ball.)
I just was never really engaged with Open City, and so I didn’t care enough to get everything that you got out of it. I wasn’t bored by it. There was much that I liked, but I never cared enough about Julius for the book to wound me, as you say. If I can extend the books-as-girlfriends metaphor from earlier: We didn’t really click. We’re still friends. I still see Open City around the house from time to time and it’s not weird or anything.
I certainly understand awarding extra points to a novel for ambition. I do that all the time. But ambition isn’t enough. Hell, ambition and great craft (which Cole has) isn’t enough if you don’t connect with a book, and I didn’t with this one. I think it was in yesterday’s commentary where I said readers don’t always take their share of the blame when that happens, and I’m more than willing to say I just couldn’t meet Teju Cole halfway this time. But I’m also not going to apologize for picking the novel I liked more. Readers who decide books must be good if they don’t enjoy them are exactly why Rick Santorum doesn’t think anyone should go to college.
John: I’ve got a lot more to say, but we’ve already yammered a good thousand words beyond our usual allotment, there’s a lot of tournament still to go, and you said I’m winning, so I’ll save my powder for the quarterfinals, when we’ll likely engage in more agreeable disagreement.
Kevin: So tomorrow we kick off the quarterfinals as Booker winner The Sense of an Ending, having vanquished gratuitous violence in the opening round, will take on glory-hole sex in the form of Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. Their fates will be in the hands of reader judge Roxy Reno.
It’s also time to start talking about the Zombie Round. For those who don’t know, our readers have voted for their favorite books in the field, and after the tournament narrows the contenders down to just a pair, the two eliminated books that received the most votes in our poll will be resurrected to take on the presumptive finalists. Zombie contenders can change as more books are eliminated, but as of the end of the opening round, if the Zombie matches were held today, our reanimated books would be (in alphabetical order) The Art of Fielding and State of Wonder.