Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Art of Fielding, Chard Harbach (2011)

The Art of Fielding is the book my coworker used to explain his "500 list" theory that I talked about in my first revamp post. And his selection was exemplary indeed.

This is the first book in a while that I haven't been able to put down, that I've said, "I want to just go home and read!" when I've been discontent at work. Like my coworker, I can't tell you exactly what had me so hooked or so compelled to keep reading... but I liked it.

The story is about college life and a baseball team and people connected to the team. The appreciated aspect of this obvious setup is that baseball isn't some gross metaphor for life. Well, I am sure that you could easily create a thesis around that idea and this book, but you don't have to, and that's part of the beauty of it. The characters aren't real--I don't really see myself aligning with any of them or their amazing circumstances (super genius, super athlete, super mentor, super gay). But there are parts of all of them--moments and thoughts and ideas and actions--that when combined, feel almost inanely natural and easy and personal. The characters are complex, so complex that by the time I finished the book and went back to gather my quotes, I had already forgotten some of the details of their histories. But I'm not sure that's negative, just a result of how much you learn and experience in 500 pages.

Spoiler alert: Before I round out this post with some passages, I wanted to talk about the book broadly. That includes the ending, so be warned.

If I were in an academic setting currently (or had read the book a little slower, with a more precise sticky-note system, and with the desire to form a thesis), I'd explore more deep the importance and reoccurrence of dishes, ritual (not just baseball related), juxtaposition (Affenlight's feeling of Professor X to complete despair within the same window of time), history and literary references (Melville!). As a lit kid I loved the allusions and I think it would be very interesting to explore their placement in the text. However, my guess is that there really aren't many instances where the reference is anything but straightforward, which in itself is a juxtaposition to the intensely inward/private characters making the relation. But I like the simplicity that otherwise complexly treated allusions give to this text.

On the negative side: I didn't like the ending, but I did't dislike it enough to discredit the book. I actually expected it to end with Henry on the field, so I was okay with that. But the precursor--digging up the grave, burial at sea, weird drunk college shit--didn't do it for me. The fact that the death was so ambiguously dealt with (suicide? heart attack? Way to fuck with Pella.) frustrated me. I wish it hadn't been discussed at all. I'm also unclear about who tattled on Affenlight & Owen. Henry's mom? Because I thought that was the only teammate not at the game. In that case, how did she know? Henry was all fucked up by the time this became a big deal, so did he tell the sister and she pass it on? And what actually happened to her? As far as the big game, I'm glad Henry didn't make some epic comeback. But I'm glad they won. So, I'll take the contribution he made, however odd it was.

Now after spewing all those random thoughts and questions, I present the passages I flagged.

Realistic writing

The other reason, of course, is that I'm a staunch monogamist. In practice, if not in theory. I can't help it. Do I acknowledge the oppressive, regressive nature of sexual exclusivity? Yes. Do I want that exclusivity very badly for myself? Also yes. There's probably some sort of way in which that's not a paradox. Maybe I believe in love. Maybe I just badly crave my mother's approval.  [...] Occasionally Henry would interject a comment, to show that he was listening and interested, but for him monogamy was less a contradiction than a glamorous, possibly unattainable goal, the flip side of his virginity, and he kept his comments vague. 21

Lying here, ear on pillow, it was easy to figure out how you felt and say it out loud. 303
-Side note: This is exactly the scenario in which I ended up telling my college roommate that I'd lost my virginity. 

Evolution, humor
Remember when it was easy to be a man? Now we're all supposed to look like Captain Abercrombie here. Six-pack abs, three percent body fat. All that crap. Me, I hearken back to a simpler time... A time when a hairy back meant something. [...] Warmth. Survival. Evolutionary advantage. Back then, a man's wife and children would burrow into his back hair and wait out the winter. Nymphs would braid it and praise it in song. God's wrath waxed hot against the hairless tribes. Now all that's forgotten. But I'll tell you one thing: when the next ice age comes, the Schwartzes will be sitting pretty. Real pretty. 31

The stated topic of the lecture was Shakespeare, but H. Melville, excusing himself by the sly pronouncement that "Shakespeare is Life," used the bard as reason to speak of whatever he wished--Tahiti, Reconstruction, his trip up the Hudson, Webster Hawthorne, Michigan, Solomon, marriage, divorce, melancholia, awe, factory conditions, the foliage of Pittsfield, friendship, poverty, chowder, war, death--all with the scattered, freewheeling ferocity that would have done little to refute his in-laws' allegations of mental imbalance. 52
-Side note: This is how I felt about a certain professor in grad school who liked to talk about Ebay purchases every fourth lecture. 

There he became for the first time--excepting a few lucky moments on the football field--a star. Most of his fellow students were younger, and none had achieved so desperate a grasp on the literature of his chosen period. Affenlight could drink more coffee, not to mention whiskey, than the rest of them put together. Monomaniacal, they called him, an Ahab joke; and when he spoke in seminar--which he did incessantly, having suddenly much to say--they nodded their heads in agreement. Thirty-page papers rolled out of his typewriter in the time it had taken to write a single paragraph of his not-quite-forgotten novel. 55
-Side note: Everything I dreamed I could have been in grad school. 

AVERT DISASTER, in fact, would have been a perfect school motto--the purpose of the p,ace, as far as Schwartz could tell, was to keep three thousand would-be maniacs sedated by boredom until a succession of birthdays transformed them into adults. 103

Just damn good writing

Each night she would go to bed beside him and then, the instant his breathing changed, get up and go to the kitchen to begin her nightly vigil of slowly drinking whiskey and chewing sunflower seeds while enduring the sheer excruciating boredom of being alive. 85

Schwartz prided himself on his honesty. [...] Not because he knew more than they did but because the clash of imperfect ideas was the only way for anyone, including himself, to learn and improve. 102

You told me once that a soul isn't something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love. And you did that with more dedication than most, that work of building a soul--not for your own benefit but for the benefit of those who knew you. 503

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