May 11, 12
Read in May, 2012
Pretty engrossing, enough so that I actually missed a subway stop when reading the first few chapters. And, definitely a worthy read for its self-conscious ambition to be thought of alongside Moby Dee-ock. The last Great American Novel is still Augie March, though, and, if anything has come close since then, I imagine it would be Infinite Jest, though I'm in the 99% on that one (ie I haven't read it), not this book. Still, it's good. The naming is playful, the themes and structure are compelling, and obviously the literary company the book keeps - through a landslide of references and nods - is awesome. Love the statue of Melville lording over the campus, and love the fact that, while there is this ambition to be a great American novel with its optimism, its version of obscurity-to-celebrity, its activism, its noble obsession with the national pastime, its references to Whitman and its Whitman-esque exuberance, there is also the humble acknowledgment that this book is to Moby Dick what the lake beside the Westish College campus where the story takes place is to the ocean. I get the impression that Chad Harbach wants you to understand that these characters and the story itself are, to paraphrase Saul Bellow, kicking around in the shoals while pining for the deep-water greatness of a Melville. That in itself is a very American (and very lovely) thing to me. And it's one of the book's most alluring motifs.
What I didn't really like about the book is that the characterization in some spots felt almost a little glossy and meretricious, and in other spots you could see the seams of the book as if on a baseball. It had a pained feel that you were feeling on behalf of the author, like he had his own version of the yips (as a NYer, I'm inclined to call this Knoblauch's disease): Where to develop and where to edit down; The self-consciousness that retards the process just when you're really getting on a roll. Ironically, this pained authorial feel added to the earnest yearning of the characters at the center of the story, and I guess it could be construed as a kind of genius, as if the book were as much about the writing of The Art of Fielding as it were about the characters in the story. It is. But, it also kind of kept breaking the spell that the novel had over me during the really good parts.
All the same, this was very good. Like one of the washed up, has-been (or, in my case, ain't-never-been) MLB scouts in the book, I'll be on the bleachers waiting for the next thing by this author.