At first glance, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is most definitely a book for American teenage boys. Certainly, when it was recommended to me by my younger brother, who happens to be a teenage boy looking to study in America, I was hardly surprised. I was even less surprised when I found out that the book was about sport (baseball, to be more precise).
But then my brother said something that made me double take; ‘I'm enjoying it, but I've stopped reading it. I know what’s going to happen, and I don’t want it to happen.’ Now I had to investigate for myself. I began to read, meeting Henry Skrimshander, a naturally talented shortstop, who is invited to Westish College, Wisconsin, to play college baseball. The novel began to remind me of Catcher in the Rye, or perhaps The Great Gatsby - slightly lost male protagonists discovering themselves in a new-found freedom. Henry forms friendships with his baseball mentor, Mike Schwartz, and his room-mate, Owen Dunne, and I settled in expecting a novel full of boyish banter and sport references and terms that I would have to puzzle my way through - essentially, a coming-of-age story for Henry Skrimshander. And whilst that was partially what The Art of Fielding was, it became so much more than that, thanks to Harbach’s ability to effortlessly introduce new characters, building a plot that is unpredictable and beautifully human.
That is why I'm hesitant to name Henry as the main character; although the book begins and ends with him, and follows his rise, the pressure on his baseball career, and his sudden fall after an accidental bad throw, he wasn't always who I cared most about whilst reading. We’re presented with a group of five major characters: Henry, Mike and Owen, accompanied by Guert and Pella Affenlight, the president of Westish College and his daughter. Perhaps it’s the hopeless romantic in me, or perhaps it was because I already knew part of Henry’s story from talking with other readers, but I found myself waiting for chapters about Guert and Owen’s relationship, or Pella and Mike’s, and enduring the descriptions of each baseball game. The very natural way we’re introduced to each major character is both the beauty of, and the problem with, The Art of Fielding; sometimes it was difficult to know who was important and who was simply periphery. On the other hand, it made my reading very personal and very different to my brother’s, and in that lies Harbach’s success: the characters aren't caricatures, stereotypes or symbols. They are, without being too sentimental, a group of friends to the reader, real and flawed, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, but never just one thing.
However, sometimes it is difficult to know whether The Art of Fielding was truly the book that Harbach set out to write. It feels as though the Affenlights’ stories took over, that their relationship with one another and with their respective partners became more important than Henry’s struggle with ‘Steve Blass disease’ (a term in baseball for when a fielder loses the ability to throw a ball). He becomes the glue holding story lines together, an initial spark for something greater than himself. Perhaps that is exactly what The Art of Fielding is about: reactions, expectations and something bigger than ourselves. A college was the perfect setting for this; the characters go in with expectations of themselves and others in the college, are forced to react when it isn’t quite what they expected, and eventually we realise that whilst they are changing the college, it is a system that existed before their arrival, and that will carry on without them.
In the same way, the novel carries on without us; there are large gaps in narrative which we have to fill in gradually, and the ending, without wanting to give too much away, has very little finality to it. This only adds to the humanity of the novel; life goes on when we’re away. Our relationships are most definitely with the characters; the narrator barely intrudes on the novel. The only real times we feel Harbach’s presence are when Henry refers to the book with the book, also called ‘The Art of Fielding’. An interview with Harbach revealed that this meta-novel was not originally a significant aspect of his plot, but early readers encouraged Harbach to add more, perhaps trying to decipher some kind of clear meaning.
So have I truly uncovered the meaning of The Art of Fielding? I'm not sure. Other reviews have claimed it is about perfection, about Owen, about ‘Great American Novels’, about Mike…perhaps genuinely about sport? For my little brother, I think it was at least partially about illness; having been recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, he found it difficult to read on as he saw Henry becoming ill. My own conclusions seemed to relate to my place in life now, focussing on the role of colleges and universities. Of course, this is true of any novel; each reader comes away with a slightly different impression, and that’s the beauty of reading. It is utterly personal, but also makes you part of a community. With other novels, however, there seem to be themes which stand out; To Kill a Mockingbird is about race and growing up, The Great Gatsby is about society and modernity, Mrs Dalloway is about war and time and women. The Art of Fielding seems to transcend that, and be simply about people. Honestly, openly and unpretentiously, it follows the characters saying ‘This is what they’re doing. This is what they’re thinking. No-one is really right or wrong.’
One word comes up again and again when critics talk about The Art of Fielding: charming. And this is, perhaps, why I can’t rave about it in the way I do about other novels with stronger messages, and why I'm not desperate to read it again. Harbach’s novel is supremely easy-going. It does not push its readers to their limits, or force us to think one way or the other. I never had my breath taken away by a single phrase or moment. It is certainly a charming book, full of charming characters, but I'm not sure we can call it a ‘Great American Novel’ until we know what it’s trying to say, and I'm not sure Harbach wants his novel to be put so definitely into a single category, even such a prestigious one. I'm not sure we ever will know; but I’d be happy to carry on discussing this novel for hours with anyone willing to talk with me, and I'm sure that won’t be just American teenage boys.