Reviews

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

adamz24's review

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3.0

The Art of Fielding is a member of that species which most compulsive readers have a conflicted relationship with: the literary sensation. There's no doubt that this book has been hyped to an almost ridiculous degree. Still, my expectations weren't very high, even though I love baseball and these sorts of college town settings etc.

Many of us are familiar with Harbach from n+1 and articles in numerous magazines. As a literary author, Harbach is oddly distanced from that writer. This book's biggest flaws lie in its tendency to a kind of conservatism that is relatively absent in at least two of the major recent influences on this novel, Don DeLillo's End Zone and (the ETA portions, at least, of) David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Harbach's prose is rarely problematic, but he rarely takes risks either as a stylist or in the construction of this book's story. When he does, The Art of Fielding does achieve the sort of transcendent brilliance many critics and other readers would lead you to believe it achieves more consistently. Wallace, although he is discussed and analyzed in any number of critical frameworks, was ultimately interested primarily in human emotional struggles (certainly more than stylistic hijinks) and high thematics. What made Infinite Jest probably the greatest American novel of the last half-century was Wallace's ability to write that sort of thing while bringing something genuinely new to the table. In other words, he wasn't merely a notably competent artist in the way Harbach and Franzen are, but a truly great artist.

The Art of Fielding bears resemblance to Infinite Jest (and DeLillo's End Zone further back, the novel Harbach once pointed to while discussing Infinite Jest) in numerous ways. Various characters are similar to characters from IJ, the setting is similar, the manner in which baseball is written about here is similar to how DFW approached tennis (both on a literal and metaphorical level). But where Infinite Jest never, ever was trite, The Art of Fielding frequently is, especially when the novel veers away from baseball and deals with pretty mundane and... trite details of various interconnecting personal lives and relationships. Small, mundane moments that need to work to subtly build the characters and story are routinely fucked up in execution, and often don't feel necessary, but instead like the results of poor initial planning. The Art of Fielding took nine years to write (nothing wrong with that), and you can often tell (something is definitely wrong with that), because the mental frameworks of the characters and the larger story seem to jump around so incoherently. I'm not the first person to mention Infinite Jest while talking about this book, and for that reason I'd like to emphasize that this is, despite the similarities and Harbach's very public admiration of Wallace, a very different book, and isn't really Infinite Jest-lite at all. But it's similar enough that it's hard not to point to IJ as a book that does much of what The Art of Fielding does, and does it so much better.

The last fifty pages or so are terrific, and most of the first 200 or so also are, but the novel is definitely too long, and I frequently had traumatic flashbacks to reading I Am Charlotte Simmons. This book is never as bad as that one is throughout its billion pages, but the human interactions often have the same stilted, artificial feel to them. And that is unfortunate, because Harbach, as he repeatedly demonstrates, is capable of writing some really touching human moments, during the baseball scenes and during other scenes.

The Art of Fielding is a promising first novel from an interesting enough novelist, but that's about it.

And one more thing: critics, especially those on the literary end of things, seem compulsively interested in denying that The Art of Fielding is 'mere baseball fiction.' I understand that the publisher wants to sell, obviously, to people who aren't baseball fans, but I'm not just talking about the blurbs on the book. Everywhere you look for writings on this book you can find someone minimizing the baseball angle. The funny thing is that, as Harbach surely understands, this entire book is filtered through baseball, fundamentally built on baseball and the nature and dynamic of the game. That is also where the book gets much of its literary merit. Baseball metaphors are commonplace in North America (mostly sex-related in pop culture but not close to exclusively so) even amongst people who don't like baseball, or even know baseball, and to take baseball and make it metaphorically, thematically, and literally the central basis on which your first novel is built is real gutsy, and is a real artistic feat. So, although I have no influence or currency, I'd like to buck the trend and emphasize rather than minimize just how important baseball is to this novel. As one other reviewer on GR mentions, people who don't understand/like baseball will likely relate to some of these characters and enjoy the overall story, but will probably miss out on the beauty of Harbach's baseball writing, and on some of the novel's greatest literary merit.

lmattes's review

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5.0

Loved it. Great character development, sports details and a little twist.

barbie16's review

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2.0

The only thought that seemed to go through my head while reading this book was "First World Problems". Each of the characters really had potential and yet they self-destruct. It was frustrating to watch them throw their opportunities away! I guess there's a lot of "lessons" in this book about life and how everything has consequences, good or bad.

This was a long read but I finished it and give it two stars because Chad Harbach is a great writer. I think he's got serious potential. Even though this story really didn't do anything for me, I'd definitely try more of his future work.

kinseyelise's review

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4.0

This book felt very much in my wheelhouse, a campus novel centered on baseball players, things I love! When the college president started expressing interest in a student though, I started to cringe. That administrator/student dynamic was hard to forgive. I loved Owen's character ("I exhort you!") so much, though, & really the whole team's. I felt so much for Henry as he started to fall apart and for Schwartz as he struggled to figure out what he really wanted out of life. I cared less for the side characters, Pella, the coaches and professors and other staff. Once I accepted that I was going to read through the cringe, I read this quickly; nice short chapters helped with that, and the shifting perspectives, so it was never too long before we got back to something I enjoyed.

marjolein85's review against another edition

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emotional reflective sad medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated

3.5

upstatelibrarygal's review

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4.0

I'm torn between a 3 and 4 star rating. I couldn't stop reading though as I wanted to find out what happened to Henry and Mike so based on "compellingness of characters" I'm going with a 4 star.

plan2read's review

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4.0

The complete evocation of a Midwestern college lifestyle in this book reminded of me of Philip Larkin’s portrayal of an Oxford education in his novel Jill. Their main characters are similar in that they both come to good colleges from less-privileged backwards and have high expectations of what they will achieve when given the opportunity. For Larkin’s character it is academic success; for Henry, it is baseball perfection. In the end they experience disappointments and broken relationships instead. The Art of Fielding does all college students and graduates a favor by discussing the limits of perfection and achievement in a world that pushes us to distinguish ourselves in all ways possible while many of us feel as Schwartz does—“His [world] would always be occluded by the fact that his understanding and his ambition outstripped his talent.” The writing style, however, shows a fair degree of talent by giving us a less florid, more circumspect version of the type of American novel Jonathan Franzen might write but with the added bonus of characters who are actually likeable. And anyone who can turn a baseball game into attention-grabbing entertainment deserves kudos.

ashdreads's review

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4.0

I liked this book, but I would have liked it more if it had a slightly different ending. Going into it I thought it might be too baseball heavy for me, but it was actually pretty engaging and had a bunch of character story arcs that really had nothing to do with the sport.

Great debut from a new author. I look forward to seeing what he comes out with next.


yhtgrace's review

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4.0

The Art of Fielding is about baseball, but also about more than baseball, which is a good thing, because if I had wanted to learn about baseball, I would have gone to a game. The book centers around four main characters: Henry who breathes and lives and dreams baseball, but whose future as a major league ballplayer is threatened when his confidence is shattered by a freak accident; Mike who is Henry's everything and friend, who has the drive but not the talent, and who lives in terrible fear that he will never come anywhere close to his dreams; Guert, whose inappropriate and single-minded obsession with the lovely Owen is slowly tearing his life apart; And Pella, who was brilliant and young and stupid, and who's now run home to rebuild her life.

And well, there's one more character, Owen. Owen is the only major character who did not have a chapter from his point of view. Which is really odd, because he drives the plot of the story-- without him, the characters would not be who they are, the book would simply fall apart. Owen is quirky, fun, and instantly likable. It's difficult to blame Guert for falling in love with him, simply because Owen is, well, transcendent-- young and alive, quietly confident of who he is and what he wants, if gods existed, he would be beloved of said gods. That said, because we never read in Owen's voice, we have no idea what Owen really thinks about his relationship with Guert, except that which is hinted at the very end. (Guert, on the other hand, has pages and pages devoted to his guilty fixation on Owen. I wonder why that was so.)

I really enjoyed Harbach's style of writing. The sheer lyricism reminds me of Chabon. The story reads easily and is hopelessly engrossing even though I (still) don't know anything about baseball (Ok. That's a lie. I now know shortstop is a position.) The descriptions of the games, which could have been boring and awful especially to someone not quite of the sports persuasion, somehow managed to make baseball come alive on the page.

On the down side, as the sole female member of an almost-boys-only cast, Pella was…disappointing, I thought. So much could have been done with her, yet her story centers around her relationships with Mike (complicated fling), Henry (boyfriend), David (husband) and Guert (father). Does the book pass the Bechdel test? I'm not sure, but I don't think so. I did enjoy her pointing out "the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights." (This beautiful turn of phrase being just one of many in the book.) Too bad there were still plenty of nameless females in the story.

On the other hand, the character of Mike Schwartz, whose unrestrained ambitions extend far beyond his failing knees, his mediocre lsats and his empty wallet, rings particularly true for me. It is not for lack of trying that Mike didn't make it to law school on his first try, and that, perhaps, is the worst of it. Mike's total and brutal self-assessment of his failings, his single-minded obsession with not wasting each and every second that passes mark him as a man so driven that it leaves the reader little doubt that he will eventually succeed. However, just as in real life, this does not mean that his insecurities are any less real or painful to experience.

andrew61's review against another edition

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4.0

I really enjoyed this story of baseball and relationships in a Wisconsin university. The plot is based around five principal characters. It begins with Henry skrimshander a teenage boy playing baseball in a small town against a college team. Henry turns out to be a brilliant shortstop fielder and one of the college team Mike Schwartz charms him and his family in allowing him to take a scholarship at the college. When he arrives his roomate is Owen a gay brilliant academic who is also a good baseball player. The other two characters are head of college Guert Affenlight and his daughter Pella. Henry soon captures the attention of the major league teams but an event occurs which impacts on the lives of all five as their futures become intertwined. As in many good American novels this book has the ability to create a family of its characters whose lives the reader becomes deeply immersed in, I rapidly turned the pages anxious to know what happened next. It didn't matter that I had no idea about what or how a baseball game works because there was a tension in the narrative which meant I was hooked. The writer also created a sense of place and I could easily see Henry, and Owen wandering the college in a Wisconsin dominated by the great lakes. I know that many readers may baulk at some of the resolution of the book but sometimes in a book you want to come away feeling that all is right in the world you have immersed yourself in and I was sorry to put the book down and lose the interaction I had enjoyed with the characters. Good escapism and well worth the journey. It is also interesting to wonder why baseball seems to lend itself to good fiction when other sports don't work as well.