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.

DeLillo, DFW, and Places of Mortal Drama

November 14, 2008 § 1 Comment

I’m in Austin, Texas right now, attending a symposium at the Harry Ransom Center entitled “Creating a Usable Past: Writers, Archives, and Institutions.”  It’s largely about the process by which writers’ papers (the manuscripts of their works, their correspondence, etc.) are sold or donated to places like the Ransom Center and the handful of university and research libraries in the US and UK (including my employer, Duke University, whom I’m certainly not representing in these thoughts) that can afford to handle these bodies of material.

I haven’t had a whole lot of free time during the day, but I managed to get into the reading room over the lunch hour today.  I skipped a meal because the HRC holds the Don DeLillo Papers.  And this includes his correspondence with David Foster Wallace (primarily DFW to DeLillo, with a few of DeLillo’s responses), from 1992 to 2003.  (I don’t know if there are any later letters that haven’t been added yet by DeLillo; I suspect there are, but perhaps not many, and surely they will eventually come here, too.)

It’s not a huge body of material — just one folder, although it’s a fat folder — but it struck me as profoundly important: to DFW, to the understanding of their works and late-20thc. American lit, to me.  It was poignant and hilarious and amazing.  My faith in the importance of archives had not been shaken, but it was certainly confirmed by looking at them.

I won’t give any long excerpts here — both because I don’t think DFW would have wanted it and because it could be construed as, well, illegal — but I want to share some of the things I found in the correspondence that moved me, interested me, made me laugh, made me sigh:

-I wanted to see if I could find anything about DFW’s thoughts on End Zone, especially after reading the chapter near the end that is clearly the ancestor of the Eschaton section of Infinite Jest, complete with a war game built on apocalypse scenarios and menacing all-caps alliances.  Sure enough, in one of his first letters DFW says, “part of a long thing I’m in the middle of has a section that I’ve gone back and seen owes a rather uncomfortable debt to certain exchanges between Gary Harkness and Major Staley.”  Fascinating that DFW either had End Zone embedded so deeply in his mind that he was able to build and comment upon the Harkness-Staley war game unconsciously, without consulting the text, or forgot the particulars of the war game and ended up reproducing them.  (Or it’s possible he was being a bit coy with DeLillo about this, in this early letter in which he’s still more or less introducing himself and saying how important DeLillo has been to him, and was really quite conscious of the war game section of EZ while writing the Eschaton game, but framed the similarity as unconscious and inadvertent to win the approval of one of his literary heroes, although I can’t imagine DFW not being up front about something like this, especially considering how up front he is about this sort of thing in his other letters.)

-There’s a fantastic letter from October 1995, just before publication of IJ, in which DFW lays bare a number of his anxieties about his own work ethic as a writer and the tension he felt between “fun” and “discipline.”  A fascinating letter: DFW talks about wanting to be a “Respectful writer,” meaning (I think) respectful of readership and of the writer’s own talent and potential, meaning not self-consciously showing off but putting in the hours at the writing desk and the hours of thought to perfectly integrate style and subject matter and thematic concerns.  Not showing off was very important to DFW; as he says, “…I’d far prefer finding out some way to become [a Respectful writer] w/o time and pain and the war of LOOK AT ME v. RESPECT A FUCKING KILLER.”  Quite a phrase, that.  That’s what I’d like to say whenever anyone asks me about IJ (not that anyone ever does): “Respect a fucking killer.”  It is a killer.  And it’s all DFW wanted, I think.

-Some great movie stuff: DFW ended up hating Lynch’s Lost Highway (as he says, “I swear it looked promising in dailies”), and recommends that DeLillo try to rent the first few episodes of Twin Peaks.  He also recommends Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool (a couple of times, actually) and absolutely loved The Matrix.

-A fascinating note (especially for an archivist) on digital publishing in a 2000 letter: “I don’t think it’s the memory-obliteration [of digital media] that bothers me… so much as the way it seems part of the increasing abstraction of everything.  It’s too unphysical.  There’s nothing to hold and get coffee stains on….”

-More than anything, it’s clear (even from the other side of the correspondence) what a considerate, thoughtful, and generous mentor-figure DeLillo was to DFW, who wrote DeLillo out of the blue with a kind of fan letter in 1992 and ended up writing him fairly often for 8 years or so.  It is remarkable to read DFW’s letter after reading Underworld, which he thought DeLillo’s best work by far and which he treated with remarkable subtlety and insight.  (It seems DeLillo might have done the same with IJ; at any rate, he read an advance copy and provided DFW feedback.)

-Finally, there was this great little note, which is both brilliant and rather hilarious thanks to where it appears: in one of DFW’s annual Christmas cards to DeLillo.  “Men’s rooms are place [sic] of mortal drama, in my opinion.  If I ever wrote a play, it’d be set in a men’s room.”

I wish he’d written a play.  I wish he was still writing Don DeLillo.  And just as much as a men’s room, a reading room is a place of mortal drama.  There’s this, for instance: this folder of letters, close as I’ve ever come and ever will to this brilliant mind.  It’s what survives.

Morrison, Ellison, and the Grotesque

February 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.

Yesterday, Groundhog Day, was another case of literary serendipity, for me. In the morning I read the first chapter of Invisible Man–not expecting the famous “Battle Royal” chapter, awed references to which in various places finally spurred me to read this book (somehow it was never assigned to me in school). A couple of hours later, I heard Toni Morrison read, in Duke Chapel at the Reynolds Price Jubilee here, from her manuscript for a forthcoming novel set in 1690.

But first, IM. The first 50 pages have basically exhausted everything I knew about the book. The prologue–a tour de force itself–introduces the titular character, squatting in his famous light-bulb-filled, Dostoyevskian “hole.” He takes a reefer-fueled trip into the “cave” behind the “hot tempo” of the Louis Armstrong song “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue” and hears a rousing sermon there. (This sermon, with its Jonah references, is an homage to Moby-Dick; Melville and Dostoyevsky are both all over this prologue, and, while we’re playing the “Literary Influence Parlor Game,” the IM’s trip into the grooves of the Armstrong song reminded me strongly of a similarly hallucinogenic scene involving jazz in Gravity’s Rainbow.)

And after that, we get the battle royal. This raging, pseudo-allegorical, horribly violent, soul-bearing chapter must have felt like a kick in the head when it first appeared (modified, of course) as a short story in a magazine in the late ’40s. Grotesque is the exact word to describe it. How else would you sum up a fight among ten young, black, blindfolded men, staged for the amusement of a town’s respected leaders–followed by the same fighters being forced to grab for money on an electrified carpet?

Anyway, seeing Morrison (her reading was excellent) reminded me of Beloved, and the grotesque elements in that novel, as well. Ellison’s achievement in the battle royal chapter, I think, is to make his scene heavily symbolic while simultaneously deeply troubling, visceral, and realistic. Really, how often do you come across a piece of symbolism–say, Eliot’s Waste Land (another influence, it seems)–which also seems like it could have actually happened–or, what’s more, is happening? That’s how this chapter feels. It feels real. And I speculate that this effect has resonated throughout subsequent African-American literature; I speculate that Morrison’s depiction of the grotesqueries of slavery may have been abetted, if not consciously inspired, by just this chapter, and its deft balance of character, violence, allegory, and emotion.

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