Sept/Oct/Nov 2011

The Art of Fielding

Stephen Burn


In his debut novel, The Art of Fielding, n+1 cofounder Chad Harbach explores baseball as an art that communicates “something true or even crucial about The Human Condition.” Following the career of Henry Skrimshander, a preternaturally gifted college shortstop who falls victim to Steve Sax syndrome (a sudden inability to make relatively simple throws), Harbach unfolds a sequence of stories surrounding the team. We meet Mike Schwartz, the burly captain facing the prospect of life beyond college; Guert Affenlight, the charismatic college president who questions his sexuality as his fascination with Henry’s team- and roommate, Owen Dunne, deepens; and Guert’s daughter, Pella, whose entire identity is slowly dissolving as she reevaluates the decisions that have led to a broken marriage and a nonexistent career.

Baseball’s signature quality for Harbach is its distance from “melee sports,” a division of labor that lends itself to a “Homeric . . . series of isolated contests.” Yet The Art of Fielding’s governing angel is Melville rather than Homer, and the book accumulates Melvillean allusions even as Harbach diverges from his ancestor’s texts. Unlike Moby-Dick’s cetology, which Melville threatened would encircle “the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs,” baseball in The Art of Fielding produces a long book that feels narrow. This sense of enclosure may be linked to the novel’s more recent genealogy: While David Foster Wallace intermittently shapes his vocabulary, Harbach takes Jonathan Franzen’s last two novels as a template. Like Franzen’s fictions, The Art of Fielding is built around a sequence of intertwined narrative lines and crises involving a claustrophobically connected group of characters ensnared in a complex web of emotional entanglements. The psychic costs of living in this group-system are high, but the members nevertheless stay together. In Harbach’s novel, the baseball team substitutes for Franzen’s fraught families, but while Franzen’s protagonists are burdened by obsessions that carry them out into the world (ecology, economics), Harbach’s characters build their lives around events that drive them inward—grad-school applications, college sports, campus loyalty.

This inward spiral does grant The Art of Fielding its most authentic qualities, particularly the vivid portrayal of the personalities at the novel’s core. Although Henry—like Bartleby—is mostly a blank space, a zone of negative characterization, the book is energized by its other central figures, especially Owen and Mike, who represent opposing poles on the continuum of masculinity that Harbach sketches. But despite a strong central cast, the plot moves like a rusty machine, and the book suffers from a cursory handling of its minor characters. The community outside the team barely exists in the novel’s mind: It flares into life to nudge the story forward, and then rapidly fades to leave the palest retinal afterimage. When Owen’s mother, Genevieve, Henry’s family, or the dean of students turn up, their brief, functional appearances feel like intrusive signposts announcing an approaching crisis.

Perhaps the book’s limited horizons reflect the narrow obsessions of the sports fan or player—self-containment and “the world of the green and white field” are concepts that consistently recur—but for all the novel’s promising qualities, at the ragged edges of its characters’ lives are larger, intriguing stories that remain frustratingly gauzy. These tales of drug dependency and depression are insistently invoked, but, without a more vibrant and fully imagined world, they carry little conviction, and ultimately the book’s curtailed circle of experience drains some of the color from Harbach’s world.

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