A few weeks ago, I started reading the massively hyped The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Turns out my friend Bryan started the book around the same time as me. Since we’re both fans of baseball and fans of literature, we thought it would be cool to have a convo about it. That’s what we did on the ever-reliable Gchat while we watched some of the Major League playoffs. Parts of our conversation are below, edited to make some sense.
Real fast: The Art of Fielding is set somewhere in the midwest and focuses on two baseball players named Henry Skrimshander and Mike Schwartz. There’s also the chancellor named Affenlight and Henry’s roommate, Owen who is also on the baseball team. To complicate things, Affenlight’s estranged daughter, Pella, also shows up. A few spoilers are below, but no matter what we say, you should still read the book.
Me: Let's start big—overall impression?
Bryan: Overall impression, having never read anything by Chad Harbach, his first impression on me was a good one. I'm getting his next book and reading this during the stretch run of the [baseball] regular season and the start of the postseason was a pretty awesome experience
Me: Does he have another book? Or you mean whatever comes next?
Bryan: Whatever comes next I'm on board, but…
Me: It seemed really polished to me, I'm not sure if that is good or bad.
Bryan: That's what the “but” was for.
Me: Felt for the 1st time that “MFA syndrome” that people talk about, but I'm not sure if he has an MFA.
Bryan: I was going to say that too and that one reason I want to read his next book is to see if this was something he'd been saving up to write forever.
Me: Well he worked on this for 10 years or so.
Bryan: Okay, see, I didn't know that, but that's the feeling that comes through just about every loose end and piece of symbolism or metaphor feels perfect.
Me: All his pals are at the N+1 mag… some ppl think they write some pretentious stuff, that's a good way to put it, the Melville references (which I didn't get) tied up unexpectedly well.
Bryan: I read Moby Dick for the first time two summers ago just to say i'd done it.
Me: Harbach was a Moby scholar or something.
Bryan: And i feel like it helped in appreciating the book because I found myself nodding at moments where otherwise I would have not. One thing that was both cool and weird about the hemingway stuff, I mean melville stuff…
Me: —what Melville thing were you surprised at?
Bryan: Okay, well pretty early on it's clear that this is Moby Dick with baseball, you've got a melville statue on campus looking at the water.
Me: I've got the book so feel free to reference.
Bryan: The first chapter in Moby Dick is about how Ishmael needs to seek out the water as an escape from his inland depression. Well, every character at Westish is depressed and staring at lake Michigan or a baseball field (which i guess is like a body of water too) looking for a get away or some respite, then you get to the parts where Schwartz and Pella are breaking up.
Me: Yes, and then that's how Pella views Westish itself — a respite.
Bryan: And Affenlight realizes that his time with Owen is ending and you start thinking about Hemingway's depictions of breakups, yeah and I guess I just never realized it in undergrad how big of a shadow Melville casts because Henry is akin to Nick Adams who is akin to Ishmael, you read this book and go holy shit Moby Dick is really the Bible, which Harbach tells us through affenlight several times. I guess I didn't expect a “baseball novel” to serve as an american lit survey as well.
Me: What's interesting too is how in 'art' Harbach mentions how long Melville went without being discovered and then bam! here he is after 10 years writing this. I'm sure he found some comfort in that as well.
Bryan: Yeah def
Me: Yeah, didn't think of Moby Dick as the Bible but i see how it functions that way for Affenlight, the whole discovery process of the missing melville documents, it's like he found the dead sea scrolls.
Bryan: I mean, the entire book is jam packed with modern allusions, references, etc., but with Melville's statue there, it's like Melville's overseeing all of it. Yeah about your dead seas comment.
Me: What does it mean then that Affenlight made Melville on that campus? You would think that would afford him some more leeway towards the end […] and just give him a very stern warning.
Bryan: You wonder how much of him [Harbach] went into the Affenlight character… Affenlight never writes a novel… he just writes a critique of homosexuality in 19th century literature you gotta wonder whether Harbach, as a writer, felt some sense of paralysis trying to write in the legacy of Melville especially because Affenlight is such a sad character.
Me: I see what you mean there, then Affenlight felt the same pressure from Melville anxiety of influence.
Bryan: Yeah or kind of like what we're doing, just analyzing someone else's work because it's obviously good or skilled.
Me: speaking of Affenlight, I didn't really believe the Owen relationship at first, but the more I think about it I see how it makes more sense.
Bryan: I know what you mean.
Me: Affenlight was very self-absorbed and kept to himself, and then he found a kid [who] was completely inspired by his writing and so Affenlight completed the egotistical circle fell in love with himself, his younger self, hence — all the dog-eared yearbooks.
Bryan: Exactly because what's so weird about it is that Affenlight inspired owen originally.
Me: Yes, with his critique.
Bryan: Yeah, I mean at the end we find out that it's that book that probably saves owen from some sort of adolescent coming out suicide and brings him to Westish.
Me: It's pretty obvious that Affenlight inspired owen in some way, either going to Westish, expressing his sexuality more fully, pursuing literature.
Bryan: Which makes you wonder if Westish does the same thing for Owen as it does for Pella.
Me: All of those are plausible.
Me: Oh, I missed that suicide part.
Bryan: It wasn't explicit, but he says something about a hard time in his life when they're on the boat dumping the body and how Affenlight's book helped him through it.
Me: Ah, got it.
Bryan: …I just assumed it was something akin to shame and being bullied possibly.
Me: It was kind of odd when owen was with his mom–it seemed as if his mom didn't know he was gay, but Owen seemed pretty comfortable with everyone else about it.
Bryan: I thought that too, I smell prequel. It could be called Sperm Squeezers after Affenlight's book.
Me: Ha, I guess we should mention henry at least once.
Bryan: I was going to say that too.
Me: Really he was kind of flat.
Bryan: Yeah, how can we have gone this long without talking about henry, considering he's all that anyone in the book talks about
Me: He's kind of the 'straight' man (um, comedic straight man) to everyone else's clowning around.
Bryan: For most of the book, he's flat on purpose though, right?
Me: Yeah exactly, until he walks off the field. H's kind of the perfect athlete in that way.
Me: No one can get a quote from him, he's just a machine doing everything right, but do you believe the response to the errant throw? I was surprised how much it threw Schwartz off.
Bryan: When it first happened, I thought Owen's dead.
Me: Yes, me too, that would have quickened the pace considerably.
Bryan: But the fact that Owen lived made it a harder sell.
Me: I agree.
Bryan: But I think I did buy it.
Me: The ending would have had to be much darker.
Bryan: Mainly because Henry's decline while rapid is still a progression.
Me: I don't think I have anything to add to that.
Bryan: Yeah, as depressed as all the characters are, the book doesn't feel that dark in the end I did find myself wondering how fast does a stud athlete begin to atrophy if all he's eating is soup? That's a reality show waiting to happen isn't it?
Me: Why didn't they put him in right field or something? He could still hit, at least presumably so.
Bryan: Or he could have DH'd. I guess cause the coach is loyal.
Me: The whole father / son dynamic of Schwartz / Henry was eerie.
Bryan: Eerie and only picked up on by Pella and a shrink we never really meet.
Me: Then he stole his girlfriend? Yes, exactly — I felt like Owen was going to say something but he never did or one of those other baseball guys (starblind?) that kept getting mentioned but didn't do anything.
Bryan: Back to the gf stealing, hey, he got drafted and tried to hook up with Henry's sister as an act of revenge which made Henry's betrayal of Schwartz more ironic.
Bryan: But back to the gf stealing.
Me: Pella's revenge agaisnt Henry? Ok, sorry.
Bryan: Am I wrong or do both Pella and Schwartz refer to Henry's sleeping with her as some sort of cure like this is Bull Durham or something? Is that cause Henry just slept with her out of impulse, rather than thinking about it the way he kept thinking about the throw to first? Only it turns out he's not cured at all.
Me: Never thought of that way.
Bryan: I'd have to go back and look for some textual evidence to prove it, it may not be there.
Me: Like if Henry can take Schwartz's 'example' and learn from it? Like he's done in every other aspect of his collegiate career.
Bryan: Sort of.
Me: I thought Schwartz was pretty ticked about it.
Bryan: Oh definitely, but he says something like “i guess you fixed it”, let me look it up.
Me: And then Henry spends 2 weeks(?) over at Pella's, huh, interesting.
Me: “My boyfriend,” Pella said, “is at baseball practice.” Chef Spiroducus — “so find a new one. a girl like you can choose.” Fielder's choice!
Bryan: Haha, in chpt 56.
Me: Ok, there.
Bryan: Schwartz says to her after the secret's out, “I'm not mad… I think you're a goddamn saint. Coming in here and laying on hands. Laying on mouth. Laying on whatever. I should have sent you sooner.” Later on down the page she apologizes and Schwartz responds, “For what? For fixing everything?” Then he shakes his head and says no.
Me: Yes, exactly. That was the part I was about to quote then in between there's a part about her being the “middleman”.
Me: It's an interesting way that Schwartz & Henry figh.
Bryan: She's also heavily bruised from her night with Henry.
Me: Diffuse true emotions, because diffusing them through the baseball field doesn't work anymore
Bryan: As if Henry was really just fighting Schwartz. Oh and her panties are icy blue.
Me: Blue = water?
Bryan: Maybe breaking the ice. Terrible puns but they work.
Bryan: By screwing Pella the ice between Henry and Schwartz is broken
Me: Nice, you should do a scholarly paper on that.
Bryan: And water is important because, you know, Melville and Ahales. haha.
Me: Yeah, harpooners or something. btw — Westish is a weird name. Not quite west, but almost.
Bryan: Yeah, is it supposed to be symbolic of THE WEST?
Me: We could probably both go on staff at Idaho Couer d'Alene.
Bryan: Haha, run the university press.
Me: Yes, exactly.