What sets a great athlete apart from the rest of us, other than extraordinary aptitude in a set of physical skills (even oddly useless skills like hitting a ball with a stick) is a singular demonic focus on the primacy of a sport. He or she eats, sleeps and breathes it. Behind endless workouts and hours on a scorching dusty infield taking ground balls burns an absolute love for a game and the belief that it absolutely matters. This mattering is heightened to a religious fervor by the mass adoration of fans who pack stadiums in every sport. A faith must have believers after all.
The attributes of a scholar are another thing. The art of letters shares some of athletics’ solitary training ethic--hours of eye-straining reading, pouring over piles of research materials and weighing sources, learning to read ancient Greek and conjugate Latin, the intensive process of vision and revision. Whatever the forms of practice in either field, they are the solitary roots of public success--things nobody sees when they pick up a novel or read an essay, or, for that matter, when they watch a baseball game. Yet, the kinds of people who gravitate to self-reflection, the interpretation of human actions and the probing of great questions are seldom, if ever, the kinds of people who excel at the highest level of sports.
Sport is exciting to watch, it speaks for itself, but nothing is duller than athletes ‘uhmming’ about what they just did with sublime physical grace on the court or field. That blankness may seem purposeful and mysterious from a distance, but up close and personal it produces a yawn. The scholar, the professor and the novelist, on the other hand, have plenty of interesting things to say, things that may even keep us awake at night, but they are not often sleek, telegenic machines, and seldom exhibit their skills before an audience larger than a university classroom. No wild applause follows a brilliant word play, no boos cascade from the lecture hall when they commit an error in logic.
Chad Harbach tries to change the rules of the game in his popular baseball themed novel, The Art of Fielding. The sportsman and the academic may seem like odd bedfellows, but in the world of Westish College all things are possible. The story involves a shortstop fielding genius, Henry Skrimshander, and his complex relationship with Mike Schwartz, the teammate/guru who helps recruit Henry to Westish College, a small, Wisconsin school overlooking Lake Michigan.
Harbach is surely one of those believers in the game, judging by the existential weight he places on baseball and on the broad back of the Westish Harpooner’s team captain, Mike Schwartz:
For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art; an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. 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.
Baseball and literary art are not mutually exclusive things, so long as you have characters like Schwartz—a 23 year-old catcher/philosopher with a crumbling body but an iron will—to invest the world of college ball with literary meaning. Never mind that the wisdom here is just an artistic turn on the well tried cliché of sports as a metaphor for life, where creating beauty replaces the value of, say, showing character under pressure, or dealing gracefully with defeat (also a part of the Human Condition).
To say, as some have, that it is a hybrid of the baseball and the campus novel is to misstate Harbach’s ambition. Whereas Jonathan Franzen sought to present the content of high art in an accessible style in The Corrections (a response to growing criticisms of academic fiction), Harbach has taken the notion of literary accessibility even further. He attempts to create art out of popular entertainment genres, even entertainments more filmic than novelistic--the buddy movie (the so-called ‘Bromance’) and the sports underdog story. The first is usually comic, the other often involving a triumphant against the odds ending.
The most immediate result of this hybrid is implausibility. Harbach gathers it in the making of his literary entertainment the way a velvet jacket attracts lint. As in the above quote in Mike Schwartz’s point of view, we have college ball players philosophizing about the paradox of sports and The Human Condition, or just as easily about Homer and Melville. Owen Dunne, one of the principal characters, reads Kierkegaard in the dugout and once, after a home run, exclaims, “Indeed!” and swats a teammate on the rump with his copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (apparently nothing is safe from the reach of literature here). Schwartz quotes Schiller in a pre-game pep talk too. Herman Melville, forcibly dragged 1000 miles from his coastal haunts, is the unlikely source of the Wisconsin based, Westish Harpooner’s whaling mascot and merchandizing industry.
Some of it seems to be in good fun. But, you feel Harbach wants you to accept the out of place Melvilleana, his error-free prodigy, Henry, Owen Dunne's ability to lay down a perfect bunt at will with no practice, or Mike's preturnaturally aged body, in the spirit of the oddball plots and uncannily gifted post-modern types we saw in Wallace's fiction (an influence on this novel Harbach uncorks every once in a while, like a screwball into the dirt). If this is larger than life post-modernism or Moby Dick style myth, Harbach confuses matters with his quiet, assiduous realism and the two clearly non-mythic romances at the center of the novel. It's not that realism is incompatible with mythmaking, but once Henry makes an error the mythic aura around his genius is shattered, and the majority of the novel that ensues is bound up in the exploration of a realistic psychological decline rather than a mythic fall. Harbach may well be deconstructing the myth he sets up at the beginning.
Harbach's ambivalence works for him when he explores the slippery slope of single-minded dedication to the exclusion of all else. While the golden goose of Henry's talent combined with Mike's motivational expertise does produce results and makes Henry into a legitimate Pro prospect, the goose eggs of perfection and ambition may add up to mere zeros on the scoreboard of life. After all, such dedication, we are reminded, is only in the service of a game that may mean very little, and such savants like Henry are in danger of being little more than human shells off the field.
The improbable Art of War style manual on fielding (Harbach’s nod to the post-modern meta text) and the novel's namesake is a perfect example of where the signals get crossed. Written by Henry’s baseball idol, Aparicio Rodriguez, its numbered entries (like Bible verses) allow us glimpses into a Zen-like world of fielding philosophy. If the entries are intended to be ironic or winking (as these kinds of texts in novels often are), Henry is unaware of it, and his reverent tone, along with the swallow-me-whole post-mythernism we get elsewhere, implores us to read these lines in a Zen rather than satiric spirit:
59. To field a ground ball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension. One moves not against the ball but with it. Bad fielders stab at the ball like an enemy. This is antagonism. The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball and dissipating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense…
213. Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.
We want to laugh, but, if we do, are we laughing at Harbach or with him? On the surface you'd think this is satire on the naivete of Henry, but the internal evidence suggests, at the very least, Harbach is ambivalent. First, the arch and prematurely jaded Owen Dunne owns a copy of The Art of Fielding. He takes it seriously too. Then, there is Aparicio Rodriguez, its author. When he appears in the stands at what should be Henry's record breaking 52nd straight errorless game, he is nothing if not a serious man, certainly no self-inflated object of satire. Finally, Henry owes much of his fielding success to his adherence to the precepts found in Apraricio’s fictional guide. If this represents little more than belief in a form of sporting superstition, Harbach never explores the idea.
More often than not, it is the execution and staging of the novel that feels rigged and amateurish. The blocky artifacts of Harbach's art-making are like so many Calder Stegosauruses dropped on the Westish campus green, or, well, as a statue of Melville gazing lakeward ready made for gloomy contemplation and solitary metaphysical identification. For all of that, there is an air of forlorn wisdom about the book, a determination in the face of looming sadness that may account for sympathetic rather than skeptical readings. It is partly a tribute to Harbach that he inspires trust, so that the novel’s most obvious flaws, if they are mentioned at all, engender further endearments, and partly that the adoring critics, also, are believers in baseball and utterly charmed by the notion of having literature served up with it, like children agog at being offered dessert before dinner.
With all the good will and warm feeling generated by this book, no attention has been paid to the disjunction in style between the early and later parts of the narrative. The first 70 pages are delivered in what is mostly a form of reporting—neat journalistic summaries of the characters lives dominate—interspersed with a few real time scenes. In this, Harbach follows Franzen’s example, a technique that seriously weakened the force of The Corrections. It feels like an introduction Harbach found unable to incorporate into the overall novelistic structure he eventually found.
The first 50 pages cover the nearly three year period from the summer before Henry’s freshman year to the spring of his junior year. It is packed with information, but mostly in that reportorial style. A period of loneliness is recorded when Henry first arrives on campus, wherein he seems sustained by a fascination with Owen Dunne’s romance with a male student. But Henry’s gaze emits a kind of blank fascination, as though he’d been raised by timid wolves and was starved for, yet baffled by, human relationships, and had formed no opinion about gays whatsoever. After that comes the detailed descriptions of Henry’s training regimen and on-field progress. This opens with a crass buddy movie sight gag in which a gym workout behind a closed door parodies the sounds of two men having sex, followed by descriptions of the unsexy, but body centered, rigors of men making each other suffer for athletic rather than erotic satisfaction. Beyond emulation of a workout scene from Wallace's Infinite Jest (that darn screwball again), it’s really an unsubtle way of cuing us in to the potential for homoeroticism in the homosocial world of sports.
The training regimen and interactions are all about transforming Henry into a brute machine, and are too summarized, anyway, to be sensual or erotically charged. Direct discourse is scarce, though when Mike reads his favorite classical philosophers to inspire Henry during workouts the queer notion of a neo-Platonic relationship talks over the earlier assertion of homoerotic possibility: “The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best. Done: there was only one of those…” For Henry, that is Mike. But, whether Henry’s utter dependence on Schwartz is implicitly homoerotic or Platonic, it is oddly devoid of emotion. Henry has little in his heart but the desire to be a great baseball player, and Schwartz’s generous mentorship is motivated by his devotion to Henry’s baseball genius. Thus, when Schwartz is busy with football season, he doesn’t once contact the lonesome Henry during his first three months on campus. Despite their daily telephone calls during the summer they meet and Henry’s kid sister saying they were “like lovebirds”, the presence of a ‘Bromance’ is belied not only by Henry’s swift abandonment once at Westish, but also by the lack of relational content in the first place (not a single one of those daily telephone conversations achieves utterance). It is just Harbach’s way of trying early on to awaken us to homoerotic possibility within a budding male friendship, like somebody rattling pots around in a kitchen to give the impression they are busy cooking. But against the anesthetizing effects of those journalistic summaries, the effort is flaccid and unconvincing.
As Adam Mars-Jones has noted, The Art of Fielding has affinities with William Maxwell’s 1945 novel, The Folded Leaf. That book describes a similarly unequal friendship between two college men, albeit at a time when the need to define a male friendship was still on the horizon. Thus Maxwell can be spontaneous--show Lymie admiring Spud’s beautiful physique, and present Spud’s physical dominance, even in the quasi tender act of saving Lymie from drowning. Paradoxically, in the freedom of an era of non-identification, the novel contains the erotic charge of its own uninhibited suggestion. Its innocence is infused with the tension of possibility.
The contemporary ‘Bromance' of the movies and also what we see in The Art of Fielding needs to make distinctions between the homosocial, the homoerotic and the homosexual. It derives its tension from the anxiety of awareness. But, what is missing from Harbach’s book is both the erotic charge of the uninhibited era of non-identification and the anxiety of the self-conscious era of identification. There are no awkward hugs or moments of emotional connection between Mike and Henry that would give them pause about the boundaries of their friendship. They are so clear about its meaning, all other possibilities are excluded. Thus, Harbach begins by showing us the trappings of the present day anxiety of awareness, then substitutes it with something that feels like the pre-awareness world of Maxwell, but which, we’ll discover later, is actually modern awareness stripped of the consequences and inherent anxieties imposed by the gay stigma.
The summarized introductory section climaxes with Henry’s first errant throw, after which his fortunes as a top Major League prospect begin to tumble. This should be the novel’s turning point or apex, but structurally it comes too soon in a novel of this size, and emotionally, with the summary style that has gone before, it brings little weight to bear. Harbach has to have the throw seriously injure Owen Dunne to bring us out of our metaphoric seats and magnify the blip on Henry’s psychic radar screen, but this accident also segues into the novel proper.
It is the real beginning point. Over the next 30 to 40 pages, the arrival of Pella Affenlight (the college president’s daughter) and the emergence of two love stories—between Pella and Mike Schwartz, and the secreted May-September romance between Owen Dunne and President Guert Affenlight—form a bridge between the baseball heavy beginning and the latter stages when the game takes precedence again in the form of the sports underdog genre. The novel begins to find its sea legs and relaxes into its free, generously swelling alternations. The psychic distance decreases and the scenes become more intimate and fully-realized, wherein the relationships, and the anxieties about their authenticity, have room to expand.
Harbach’s incorporation of a gay relationship into the fabric of his novel is set up to be a significant thing—in its centrality to the plot and in the way it connects the main characters, as counterpoint to Henry and Mike’s male friendship (via the unsubtle but flaccid homoerotic suggestion), and as it relates to the sport of baseball.
It begins with Owen Dunne, who announces on Henry’s first day, “I’ll be your gay, mulatto roommate.” The line is often quoted warily by reviewers, but none seem to point out the real problem with it: the precise and politically correct Owen would use the word biracial instead of mulatto (make his joke about the politically correct term du jour, rather than about an obsolete one) and correct any others who failed to do the same. The false note is indicative of Owen’s character, the only one of the five principals who is not presented in his own point of view. It’s a stylistic break that betrays a lack of confidence in the character—a sort of separate but unequal status with larger implications.
Owen’s eventual relationship with President Affenlight, which comes to light the day Henry’s errant throw puts Owen in the hospital, is difficult to fathom in many ways. For starters, Affenlight is a man who has been presumed heterosexual all his life, but unlike most closeted men who have same sex feelings but don’t act on them, Affenlight has never had an inkling of attraction to men until Owen. When Affenlight goes to Owen’s dorm room to get his eye glasses, he snoops at his laptop and see’s a pornographic image of a man:
Maybe he’d been thinking of Owen as a creature of the mind, a pure spirit to be mixed with his own, but that wasn’t right, was it? Because Owen had a body too, and a need for bodies—and when it came to that, how did Affenlight feel about Owen’s body? Did he want Owen in a sexual way?...He thought he did, had fantasized about it, sort of, but compared to the sharp lines of that photograph his fantasies were all caresses and quiet confidences, sweetness and abstraction.
It is the nature of the taboo on same sex love that makes a man initially question how far his emotions and desires will take him in a physical direction with another man. Harbach has it right in this and in the gradual way Affenlight becomes comfortable in a sexual relationship with Owen. The attempt to create a blank homoerotic slate for Affenlight, though, is pushed too far in another way. His scholarship would make him wise to sexual references in Moby Dick, as when the landlord tells Ishmael “…you’ll be done brown if that ere harpooner hears you a slanderin’ his head.” His book, The Sperm Squeezers, on the subject of the homosocial and homoerotic in 19th century male friendships, is a sexual double entendre, and a rather blatant one at that. Yet, in a novel of psychological realism, where moment to moment alterations in perception and self-awareness abound, Affenlight never contemplates his chosen field of study as a clue to his late homosexual blossoming. Moreover, it undermines the notion that Affenlight hasn't thought about men sexually before. Then, after so much anxiety about whether he wanted sex with Owen or not, the relationship is physically consummated without comment on how it made Affenlight feel, or how it differed from sex with a woman. Owen’s kisses are described as chaste and womanly. Affenlight even finds the sensation of the kiss is not really different from a woman’s. Yet, once they “make love”, those two words are the sum of the experience and of Affenlight’s coming to terms with Owen’s maleness. While the novel avoids explicit sex universally, matter of fact scenes of Pella and Mike cuddling post coitus contrast with the largely summarized vignettes of Owen and Affenlight, and the physical separation depicted in their after sex ritual of smoking and drinking tea from their usual mugs. Despite its consummation, the relationship remains a bubble of ‘sweet caresses and abstractions’.
It will no doubt be praised that Harbach denies any neat sexual labeling for Affenlight, (one sees this, one of many political doffs of the cap in the book, as a nod to the new sexual complexity, the apparently progressive post-gay notion that refusing to identify one’s orientation is the latest in sexual liberation chic, rather than just a new maneuver around the gay stigma that fails to confront or remove it, and reinforces the terms of the closet), but then by not allowing us access to how Affenlight felt about the fullness of his gay experience with Owen, and how it may have destabilized his lifelong heterosexuality, this stance is easier to maintain. The choice of the most anomalous--almost theoretical--route for Affenlight’s same sex attraction (it’s unprecedented intense arrival at age 60) may have been part of that political posture in the first place, a maneuver sympathetic with his overall strategy to remove the gay stigma without contest, as we’ll see more strikingly in the case of Owen Dunne.
It suits Harbach’s dramatic purposes better to end the relationship and so he doesn’t bother filling out what it may have meant. For, while it is juxtaposed with Mike and Pella’s, as if in a place of equality, it is never on equal footing. This is because of the way its content is censored by summary, underexplored, and, in the practical terms of the narrative, because it is a secret. Affenlight is the college president and Owen is a student after all, and when the relationship is eventually discovered, Affenlight is forced to resign the college presidency. Yet, once freed of the institution, he would also be free to pursue Owen, who has won a coveted academic prize and is set to spend a year in Tokyo. Affenlight’s swift abandonment of the relationship in the face of outside pressure is surprising based on his previous professions of love. Of course, Affenlight’s sudden death is the ultimate obstacle. He never has to break it off with Owen, and Owen never has to learn that he’d been dumped and why (the last in a string of human indignities Owen is conscientiously spared). It is a curious choice by Harbach of a gay relationship that is at once doomed by an ethical dilemma unrelated to orientation itself, yet kept in the familiar territory of the closet without the gay stigma being the primary force behind its secrecy. Even without recourse to the negative assumptions of the past (the absence of shame), the familiar conundrum of secrecy and failure for a gay relationship leaves you wondering about the efficacy of Harbach’s maneuver around this social stigma. Unless, the real problem is how to abort the relationship without appearing unprogressive.
If the relationship has a stifled air because it has been secreted, it feels hollow, and little grieved in its ending, because Harbach shows us nothing in Owen worthy of arousing a self-destructive, Aschenbachian passion in a 60 year-old with no previous desire for men. Owen--a prim, bespectacled, smarty pants--lacks the universal beauty and charm to achieve that kind of pan-seduction. He’s aloof and self-centered too. Even for a gay man, Owen would be an acquired taste.
Owen as a “creature of the mind” leaves something to be desired as well. After his environmental group meets with Affenlight (the genesis of the relationship), Owen sends this email to the president:
Thank you very kindly for meeting with us today. I found it edifying but more cacophonous than might have been maximally productive. I don’t wish to impose on your busy schedule, but perhaps we could schedule a smaller meeting to determine which initiatives might be fiscally possible?
At once presumptuously informal (after a single meeting), yet stilted and pretentious in tone, Owen comes across as somebody’s whose idea of sophistication is using as many high school vocabulary words as possible. If Owen possesses a remarkable mind, Harbach never lets us into his thoughts to find out. He is cliché enough to wear a rainbow pin, yet snobbishly rails at Whitman’s poetry as too gay when Affenlight comes to read at his hospital bedside. The attitude is so jaded, and unjust, in someone that young, you don’t want to love him but slap him.
As there is explicit and implicit reference to Death in Venice in the novel, it is worth comparing points of reference, in particular Aschenbach’s obsession with the Polish boy, Tadzio, versus Affenlight’s with Owen. Significant age difference in successful gay relationships is common enough that an automatic reference to Death in Venice is convenient, if not precipitous, without deeper resonances to justify it. Of interest is Aschenbach’s pretext of the Platonic ideal, coupled with a failure to engage Tadzio in the necessary discourse. It betrays it as an illusion in favor of a purely erotic obsession. More to the point is the extent of Aschenbach’s obsession, and how the element of decay—the diseased atmosphere of Venice and Aschenbach’s Dionysian abandonment of discipline and reason—infuses Mann’s novella with a nightmarish anxiety (its power to disturb us) and leads to Aschenbach’s death.
Affenlight is no Aschenbach. Long past the point of scholarly dedication, he’s a literature professor drafted to be a college president and hasn’t produced a volume since The Sperm Squeezers. As is true of Mike and Henry’s relationship, Affenlight and Owen’s has neither the tension of possibility (such as we see behind Aschenbach’s illusion of a Platonic ideal; or Lymie’s admiration of Spud’s physique in The Folded Leaf), nor the exhilaration of a transgressive act (no wild Bacchian self-immolation, and no artistic discipline abandoned). It is marked by dull, ritual inevitability. Owen is an adult, the relationship is finally consummated, and it is all toothless and tame--stripped of anything that feels like scandal. There are chaste kisses, cups of tea and poetry. On that matter of scandal, Affenlight suffers more consternation about the wrong choice of poetry to read to Owen than the professional ethics of pursuing him in the first place. Aschenbach, at least, struggles for a time to return to his disciplined life before succumbing to obsession. Here there is no struggle and no serious tension against which an obsession would meet resistance. Affenlight’s chief doubt is over whether Owen would really want his “great for sixty, okay for forty, but unthinkable for twenty body”, but even this insecurity seems too easily resolved and is not allowed to play out where it would most likely become thorny: in the bedroom, where even Mike and Pella fight after Mike is unable to sexually perform.
Pella, upon learning of her father’s affair with Owen, disapproves of the relationship on the grounds that it was yet another instance of a man going after what was unformed (ironic, as it relates to an Aschenbachian resonance, given that the process of the Platonic ideal is dedicated to the formation of the younger man). So much for the great classical traditions. But if Harbach means this as a study in contrast or a challenge to Mann’s sexual mythology, why hasn’t he pressed harder on the issues of age or the ethics of the relationship, rather than adopting the conventions of Mann’s narrative, like a verdict, when they are only superficially germane to Affenlight and Owen, and not much use in understanding contemporary gay relationships? The reference to Death in Venice, then, feels as reflexive and clichéd as continued references to Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom in gay themed literature and film (of which Death in Venice is also a source). It’s been done to death. In Venice and everywhere else.
Once references are made explicit, however, they have a way of reverberating in a text, becoming fair game in the novel at large. So, if you look beyond age difference and sexual orientation to analogies of experience, suddenly Henry and Mike appear as the true heirs of Aschenbach and Tadzio. Henry because he alone exemplifies the ideal of perfection that Aschenbach aspired to, and he, like Aschenbach, abandons his discipline completely in quitting the team and turning his lost on field control into an inversion of Dionysian decadence through self-starvation: anorexia. Yet, even as he begins wasting away we have this description of him through Pellas’s eyes: “Apart from the beard his body was like a Platonic ideal of a body, a smooth white marble statue, though already a little less muscular then she remembered. Like a statue, he didn’t smell like much of anything.” It’s an indication that Henry is the end product, carved in cold perfection no less, of a process something akin to a Platonic ideal (a bloodless kind of Tadzio), with Mike playing the role Aschenbach falsely imagines for himself. As for Mike, he self-medicates with pills and booze, neglects his Greek and Latin studies and fails to gain entrance to law school because of his devotion to Henry’s baseball greatness (a non-erotic kind of Aschenbach), only Mike does not abandon discipline for Dionysian chaos, he substitutes one discipline for another. Most compelling in this referential scramble is Henry’s simultaneous potential in either role as Aschenbach or Tadzio. Jumbled as it is, it is the most interesting and seemingly organic turn in Harbach’s intent, as if the characters had secretly rebelled against his too neat formulations of literary reference.
With Mike and Henry being truer heirs to Aschenbach/Tadzio than Affenlight/Owen, yet being strongly associated with Moby Dick, (Mike with Ahab and Henry perhaps with Ishmael, but also the solitary figure of Melville himself), the metaphoric alignment of explicit references with the more organic interior ones is inelegant, and simply overmatched: as when an obsession with winning at baseball goes up against Ahabian madness. Mike may jack teammates up against lockers when they’re not as fixated on the prize as he is, and say he feels like he will die if they don’t win the championship game, but we know he’s not a madman and will not die. His obsession is not tragic like Ahab’s, win or lose. Games, like baseball, may serve as metaphors for life, but they are not actual living and sometimes they are only a distraction, an escape, from life.
For Henry and Mike, Harbach’s true concern is about the pitfalls of perfectionism, the limits of ambition and the modern existential paralysis of Eliot’s Prufrock (Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I dare?), also made reference to in the novel. These are not the concerns of Melville, the gloomy metaphysician of Moby Dick. Indeed, The Book, as Affenlight refers to Moby Dick, is the least resonant of the major references here, and the weakest in its metaphoric moorings to The Art of Fielding because there’s no organic relationship between the two. Harbach implausibly establishes one but fails to make a convincing case for having done so. Moby Dick is there for the heroic elevation of men at their sport, the kind that appeals precisely to mainstream tastes and expectations (the roar of the crowd). Little wonder that Harbach mentions, but fails to develop a parallel (another referential scramble?) between Owen and Affenlight that was relevant to Moby Dick: the interracial attraction between Ishmael and Queequeg. It highlights how the post-modern novels that clearly influenced Harbach (Infinite Jest reworking The Brothers Karamozov and Gravity’s Rainbow containing a search for its own ‘white whale’) attempt to anoint themselves as successors to such works by planting references, superficial plot and structural elements into their texts. More often than not they feel like objects hidden for a treasure hunt, because the resonance exists only on a formal level. These novels do not deeply imbibe of the spirit of their literary antecedents.
Affenlight is too committed to his Mannian frame to shore up the references to Moby Dick, and he dies like Aschenbach to prove it. It’s an empty seeming expiation, but it heightens emotions in the closing pages, and provides dramatic contrast (if predictably) to the celebration of the Harpooner’s improbable National Championship win. It’s as if Affenlight’s death is really expiation for the sentimental, against-all-odds triumph Harbach indulges us. Schwartz’s private elegy for Affenlight is of a higher order. Forlorn and resigned to how little Affenlight would be remembered, it is a poignant and sobering reminder of the paltriness of all our ambitions and what they will likely come to in this life--a passage worth more than those devoted to Affenlight obsessing over Owen Dunne. All the same, it’s a convenient death for tying up one of the major plot threads without fighting out or struggling with the questions and dilemmas the relationship with Owen had raised. Namely, what was its source and substance? How does age difference work in same sex relationships? How does Affenlight’s feeling that Owen had all the control in the relationship square with the standard of institutional ethics that forbade it? Did being with Owen change how Affenlight identified himself? How does the homoerotic literature of the past influence our evolving ideas on sexual identity, and how does contemporary thought inform our readings of that literature? Given the scope of what Harbach sets in motion (in terms of gay identity and same sex love), and with his reference to the iconic Death in Venice, these questions should have been fair game for a book of this length. Of course, it would take a different kind of novel to grapple with questions that are merely or barely raised here, one less invested in comforting and stabilizing outcomes.
This tendency to seek literary comforts is relevant to Owen’s experience as an openly gay player on the Harpooners as well. One can see Harbach was being inclusive, making room not only for a gay player, but a bookish, unmacho one as well. It is the book’s big political statement. But he wants it without making anyone uneasy. For, while it is one thing to introduce such a player into the mix of a college baseball team, especially a team under increasing media scrutiny and pressure to win, it is another thing to sidestep the consequences for Owen in a sport’s culture so homophobic there isn’t a single out gay Major League Baseball player. This is a culture that begins well before high school, and anybody who wants to play or dreams of being drafted by a Major League team keeps quiet. In the gay mecca of Provincetown, Massachusetts, the high school sports teams were (as recently as the late 1990’s maybe yet still are) taunted and harassed with anti-gay slurs at away games up and down Cape Cod, not because they had gay players on their teams, but simply because of the large gay population in the town. That culture in sports remains virulent. Thus, in the real world, as an out gay man, Owen would understand the culture of sport and decide whether he loved baseball enough to either not be out, or to endure the backlash of being out. Owen doesn’t care about baseball, but Harbach wants Owen on the team and sweeps all of these harsh realities aside to make reading room for him on the bench.
In a typically presumptuous, improbable way (not having even made the team yet), Owen asks Coach Cox, “I trust you don’t object to having a gay man on your team?” The coach’s answer is equally improbable: “The only thing I object to…is Schwartz playing football. It’s bad for his knees.”
Once on the team, Owen disregards the coach’s order that he not read in the dugout. Even after he is beaned within an inch of his life by Henry’s throw, he arrogantly resumes the practice. While Coach Cox may not be a disciplinarian, I can’t imagine any college coach who would put up with such insubordination, from a bench warmer no less. It would simply cause resentment and foster discipline problems on the team, the way indeed tensions arise when Coach Cox continues to play Henry when he’s incapable of fielding his position—and he’s the star of the team. If Owen’s attitude doesn’t bother Coach Cox, it should surely rile up the hyper-competitive Mike Schwartz, the team’s de facto coach. But it doesn’t ruffle a feather. So Owen not only is dismissive of the coach, aloof from the other players, pays no attention to the games, but also seems unconcerned about winning and losing. Even if gayness wasn’t an issue, he’d be the most despised player on the team. Yet, through all of this, Owen draws no resentment or ire from his teammates, is not the target of harassment or homophobic remarks, or even heckled by fans. The players show unaccountable affection for him, right down to his cuddly nickname: Buddha.
Owen’s aura of separateness is so heightened and his coddling so paternal, however, it feels like unwitting patronization on Harbach’s part, and the near conspiracy of acceptance (the magical removal of gay stigma) results in the very marginalization he seeks to avoid. Owen is still not one of the guys.
The only recorded offense Owen encounters comes very late in the novel and is not directed at him. A young player on the team uses the word ‘gay’ in a derogatory way, but Owen only has to clear his throat to nip that bit of homophobia in the bud. Some might argue that this speaks to the power of being out. Except in the real culture of sports being out is monumentally rare. In the decades since Stonewall, a battle over gay visibility and equality has been waged in the streets, in the halls of Congress, in the courts and even in the military, but with the first active player in any of the four major pro sports coming out in 2013, the conversation in the big money world of private sports has just begun and the battle is still on the horizon. Harbach tells us what side he’s on, but he just isn’t up to the literary fight he picked.
Ideology is cheap and it is everywhere. Political novels, though, are the most difficult to write, because they too easily succumb to sensationalism, topicality, melodrama and polemics. You feel Harbach is reluctant to spoil the meditative mood of his book for the hurly burly of political conflict. Yet, it seems an insufficient response to project a gay positive reality in a sporting culture where one does not exist, nor is it truthful, not just yet, to assert a transformative outcome, the kind we see in Owen’s case, when the hard work of testing ideas in the fictional drama, and the confrontation between existing cultural forces, has been evaded. Owen’s acceptance is just assumed; it is never fought for and the issues at stake in the cultural arena are not presented, as if they were already settled. That Harbach offers this comforting vision, one he knows to be false, is sinfully sentimental.
This failure, enabled by Harbach’s uncritical allowance of the implausible into his novel, is the result of his political maneuver around gay stigma. Harbach lets an ideological acceptance (a desired world) stand in as substitute for the disruptive hostility gays face in sports. In doing so, he avoids the difficult work of imagining what that battle would look like in a work of fiction, appears progressive by portraying acceptance, and finally, most insidiously, makes an American audience feel progressive too and self-congratulatory about a fantasy of liberality that is careful not to press upon sore points and trigger biases. A winning strategy! “Indeed!” as Owen Dunne would say and whack the author on the rump with his Omar Khayyam.
Imagine if the players on the team we’d come to like, admire and root for turned out to be homophobes and closet bigots. That would be to hold up a mirror. Harbach’s radiant paean to the national pastime, bathed in the soft glow of cherished values—teamwork, the will to win, playing through pain and personal redemption—would have lost its shine, might have appeared less glorious, under a less flattering and harsher light.
If the novel entire is a mythos of the way we wish things were, and the oddities and implausibilities are part of its charmed literary world, why then is there no room for Affenlight's and Owen's less than scandalous love affair? We are led to assume and see with our own eyes it is not an abuse of power, but constitutes mutual love. Why should anything as rude as reality usher such a love into the world of this novel with anything less than open arms? Again and again, Harbach alternates mythic oddities and 'best of all worlds' scenarios with the hindrances of every day reality when it suits, avoiding those things that are difficult and unpopular, and giving us only realities that match our expectations.
Having avoided the most obvious political conflict in his novel, Harbach gives numerous nods and shout outs to other political and social issues. There is Owen’s environmentalism; and workplace exploitation gets a mention, when Pella tears up over a compliment from her boss, Chef Spirodocus, and then reacts against her sentimentality when she thinks about exploited workers. Most of us would chide ourselves for being sentimental about a low-paying, sweaty, entry level job, but then most of us who work for a living wouldn’t tear up to begin with because we know firsthand about being exploited. So it feels forced and preachy. The two silly locker room disputes we overhear are another thing. In one, Schwartz and Owen are shouting back and forth, “Israel!”, “Palestine.” “Israel!” “Palestine!” Schwartz is so vehement he’s growling. It absurdly recalls Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck sputtering “Duck season!”, “Rabbit season!” until Elmer Fudd’s shotgun puts an end to it. There is no discussion or argument either way. Another locker room dispute, about who represents authenticity in the culture, occurs with nothing but contradicting assertions expressed before the faux argument is interrupted. This recalls a comic routine as well—the Monty Python sketch where a man pays for an argument and is dissatisfied because he is merely being contradicted, in fact being contradicted about whether or not he’s having an argument. But, Harbach is (at least half) serious. He seems to have a mental checklist of the important issues in the world he could be writing about and wants his friends on the left to know he hasn’t forgotten his political sensibilities just because he’s writing about baseball. As Chef Spirodocus says to Pella when he offers to mentor her in the art of cooking, “…I’m not some hack, after all.”
The question of authenticity in one’s lifework and in relationships is surely one of Harbach’s chief anxieties. It comes up again, significantly, in relation to Melville, adopted by Westish after a then young Affenlight discovered a Melville manuscript on campus dating from the author’s (fictional) visit there in the 1880’s:
Affenlight tended to be heartened by his hero’s academic legacy at Westish and to despair over the ways he’d been turned into commercial kitsch, but he wasn’t so naïve as to think you could necessarily have the former without the latter. The bookstore did a brisk business in that kitsch; they shipped it all over the world.
Indeed! It’s hard not to imagine Harbach including his own sprawling piece of Melvilleana in that meditation, complete with faux manuscript, Melville statue, appropriate references and a kitschy down-to-their-last-strike baseball triumph that has little organic resonance with The Book.
Melville’s own first novel, Typee, was the most popular of his writing career, and here is Harbach with an extremely popular first novel of his own. Five years hence, the same year Melville published Moby Dick, he wrote these now famous words in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne:
The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, -- that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar…What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, -- it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.
It’s something every literary artist faces. Dollars damn us all, and writers from Shakespeare, throwing low comedy into his high tragedies for The Groundlings, to Graham Greene, keeping his entertainments separate from his serious novels, have grappled with economic and artistic survival. The final hash of The Art of Fielding is a case of Harbach not wanting to “altogether, write the other way”. The adoring critics are guilty of the botch, having been thus far too busy worshipping at the altar of baseball, academic nostalgia and liberal fantasies untried in the fires of experience to take a harder look at what this novel sacrifices for the roar of the crowd.