Author: Chad Harbach
Audiobook or Real Book: Audiobook as read by Holter Graham
Why I Read It: It was recommended in a vlogbrothers video and was a recent release so I thought I’d give it a shot
Plot Synopsis: During the best baseball season Westish College has ever had baseball players Henry Skrimshander and Mike Schwartz find themselves struggling to figure out the next steps of their lives. Meanwhile, Westish president Guert Affenlight tries to balance repairing his relationship with his estranged daughter Pella with a new romance.
General Thoughts: I have mixed feelings about this book. For the first hour, I was intrigued. For the next few hours of listening I was certain I wouldn’t like it. Next, I fell in and out, at times excited at times not, but motivated to finish at least. For the final, few hours I was enthralled. I’ll be honest, and this is humiliating, but for me, one of the biggest struggles (although not the only problem with it) of the book is the intelligence of the characters. I started this summer of self-improvement mostly because I felt woefully under-read and this book certainly didn’t make me feel better about that. I’ve also always had a bit of a complex surrounding my own intelligence. I have always been arrogant about how smart I am. I basked in my ability to achieve good grades with significantly less work than my classmates. Even here I put these book notes out as a blog mostly with the cautious hope that I might get to talk to people about books in a way I haven’t since finishing undergrad, but I also can’t help but feel like people might read this and think I’m incredibly smart. But that arrogance has always been tempered by what I know the reality to be. I am, at best, of average intelligence. To again use this blog as a point of entry, no one who sees my fundamental failure to utilize commas correctly could really think particularly highly of my overall intelligence (not to mention the actual content of my book notes). Which has led, of course, to an intense battle of overwhelming knowledge of failure and overwhelming certainty of exceptionalism happening in my head regarding the issue of intelligence. Suffice it to say, this book was definitely a point for the side of insecurity, which made the arrogant part of me very uncomfortable. The Art of Fielding is a book that is highly concerned with genius and as I move forward to discuss the themes and characters of the novel I, and anyone who might read this, must view my analysis through the complicated prism of my own relationship with exceptionalism.
I think the easiest place to start is my biggest problem with the novel beyond my personal issues: Owen Dunn. Owen is an incredible young man, a gay mixed-race boy raised by his African-American mother, he is a striking character from the moment he is introduced. He is, of course, a genius. We get hints that his high school grades in math and science were not all that impressive, but his essays earned him a full ride to Westish. He speaks multiple languages, reads everything from great American literature to the Greek classics, read President Affenlight’s greatest academic achievement in high school, campaigns for sustainable living, wins a grant to study abroad in Tokyo, remains a calm and rational presence throughout the drama of the novel, commands any room he is in, and, to top it all off, isn’t a half-bad baseball player. He wins the heart of the 60ish college president Guert Affenlight and, to hear Affenlight tell it, retains all the power in the relationship despite both their age gap and their positions as student and teacher. We also don’t get Owen’s point of view. In a book with 5 main characters, Guert Affenlight, Pella Affenlight, Henry Skrimshander, Mike Schwartz, and Owen Dunn, Owen’s is the only point of view we don’t get. He remains mostly Affenlight’s object of desire. We see him play other roles as well, on a smaller scale: Henry’s tragic mistake and steadfast friend; Schwartz’s equal: Pella’s rival for her father’s attention. But his personal story is mostly ignored. I will give Harbach some credit, we get hints of Owen’s inner life in the dirty picture he has as a background on his computer, his desire to keep a photo of young Affenlight, his story of depression after his first serious break-up, and his desire to win the National Championship, but these are hints. Mostly Owen floats through the novel, an image of purity and serenity. I can see the possibility that this could be a positive thing. Owen takes on a role that has largely been reserved for white women—the pure and beautiful aspiration of the male protagonist. But for me, that role runs Owen to close to an object. This offense may be less egregious if he wasn’t also portrayed as Affenlight’s gay indiscretion. At no point do these allegedly well-educated characters acknowledge the existence of bisexuality, or talk in any sort of nuanced way about Affenlight’s sexuality, he is simply described as suddenly gay (something both he and his daughter struggle to accept). Part of Affenlight’s defense of his heterosexuality includes casting Owen’s mannerisms and looks as distinctly feminine, which to me, undermines the value of placing a gay man of color in a traditional white female role. But this is a bit of a digression from my original point, in a multi-pov story, the lack of Owen’s point of view is a glaring and uncomfortable omission, made more egregious by his inhuman perfection and more sinister by him being the only main character of color and the only openly gay character.
Moving on from Owen to Pella, I have more problems with Harbach’s approach to women. Pella is the only female character of any significance; Henry’s sister Sophie appears briefly in the beginning and at the beginning of Henry’s downward spiral before vanishing completely and neither time does she contribute anything to the plot beyond a minor complication and Owen’s mother serves only as a catalyst for Owen and Affenlight’s relationship. A book doesn’t necessarily need multiple female characters to portray a dynamic and complicated woman and overall I would say that Harbach does a good job with Pella. He pays lip service to a number of feminist issues, including gendered language, and portrays Pella and the mistakes of her teenage years and her recovery from depression in a way that inspires empathy. However, I cannot get over how this young woman who we are supposed to regard as exceptionally intelligent and quick witted talks about—however briefly—how she has only been friends with men and cannot see herself making any friends with the slightly younger women attending Westish. It plays as an uncomfortable “not like other girls” moment that casts everything Harbach has done to make her brilliant and complicated into the uncomfortable light of what the male author imagines women are actually like. Her strange and fleeting sexual attraction to her father also left me feeling like her role was partly to assure us of Affenlight’s virility when Harbach’s straight male characters couldn’t do so and Affenlight’s love interest was kept silent.
Beyond the problems I had with Harbach’s characters, I genuinely enjoyed reading about Mike and Henry. I particularly liked that, despite showing them as, at the very least, good at everything thing they do Harbach also showed us repeatedly that they were both hard workers. Henry trains for baseball for hours every single day as well as going to class and working hard at his job. Mike studies constantly and throws the rest of his remaining effort into the school’s athletic program. While I can’t say I related to or even liked either character, they were well drawn and fascinating protagonists. Henry, in particular, was a treat to read about. Lacking his love of baseball, or the level of dedication to anything that he has to baseball, his thought process was often foreign to me but absolutely fascinating. I particularly loved the way Harbach portrayed Henry’s deep depression after his failure. In a book that features Melville so heavily as a reference point it was nice to see an allusion to Melville I was familiar with (I have never read Moby Dick). While Henry’s depression certainly felt like a vivid and realistic portrayal of someone deeply depressed, the heavy specter of Melville over The Art of Fielding also made it feel like a direct reference to “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (particularly in Henry’s decision not to eat) although I could not find a thematic link to “Bartleby” (granted it’s been a long time since I read it). Perhaps one could argue that the thematic link is how unfulfilling hard work without success can be but I don’t think that’s the point that either Harbach or Melville are trying to make in their respective works. Affenlight never did grow on me and I don’t have much to add about his character that feels worth adding here.
Thematically The Art of Fielding is most interested in ambition (and that’s not my interpretation either, it’s from the official summary). It is interesting to note that all his characters, except pure Owen, fail: Affenlight cannot balance Pella, Owen, and Westish; Henry signs with the major league, but only in the 33rd round; Mike doesn’t get into to one of the top 6 law schools in the country; Pella has not discovered her passion. But they don’t fail too badly either. Henry will return to Westish and become a better player. Mike will remain at Westish building up the athletic department he’d put four years of work into. Pella will be continuing college and is excited about her courses. Finally, although he does die, Affenlight could have left Westish with his head held high and, after his peaceful death, his body is set out to sea as a poetic tribute to his life. For Harbach, it seems, ambition and hard work are important but all the more valuable if you can balance them with failure. Henry, Mike, and Pella are only victims of their ambition when they let it overwhelm them and cannot cope with a deviation from their plans. Affenlight is only a victim of his ambition when he cannot acknowledge the incompatibility of his goals and adjust his course accordingly. In the end, despite its somewhat somber final notes, Harbach’s message seems to be one of hope and perseverance. Perhaps it’s my overall ambivalence to this novel or my own blind stupidity, but I cannot find much in it beyond that theme. Harbach’s relationships—father-daughter, mentor-mentee, teammates, friends, and romantic partners—are interesting and fleshed out, but he does not seem to have anything to say about them. Mike and Pella’s relationship in particular, while nice, felt more like a way to tie the two sides of the story together than something that added anything to the theme of ambition or anything else Harbach could have said about love and romance. I’m not saying that having one theme is a bad thing, just that the tone of this novel definitely made me feel like it expected me to get a lot more out of it than I did.
Quotes: (Again pulled from Good Reads ☹)
“She hated the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.” (haha sorry)
“Each of us, deep down, believes that the whole world issues from his own precious body, like images projected from a tiny slide onto an Earth-sized screen. And then, deeper down, each of us knows he’s wrong.”
“The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”
Essay Ideas/Further Questions: Obviously, I would like to see something that explores Owen as a queer character. I would either like to see something comparing him to other queer characters in literature, compares him to female characters that have filled similar roles, or an in-depth look at him in relation to the preeminent essays on queer literary theory.
If I had read more Melville, I would want to write an essay that decoded the influence of Melville on The Art of Fielding, particularly what Melville provides to the theme of the story.
Finally, some kind of analysis on Mike and Henry’s relationship to each other, and how that impacts their relationship to their own ambitions, might be worth looking into.
Last Thing: It feels incredibly uncomfortable and presumptuous to make a comment to a reader here. The idea that anyone would read 2000+ words of reader response, let alone find anything I have to say remotely worth thinking about, seems incredibly awkward and arrogant. But, I also know I would regret not saying it: if you have anything you would like to discuss or debate about anything I have said I would love to talk to you about it. Just comment. Hopefully, if anyone reads this they won’t judge me too hard for saying that