Sunday, October 25, 2015

Whereupon I explicate

It's a chilly Sunday afternoon and I've been reading Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, not with what you'd call enjoyment but rather with a desperate desire to be finished with it. Last weekend, I think it was, Scott and I stopped at a neighborhood Little Free Library and I saw this book that I'd vaguely considered reading when it first came out. Back about that time, however, we were in Secret Garden Books and the bookseller there, in an attempt to close the sale, compared it to a John Irving book. I'd forgotten that little exchange until yesterday so last week, when I saw the book in the library box, I remembered only that I'd been interested in it. Figuring the price was right, I brought the free library copy home.

 The title of Mr Harbach's novel, that'd be the one I'm reading, comes from a fictional book (The Art of Fielding) by a fictional shortstop (Rodriguez Aparicio) that is the bible to Mr Harbach's fictional shortstop (Henry Skrimshander); it's full of pithy stuff like "The shortstop is a source of  stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond." (Somehow this now reminds me of the scene in The Wind and the Lion in which Candace Bergen responds to the Sean Connery character saying, as they play chess, "It is the will of Allah. I am but an instruments of that will. It is the wind that passes, but the sea remains" with, "A stitch in time saves nine. Your move.") The realization I have reached is that I would less annoyed if I were reading the shortstop's book, inferior though it obviously would be to Pure Baseball. This New York Times "book of the year" novel--it really pretty much sucks.

 And I may be driven to put it that way because the thing that is really truly irritating me about this book is the idiocy of the language (see also, the title for this post which is my homage to some of the word choices). A woman showing a visitor her house, "explicates the virtues of California closets." Elsewhere the college president holds up "a placative hand." And then there's this:

He'd told Pella he needed to work until four, whereupon they'd drive to Door County to buy her some new clothes. He drove fast and parked the Audi. The glass doors of St. Anne's parted to grant him entrance.

What the hell, I ask, is this author doing? "whereupon"? "parted to grant him entrance"? And between those two excessively grandiose (and just wrong) sentences you stick "He drove fast"? How does anyone over the age of twelve write such sentences and not recognize their hideousness? How does a book containing such juvenile language get not only published but lauded as a great book?

 The story itself is no great shakes and also not particularly innovative: there are some parts done so much better by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited and other parts done back in the early 1990s by Donna Tartt in The Secret History. Possibly there are some would-be echoes of Franny and Zooey as well. I guess I've left out the baseball part. (Did Salinger ever write about baseball? You'd think he would have done.) Possibly that's because I just can't bear to think of David James Duncan's The Brothers K existing in the same universe as The Art of Fielding. Waugh, Salinger, and Duncan know their way around a sentence and a paragraph and if they use a word, they use it knowing it's the right word for the job. You don't read those guys and wonder what sort of defective word-a-day calendar they got in last year's white elephant gift exchange.

 Earlier today Scott told me, as I was going on in much this same vein (but also getting the leaves raked), that The Art of Fielding had been rejected by a lot of publishers before someone, perhaps John Irving (who gives it a blurb--"easy to read" is apparently a powerful endorsement), recommended it to a publisher. This anecdote, true or not, keeps me from despairing entirely about the state of American publishing.

 Being me, I will read the remaining 140 pages of The Art of Fielding but then, oh then, I pray I'll read something less wretched.


  1. The only thing I need to know about "The Art of Fielding" is that my boss LOVED it. But this review of yours was also good. "Parted to grant him entrance"...I may steal that.

  2. The bishop? Because I seriously wonder about him now. Also, and I know I owe you an email, do you have sunglasses on your head in the ordination photos?

    1. No, not the bishop; my old boss, the deacon. I'm wearing readers on my head. I have to be able to read the text in the binder so I know where we are on the page, and, sadly, in my advancing years I can't do that without readers. I was really surprised to see those photos on Facebook; I guess my secret identity is now public.

    2. "Omigod, isn't that...the Liturgist?"