An Elegantly Written Mess (The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach)

Chad Harbach writes elegant prose in The Art of Fielding, and there are moments when his prose matches his insight and the writing becomes almost incandescent, the stuff of great literature. Unfortunately, the beautiful parts taken together sum up to a melodramatic whiny mess.

Harbach writes so well, constructs such well-crafted sentences that it seems he can’t control the impulse to add unnecessary narrative. I often got the feeling that he inserted characters and descriptions as an afterthought, because he suddenly remembered them from his own college experiences at Harvard or University of Virginia. He can’t help but think they must have some significance. Why does the dog appear near the end? The cheerleaders? Why mention the “summer of record heat” on page 510? We’ve gotten through the entire novel without any sense of record heat other than perhaps some sweating here and there, mostly while playing baseball.

For the most part, the characters in The Art of Fielding come off as spoiled whining sniveling and privileged. Therefore, they are supremely frustrating. They almost make it understandable why a bully would want to punch them in the face. Anyone who has worked with emotionally troubled teenagers knows that such work takes almost superhuman patience, understanding, and an unrelenting belief that they will eventually grow into productive adults. And these characters are adults, or at least they are college students.

They seem to have an overriding sense that their college campus is safe, and that they are too emotionally crippled to survive outside it. This theme stretched out over 500 pages elicits disdain. Why should we endure the complaints of those who are becoming only slightly aware of how good they have it, turning down offers as if they are too emotionally overwrought to consider how great the offer is, then coming back to accept or reject based on their current emotional state. How nice. Real life seldom is as forgiving as this safe college campus with mousey administrators, lovely university president, and quaint tradition. To an outsider, this conjured up emotional angst is pretentious. It’s the angst of the privileged, those who don’t have to pay for college because of nepotism, traditions, mysterious talent, and who take it all for granted, and succumb to hiding from the real world by deciding never to leave their safe place.

The central character is not Henry the baseball player, whose odd character shifts mirror the vagueness of his favorite book, The Art of Fielding. It is Guert Affenlight, the 60 something year old university president and Melville, Moby Dick scholar whose love situation implicates the others and pastes them all together. Harbach included fascinating background information about Melville and cute literary jokes and sexual puns. Go Harpooners!  But for what purpose? Are we supposed to conclude that the academic paper Sperm-Squeezers motivates and inspires the students of this small cozy Lake Michigan college?

An interesting question could be, what makes someone who has been heterosexual suddenly turn homosexual in his sixties? While the answer might have seemingly obvious answers, maybe latent homosexuality given his obsession with the sexual inconsistencies in studying Melville, so much more could be explored here, in rich complexity, but unfortunately it isn’t. Instead what we get is a blubbering Affenlight, whose “love” for “a bright young boy” merely sounds like any other old fool in love, whether male or female, or in-between, and maybe that is the point, but surely it could be made without subjecting the reader to such an overabundance of self-absorbed superficial pathetic navel gazing. Maybe that’s the way Harbach imagines academics in their sixties, or that’s what he has observed, but recording what one observes or imagines does not always make for good literature.

Affenlight’s wallowing reminded me of an incident in my undergraduate days when I was accosted by a classmate I barely knew while we were headed to the restroom. Both of us apparently were in an equal state of urgency. I had to use the urinal and he the stall. From behind the stall door, he launched into a soliloquy professing his love for someone he apparently thought I knew. He continued nonstop as I tried to hurry, alarmed that our finishing might coincide, and I would be stuck with his effusion for who knew how long. Fortunately I finished first, gave him a sincere “good luck,” and fled before he could emerge from his stall. I never doubted the guy’s love, but his expression of it was an unpleasant dump needing a good flush.

Harbach suggests that the stereotypical bad administrators who must be concerned with image and, gasp, money, would view Affenlight’s dalliance with a “gleam” in their eyes if the bright boy Owen was a girl. “What kind of conversation would they be having if Owen were a girl?” (The mention that Owen was of a different race is so incidental that it has the feeling of being tossed in the mix merely in order to “cover all the bases.”) Maybe Harbach is thinking that he’s adding some sense of equality or equivalency to the gay perspective. But Affenlight’s blathering love for Owen only comes across as pathetic, regardless of gender. The students’ outrage at the university officials over Affenlight seems immature. Harbach tries mightily to give meaning where there appears to be none, at least from the characters perspective, which seems to be a pretentious desire for it all to mean something, to be dramatic, in the way only the most self-absorbed college students can be. Chapter endings ooze false drama.

Given Affenlight’s unlikable character, the students’ reverence for him played out across several chapters near the end becomes all the more ludicrous. Their motivations seem wholly insufficient to justify their actions. What influence does Affenlight have over these characters other than the normal teacher-student power imbalance, which is hardly mentioned? Why would the “brilliant young boy” Owen even consider a liaison with Affenlight? Was it just to get his social causes accepted on campus and through the administrative red tape? There is no indication of Owen being manipulative. In fact, quite the opposite, apparently Owen, unbelievably, loved Affenlight.

Harbach, perhaps in self-parody, might be admitting his own blubbering, evoking Melville’s coined word “snivelization.” Or perhaps it is self-loathing brought upon by others unfairly and meanly heaping hate upon him as he struggled to find his own sexuality. This review can be accused of doing the same thing, which is unfair to both of us. Harbach might have intended to normalize gay life, which is a noble goal. We should never treat another human being cruelly because of who they love. But in this novel, the normal homosexuality is now on equal footing with unpleasant sniveling, a stereotypical view of gay life, which then risks the opposite of the purported intent.

Would changing any of the sexes around make a difference? Probably not. A more pressing question might be, what advantage does the old university president have over the young student, regardless of gender. What is love in these circumstances? If Harbach even tried to address these questions, it’s not evident. No serious examination or “probing.” Who wants to normalize older men or women having sex with near children? (Nabokov obviously explored this.) The Art of Fielding doesn’t seem as if it is up to examining these issues. We deserve a more insightful treatment than Affenlight’s snivelization and the students’ inexplicable reverence for him.

If you have managed to read this entire review, welcoming its end, you might be thinking that I’m just some frustrated old guy who has failed as a writer himself and who shows nothing but envy for Harbach’s superior talent, and partly you would be correct. My work, were I a Harvard grad, would in all likelihood be viewed differently. Too bad I didn’t go to Harvard.

For me, The Art of Fielding was a successful novel because the local writing was often stunning, and it prompted this response. Few novels can elicit this sort of conflicted, oxymoronic, or simply moronic, contortion and frustration at what could have been. I almost resisted posting this review but thought I should at least have a fraction of Harbach’s courage, laying it out there, open for ridicule.

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