Thursday, November 17, 2011

Book Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbough

A few weeks ago I was preparing for a trip to Minneapolis which would involve a 6 hour bus ride each way.  I love long bus rides because it's a chance to sit and read uninterrupted , but recently my finger has been far from the pulse of the literary world and I had no idea what to take with me.  I asked a friend if she had any books to recommend, and she let me borrow "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach.  It appealed to me for three reasons:
1) Harbach has been compared to Michael Chabon, my favorite author
2) Harbach's from Wisconsin and the story is set there
3) It's a book about baseball.
Enough to convince me.  So I read it over the course of a few days and loved it and I'm hear to tell you why.  All of this occured before I had a blog, before I made the decision to start composing essays about my opinions of books I read.  I didn't take any notes while reading, didn't think about what I would say, and it's been almost two weeks since I finished it.  So bear that in mind.

As I mentioned, the book is about baseball, but it's not actually about fielding, as the name would imply.  It is a fictional account of a college baseball team at the imaginary Westish College in imaginary Westish, WI.  I can hear you groaning as you read this, but don't worry.  This book's not about the rise and fall of a team, following their tribulations through a championship season that hinges on a single climactic game.  It's about five people who are connected through the team, and it focuses on the interweavings of their lives.

The book has no clear protagonist, but it doesn't make a large statement of that fact or treat it like a gimmick.  You start following one character, thinking it will be his tale, until another is introduced and suddenly he is the focused.  The story bounces around seamlessly from person to person until you reach the end and realize you wouldn't be able to name one person as the main character.  This is a structure that's been around for a long time, Harbach didn't invent it, but his use of it is masterly.  The story is written in third person, but the narrator seems to change depending on who is the center of attention.  Maybe not change so much as change its focus.  Details that are important to the narrator when talking about the chancellor's daughter - such as how a dormroom is decorated and what people - aren't as important as during the chancellor's adventures - when suddenly status and intelligence are what defines a person.  It's a very subtle distinction that takes you much deeper into the character's lives much quicker.

I realize I jumped right ahead to describing the conceptual and structural strengths of the story without giving a proper plot synopsis.  That was because the plot is unimportant.  There is no defined conflict that needs to be resolved by the end.  This is one of those postmodern novels that focuses on interactions between characters and the minuate of life as years go by.  If you like that sort of book, you will like this, if not, you won't.  And you don't have to be a fan of baseball to dig it, though basic knowledge is a prerequisite.

I'm not the most keen literary mind, so a lot of my response to a book is on the emotional level.  Chances are if I can relate to the plight of the characters I'll be drawn in.  This book spoke to me because a lot of the themes resonated.  One major focus of the book is how you react when you and your friends work hard towards a common goal, and then they become successful when you don't.  In the book it takes the form of teammates having to congratulate each other for their continued success while they themselves fail.  As a recent college graduate who hasn't found the success he wished or the success his friends has, this spoke to me.  It was good to read about a character living with the same pains and know that at least I'm not making the rash decisions he is.  This book spoke to me because I am going through exactly what one character did, but I don't think that means it is exclusively a book that works for me.  The characters go through such an array of experiences and problems that I feel someone at any point in life will find something in here.

Perhaps that's the strength of "The Art of Fielding."  Harbach speaks about life so accurately and creates situations so human that we all see ourselves in them.  I do not recommend this book for anyone seeking escapist literature.  You will be confronted with the problems that happen in every day life, and it doesn't all wind up as neat and happy as we would like in our books, but the ride is beautiful and hopefully you can learn from it.

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