The Art of Fielding/Chad Harbach: Reflections

Sunday, February 26, 2012

It took me many months to read The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach's much-discussed debut novel. It has moved from my bag to the floor to the couch to a shelf back onto the floor—but never into the pile of books I finally give up on.  It wasn't the quality of the book that kept me from the story; it was time.  I could never find enough of it to read all 512 pages.

This weekend, I did—walked away from my own work, sat down as snow showers were followed by rain then sun, and read.  I liked this story, liked the way that it was told.  I liked the actual paper the book was printed on—smooth paper for a smooth story.  True, this story about a college shortstop, a college president, a college catcher, a girl who arrives late to college, and a college star (you get the point) could be preposterous at turns, but it never lost its seamless sound.  That's because Chad Harbach writes careful and yet still light-filled sentences that honor not just story, but idea.

I dog-earred many pages.  I'm going to quote, below, from the paragraph that most moved me, that captured the mood of my present days, my internal monologue.  The passage comes late in the book, but I don't think it's a spoiler.  It is, instead, an elegant representation of how a talented novelist can be writing a story, complete unto itself, and at the same time be talking directly to the reader who holds the book in her hand.  Harbach in this passage is writing about a kid named Schwartz.  But he's doing more than that.  He's reaching farther.

A final word:  I went onto Amazon to see what other readers had thought after reading Fielding.  I should not have done that.  The unkind comments claiming this book to be pedestrian, for example, or cardboard, or cliche, left me shuddering and steeped inside this question:  How is ridicule acceptable, when healthy criticism will do?

A passage that moved me, from The Art of Fielding:
He hadn't pushed through that one last barrier, his fear of succeeding, beyond which the world lay totally open to him.  Schwartz would never live in a world so open.  His would always be occluded by the fact that his understanding and ambition outstripped his talent.  He'd never be as good as he wanted to be, not at baseball, not at football, not at reading Greek or taking the LSAT. And beyond all that he'd never be as good as he wanted to be.  He'd never found anything inside himself that was really good and pure, that wasn't double-edged, that couldn't just as easily become its opposite.


Melissa Sarno said...

I have not read this book yet. The passage you quote makes frown. Because I'm sorry you feel this way. Because I know all too well what it is like to live with these feelings.

kelly said...

I love that passage also. But it has ZERO application to your life, unless you are thinking of those old brain surgeon ambitions you set aside.

Katrina said...

Beth, these are the thoughts, the feelings, I've been wrestling with for months. And I too was struck by that passage in the book (which my entire family read and loved by the way -- a rarity in this household). No matter how "good" we look on the outside, the inner demons are powerful, and Harbach perfectly evokes both the fear of success and the unbridgeable chasm between all that we aspire to and what believe ourselves to be.

Robb Dew said...

I, too, marked this passage, and I think everyone who is truly sane must feel this way. But I have a notion that this author was the victim of an overzealous editor who urged him to add to his novel after about page 300, where I thought it logically ended, and ended beautifully. the book not opnly changed course, but it changed its sensibility. It seemed to me that new versions--shallower, more accessible versions--of the same people were being experimented with. He's a wonderfully talented writer, and he's certainly here to stay.

Mandy said...

You're the second person who recommended this book. I must go out and buy it today. :)

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