So is it the new “great American novel”? Well, it features Baseball very heavily, it’s a coming of age style novel and the story has an epic feel that sweeps through varying emotions. It is certainly a contender, but to be honest it left me wanting a bit more. However, after copious amounts of hype, was the book ever going to live up to expectation?
The Art of Fielding was high on my reading list for some time. As a fan of Baseball and coming of age novels, this was surely going to tickle all of my fancies. By the end, yes it did but for the opening 100 pages it felt very one dimensional and lacking. We start by meeting Henry Skrimshander and Mike Schwartz (note: there is only one character in this novel with a normal, everyday name) as Mike watches Henry playing Baseball and decides to bring him to Westish college to play for the college team.
Henry stays very one dimensional for the entire book, for him it’s all about the sport, but this is part of his personality and without it, much of the story wouldn’t exist. Henry and his emotions are formed by his dogged determination to succeed as a ball player. He wants nothing more. Harbach uses Henry to illustrate a person’s fragility when we dream. We over think, we dramatise and we despair.
Henry, later in the novel, spirals into a world of depression and his life becomes horrible to read about. The reason Henry is so one dimensional is to set up his obvious fall from grace. In fact much of the book is about our fragile and emotional lives. President Affenlight is afflicted by his own emotions towards one of his students, his daughter Pella is conflicted by life and introduced to us as a depressive personality and Mike is distraught by the notion that he will never become something – only create others.
It’s only as the novel lengthens that each character grows into something more complex. It’s almost as if on page one everyone is an utterly blank canvas and Harbach paints them in with each subsequent page. What starts as something a little bland ends as a rich tapestry of intricate design. It’s a shame the novel doesn’t begin with such a punch. I think this is generally because there is not one central character. The ensemble ends up overshadowing each other a little.
Side plots such as Affenlight’s affair with a student seems a little pointless. It doesn’t have a great bearing on Henry, Mike et al. It’s as if Harbach had two ideas for a plot and squashed them together. There’s nothing overly bad about the Affenlight storyline, but in fairness it would have worked as a totally separate novel.
Sadly it could also be seen as a book for men. It’s brimming with jock dialogue, Baseball reference and contains the attitudes of males. But it’s much more than that. Of course Baseball is featured heavily and as a massive fan of the sport I was in my element, but others may feel it blocks their enjoyment. Please don’t let these things put you off; it is a beautiful book at its heart. Harbach writes friendship and love very well, everything has a sweet fondness and feels utterly natural. There’s no stilted dialogue or awkward prose in intimate or romantic scenes, it just works.
The further I got through the book the more I loved it, mainly due to the environments that Harbach has written. It’s the camaraderie of team sports and the joint adventure of college life – these experiences bolster a range of emotions from the reader. In the final quarter I was sad it was ending, I didn’t want the final page to arrive. It isn’t a novel to change your life, but it is one to revel in. So much happens, plotlines develop and branch off, characters grow and morph with new issues and relationships.
I wouldn’t say The Art of Fielding was worth the hype. I wouldn’t say it was one of the great American novels. However, I will say that it is a wonderful book that builds a narrative upon characters that flourish, even if it does take time for them to do so. Yes there are negatives, but to be honest they don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. You’d be missing out if you didn’t take a chance of this great debut.
Published by Fourth Estate. Read on a bought Kindle version.