This book had a lot of potential. When I started reading it, I was really impressed by the fact that it was a “literary” novel with a plot and characters that seemed like real people, something that I don’t find enough in the more highbrow novels published these days. But around page 100 or so, the book just starts spiraling out of control. There are five main characters whose lives intersect, but not in a tight way that’s needed with such a large cast of characters. Each character slowly devolves from their position at the top of the world down to their own personal hell. You’ve got Henry, potentially the world’s greatest shortstop whose self-doubt may ruin his career; Schwartz, the Jewish baseball/football player/pre-law student who discovers Henry and trains him, maybe at the expense of his own career; Owen, Henry’s “gay mulatto roommate,” who’s extremely well-read and begins an affair with the school president; President Affenlight, a biology major turned Melville scholar who sees echoes of “The Book” (“Moby Dick”) in everyday life; and Pella, Affenlight’s estranged daughter, back at her father’s college after she dropped out of high school four years ago to marry a controlling architect in his thirties.
It’s a lot to take in. And in all fairness to Harbach, I never felt lost in what was going on with the characters. His prose is fantastic, and even though this book (over 500 pages in hardcover) should have felt dense, it was a pretty fast read for me. I understood who the characters were, I was never confused about what was going on in the plot at any given time, and I genuinely wanted to know if Henry would be able to achieve his professional baseball career, and if he and Schwartz would ever mend their broken friendship.
The trouble was, that was the only part of the book I really cared about. Pella comes in depressed and on anti-depression pills and who knows what else because of her husband, who we’re supposed to see as abusive. He was controlling and a jerk, sure, but I had a hard time disliking the guy too much. Pella complains in the novel about how he only wants to force his idealized view of their marriage on her, but in the brief time we see the two interact, she could easily just be making things up to feel sorry for herself. That would be OK, but that whole idea is dropped (and her husband apparently leaves after one dinner).
The gay romance felt awkward to me as well. The 60 year-old man accepts that he’s in love with a male student without ever questioning his sexuality or job security very much at all. And I have to say that for all of Pella’s internal monologues about sexism, Owen is essentially a romantic fantasy for Affenlight. He’s one-dimensional, and basically serves the purpose of being Affenlight’s Lover. If he weren’t that, he wouldn’t have much place in the book.
There really is a good book in here. The final baseball game is engaging, though I don’t understand the relevance of it to Henry and Schwartz and their friendship. I don’t know. I just didn’t get the book. I’m used to plots being about something. And there IS a plot in “The Art of Fielding.” I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do with it. The plot pushes forward, but we focus on the characters on the periphery so much that we miss some key events. It’s like Harbach wrote a baseball book about a friendship between Henry Skrimshander and Mike Schwartz, then went back and added a slew of characters and allusions to “Moby Dick” that seemed bizarre and out of place to me.
Chad Harbach is absolutely a good writer. And there are things I genuinely enjoyed about the book. But the characters in the book that aren’t depressed or disaffected, or drug-addicted are making horrible career choices and messing up their lives. There’s a lot of wallowing in self-pity and that hopelessness that seems to be everywhere in literary fiction. And frankly, I just can’t get on board with that. On page 412, Affenlight is thinking about his sudden interest in environmentalism. He says, maybe he was “a humanist back when humanity was popular, now moved on to bigger things….” I still like humanity too much to truly enjoy this book filled with characters who don’t like themselves, written by a writer who doesn’t seem to like anyone in particular.