I rarely have the money or time to read new releases, but I’ve been lucky lately. I’m employed by a writer now, so it’s a part of my job to occasionally read a book for her. Usually, I read things pertaining more to what she writes, things written by people she knows and the like. This time, I had to read a book about baseball.
The Art of Fielding has quite a story behind the novel. Written by Chad Harbach over the course of ten years, revised and edited often over that time and mostly ignored by publishers until this year, the 500 page novel was picked up by Little, Brown in a bidding war won to the tune of $665,000. That’s a lot of money for the paper publishing rights in this day and age of e-readers and digital copies. You can read a little more about it here.
The book itself is quite a story as well. Set mostly in this past Spring 2011 semester (according to my calculations, anyway), it follows a handful of college students and one college president as they all come together on the (fictional) campus of Westish college, to live, learn, love, et cetera; but mostly, they play baseball.
What I truly appreciate about this book is the writing itself. Harbach has a clear, consistent, flowing style. He can insert superfluous lines about the weather or the character’s surroundings, and it makes complete sense for those lines to be there. I can see a lot of effort went into this book, and after ten years of rewriting and editing, I think it paid off.
What I’m not buying about this book is that it’s the next great American novel, or whatever cliche title critics want to give it. Certainly, it’s a well-written book. I can’t judge the baseball portions, because I don’t know much about baseball, though it is apparently the great American pastime. But what really bothers me are the characters.
The characters themselves aren’t so bad, but I feel as if I don’t know them well enough to decide if I like them or not. One character, who the others refer to as “Buddha”, appears to have no real character flaws. He is mostly described as beautiful and brilliant, through the inner-musings of another character, whom he is having an affair with. The other character, by the way, is an older man, which makes his thoughts on Buddha look like the homosexual version of the trope of the woman being defined by the man she is in a relationship with.
And speaking of women, there are very little to speak of. One of the main character is a woman, but all the other females fit into stereotypical roles of wives, sisters, mothers and caretakers. Not that these are bad things, but their roles are rarely expanded upon. The one female main character bounces into the care of one man after another, though I guess there is little else for her to do in a book with so few female characters. The book also doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, as Pella, the female main character, only has one conversation with another women, with whom she discusses her father. A different scene is alluded to in which she spends time with another female character, but Harbach does not actually include the scene in the novel. I can’t decide if I’m relieved I didn’t have to read another conversation between two women gushing about a guy, or insulted that the author didn’t bother to put in their interaction at all.
Not that Harbach did a complete disservice to women writing this novel. Quite the opposite; from what I could gather about her, I liked Pella, and according to those calculations of mine, she and I were born the same year. Harbach even occasionally includes an observation on being female that I wouldn’t think a male author would necessarily understand. The men also showed and admitted to much more emotion than I would have expected. Baseball is, apparently, a very emotional sport.
For the most part, I did enjoy the book. It took me a little while to struggle through it, but most of that had to do with baseball terminology I didn’t know and had to look up. I’m still not sure what “coaching first base” means, but to be honest, I don’t really care.
That my boss had me read this book probably has more to do with the hullabaloo surrounding it than anything else. I don’t think she knows much about baseball either. But I suppose it’s safe to say it’s worth reading, if only to see if you can determine what all the fuss is about.
Now if you’ll excuse me, 1Q84 arrived yesterday and I still haven’t finished it.
The Art of Fielding on GoodReads.