The Melvillean Context of The Art of Fielding

March 11, 2012 § 3 Comments

Just finished: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.

Reading next: Plays, Poems, and Prose, by J. M. Synge.

With all due modesty, if I had not heard about and purchased a copy of The Art of Fielding, the American publishing industry may as well have thrown up its hands and stopped trying.  This is a novel by a cofounder of the Franzen-approved journal n+1, with the following keywords appearing in just about every review, blurb, or synopsis: Melvillebaseballcollege, Wisconsin.  Seriously: if I didn’t buy this, literary marketers would really have needed to go back to the drawing board.

The Melvillean context is both overt and covert, operating as plot element, allusion, and deep thematic dialogue.  Melville’s work is the atmosphere of the book, the water in which its characters swim.  The book is set at the small Wisconsin liberal-arts school Westish College.  A stir is caused there in the 1960s when an undergraduate named Guert Affenlight discovers a manuscript of a (fictional) lost speech by Herman Melville given on his (fictional) second trip to the Great Lakes in 1880.  The commotion provokes the administration to change the school’s mascot from the Sugar Maples to the Harpooners, and to erect a statue of Melville looking out at Lake Michigan.  Further, Affenlight is inspired by the discovery to devote his life to literary study, and has returned to present-day Westish as its president.  He published an acclaimed work on the homosexual/homosocial content of Moby-Dick entitled The Sperm-Squeezers.  Plus, the college bar is named Bartleby’s.

I appreciate that Harbach resisted the inevitable urge to write another retelling of Moby-Dick, or to make his characters one-to-one reincarnations of the principles of that book, or to simply “ruminate” on the work as so many books have already done.  Instead there are a number of interesting resonances between the books, echoes of themes and scenes from the great book, with virtually every character finding his or her life echoing something of the experience of Ahab’s crew.  Duads reminiscent of the great relationships that form the core of Moby-Dick are central to The Art of Fielding: Ishmael-Queequeg (Skrimshander-Owen), Ishmael-Ahab (Skrimshander-Schwartz, Pella-David), Starbuck-Ahab (Skrimshander-Schwartz, later), Ahab-Pip (Affenlight-Owen), Ahab-Fedallah (Cox-Schwartz, Schwartz-the Harpooners), Melville-Hawthorne (Affenlight-Owen, Pella-Schwartz).

What there is not — or not much of, anyway — is a white whale.  If there is a white whale, each character has their own, but honestly, I don’t think any of these characters would describe themselves as obsessed with one particular thing, one trauma or nemesis holding them back.  This is an interesting reading of Moby-Dick, implying that the relationship between Ahab and the whale was never the most important part of the book, and not most importantly about revenge.  It is, instead, about Ahab’s unhealthy relationship to his past and inability to move into the future, as most of these characters struggle with this same problem.

Problems of depression, monomania, desire, homelessness, and autonomy crop up for nearly every character.  There’s Skrimshander’s preternatural harpooner’s grace turned crippling self-consciousness turned Pip-like shell-shock and isolation.  Schwartz’s orphanhood, deep love (and buried desire to never leave) of his adopted Westish home, obsessive quest to win a national championship, and the broken-down legs, destined to leave him with virtual pegs, that stem from that quest.  Pella’s complicated Ishmaelism, her combination of depression, desire to lose herself in work, love of personal freedom born of former self-imposed oppression, and impulse to flee a home.  Owen’s expansive calm, his ostensible misfit/Other nature (a mixed-race homosexual) broadening into Buddha-like calm and detachment mixed with deep compassion.  Affenlight’s irresistible and unexpected desire, and his questioning of his lifelong, self-imposed batchelor nature.

(A lengthy aside, if I may: I find the Affenlight-Owen relationship troubling, in a way that, say, the Ishmael-Queequeg relationship never is, or would be, were its homosexuality made explicit.  The affair is one of my big gripes with the book, especially in the characterization of Owen.  I always find it hard to empathize with teacher-student, March-December relationships of this sort.  Harbach does his best to make clear that Owen, the younger member of this duad, is very much in control — too much so, I felt.   Owen’s characterization veers dangerously close to “magical negro” or, rather, “magical gay mulatto” territory; it’s sometimes hard to remember that he’s supposed to be an undergraduate when he is so self-aware, so sweet, so calm, so wise.  But real people aren’t that way.  There is good reason, I think, that these relationships are cause for real concern on college campuses: the dynamics of power and control are just so out of whack, so prone to abuse.  It shows a real lack of self-control on the part of Affenlight; a real lack of foresight about the consequences of such an affair.  And yet Harbach seems to treat the affair as purely good, and the concerns of others about it as puritanical or retrograde.  When Harbach, through Affenlight, speculates that the relationship would be overlooked and even tacitly approved were it heterosexual, he is simply wrong.  No one would (or at least, no one should) condone a college president having an affair with any student.  It’s insane.)

But there is also the camaraderie and competition of the Harpooners, from golden-boy Starblind to little-brother Izzy to pot-bellied partier Rick O’Shea, and the complicated dynamics by which individuals with their own goals can form a team, or a crew, and can do wonderful or horrible things together.  The homosociality of sports, as of whaling, is in evidence here (of course, there is also the possibility of the homosexual, present here especially in an early comic scene in which the reader is led to believe that Henry is hearing gay sex in his bedroom, when he is actually hearing Schwartz giving macho encouragement to a weightlifter).

Much of the Melville-thread running throughout the book leads to its coda, which I will discuss in another post.  Honestly, as much as I enjoyed and felt enriched by the Melvillean context of the book, I think it’s a better book about baseball.  And I’ll write about that next.

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§ 3 Responses to The Melvillean Context of The Art of Fielding

  • Eddie says:

    I so agree with you re- the Owen/ Affenlight affair. It is just so wrong. But I felt as if the author was manipulating me to agree that it was wonderful, romantic, and right. My resistance kept me as an outsider looking in at this story. I think the character of Owen being mixed race and gay was a ploy to make the reader feel very “with it” for accepting this liason. The kid even has a severe head injury when the physical first occurs- jeesh! I also think the book takes itself much too seriously. College as depicted here sure isn’t what it was meant to be. The college’s Melville branding was clever.

  • […] The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.  See posts here, here, and here.  Terrific book; the opening fifty pages or so are some of the best baseball […]

  • candyband says:

    Now after reading The Art of Fielding and your analysis of its ambiguities, I want to read Moby Dick. I liked the book, not loved, and I am not raving about it. It took me to the midwest and gave a peek at their strange names (Affenlight, Shwartz, Skrimshrander et. al) and their behaviors. The imaginative Mellvillean context was believable at best, and the Emerson anecdote about the gravesite digging of his girlfriend was a vivid reenactment in the digging of Affenlight’s body. I will let my friends know that I read it but will not suggest it for their next book club.

    Was it me or did the scenes regarding Pella’s getting back with Mike after she had slept with Henry just happen without my seeing it? I also missed the transition on when Pella, Mike, Henry and Owen decided to dig up Guert’s body to throw into lake. I also missed the first nonsexual encounter between Guert and Owen.

    I guess I should read it again.

    Towards the end, the portion on the “soul” or how one shares it was very moving. That is the only part that I really took a second look at to relish.

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