The American establishment are extremely good at standing behind a concept; the entire nation and its progress are built on this collectivised brio. Much good and evil has been performed under the banner of the American Dream, many myths created and a full-bodied industry of abstractions pushed into the shirt pocket of American hegemony. For some time now the notion of the Great American Novel has carried its standard in the frontline of this hegemony stridently; masculine, barrel-chested, generous but no-nonsense. American letters has had some formidable A-listers in the field of the novel. Now, however, it seems that the title goes to B-listers (or perhaps B+-listers, in some cases). This is no fault of writers such as Chad Harbach, or even Jonathan Franzen; rather it is the neuroses of a national pride that feels someone, or some work, should be a belt-holder, a knock-out, an all-encompassing triumph of American endeavour. The Art of Fielding is just the next decent novel to be lauded as a masterpiece simply because of its country of origin, its style, its swagger, its subject-matter, its timing, its heft.
Harbach’s debut, ten years in the making, has been treated by the industry as a major literary event. It may just be the introduction of a significant talent: the novel shows more promise than anything else. But a major novel this is not; not in concept, not in execution. There are even moments when an impartial reader might question the author’s judgement or even the editor’s stringency in line-for-line revision. There are occasions when it is over-written, times when it is undercooked, but there is at times on display a misunderstanding of the “show-don’t-tell” maxim. The great American writers of generations past and passing are often caught telling, but always they are laying the foundations for multi-layered character-development in the progress of the novel. The telling is simultaneously revealing notions of the subject and showing, for instance, a temporal statement also. Harbach does like to simply tell, however; and is often guilty of just stepping forward and explaining how one of his (overall convincing) characters is feeling. As for his characters, they are convincing as nuanced evocations of real people, but as symbols of facets of the American experiment they come across as literally familiar and therefore unremarkable. To use an example of a recent brilliant American novel, The Cookbook Collector, Allegra Goodman discusses the world of corporate business through, amongst other characters, a forty-something cashed-out exec who has put his money (as well as his idiosyncrasies and his neuroses) into his former hobby, rare books. Around George we are given twin sisters who are political opposites, but emotionally close etc. In The Art of Fielding we are presented with a baseball prodigy, a wash-out, a young divorcee trying to re-evaluate her life, an openly-gay philosophy-reading outfielder, and the previously heterosexual sixty-year-old dean of the university who falls in love with him. These are one step away from staples of the modern American novel, and in this environment end up being a few shuffles back toward them. Being in the company of the characters is quite pleasant, but a novel needs to offer more, it needs to teach you something new, especially if it is a major literary event. Throughout we are in familiar territory; from the book-within-a-book from which Harbach’s actual novel takes its title, to the perfunctory nodding to the heavyweight classic (as Franzen keeps bringing up War and Peace hoping it will infuse Freedom with genius, so Moby Dick is worn like an expensive cloak by The Art of Fielding, like an Emmanuel Leutz painting looking down at a Peanuts cartoon) to the trivial existential crises of the characters. Harbach goes some way to showing prowess without ever truly convincing that he is doing much more than crossing off the checklist for that Great American Novel he so passionately wants to construct.
The one aspect of the book that does make me anticipate the future career of Harbach is the excellent understanding he has for the language of action. He employs the technical-stroke-slang jargon of the baseball field with aplomb into the dashing ebullience of the realm of athletic contest. Many of the terms were alien to me, but the language of the sport is enough to create a poetry all of itself, and to create an atmosphere and tension that the American swagger so prevalent in the modern novel can do. The chapters focussing on baseball matches have some exemplary writing in them.
In other places the book feels slightly under-edited. Maybe this is something to do with the n+1 fraternity, and their reputation, from which Harbach sprouts, who are very much the next generation of New York literati. They have been promising a great work from their stable for some time and perhaps the focus ended up on the marketing campaign rather than the revisions of the text. Comedy in the book – in the form of loose banter between characters – falls flat on almost every occasion. In these scenes every character has the same sense of humour, apart from the prodigal Henry who, were he a real person, would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s long before the narrative of the book begins.
Dysfunctional middle-class America with its preoccupations with liberal agendas in capitalist constructs, obsessional approaches to sports, the pseudo-intellectualisation of working-class endeavour, have been all been well-furrowed plantations in the past. The Art of Fielding offers nothing new outside of the interests of the world of the characters themselves. That is an entirely fine accomplishment for any novel; but it does not make for a Great work by any definition.