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Mobius Dick & the Art of Fielding,
This review is from: The Art of Fielding: A Novel (Hardcover)
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I was drawn to read this book by its promise of revealing the link between baseball and the secrets of life. (I'm not really a fan of the sport, but I'm surrounded by such fans in my family and hopeful that I might one day understand the mysterious lure of the green diamond.) In this respect, "The Art of Fielding" did not disappoint. The central drama of the novel is provided by the sudden and disastrous loss of confidence suffered by shortstop phenomenon, Henry Skrimshander, during his junior year at Westish College. Henry is just on the brink of breaking the record of most consecutive games without an error held by his idol Aparicio Rodriguez, author of the baseball bible that gives the novel its name. A profound categorical imperative lends meaning and significance to this failure, for Henry is in danger of dishonoring the game by turning it into a means toward an end rather than treating it as an end in itself. His loss of confidence, therefore, is paradoxically an affirmation of the nobility of the game at whose center lies the "stillness" of the shortshop.
Even as "The Art of Fielding" expresses a moving and fully formed philosophy, it also tells a compelling story -- not only of Henry's challenges, doubts, and triumphs, but also of the love affairs and friendships that tie together the chief characters: Henry's mentor on the team, catcher Mike Schwartz; his roommate who is also a team player, Owen Dunne; and the President of Westish College, Guert Affenlight, along with Guert's daughter Pella. These five characters are bound together in a struggle of love and betrayal that mirrors the art of fielding.
The problem with the book is that this constellation of relationships is refracted through an understanding of male/male relationships that limits love to male friendship and homosocial bonding, and that really allows for no sophisticated understanding of romantic heterosexual love. Women are entirely marginalized -- presented only as the vehicles of masculine connection. In addition, the understanding and representation of the human life span is poor. The President of the College, a heterosexual man of 60 years, with an important career to protect and daily duties that are not realistic to his position, is assigned a sudden same-sex crush on a 21-year old undergraduate that is never credibly rationalized or explored. This crush (an event more appropriate to middle school than to the mature man who is imagined as experiencing it) is completely out of character and entirely unbelievable in the context of the novel. When those discrepancies start to become a problem for the plot, the 60-year-old is disposed of in a way that makes him feel like a mere (in)convenience.
I'm happy to entertain a novel that puts the homoerotic at its center; our literary tradition has plenty of stories like this that are organized around hetero-erotic relationships, and I'll grant that it's time to loosen up our literary expectations to position a male romance at the center of a new kind of novel (and this book could ultimately take its place at ground zero of such a genealogy). But such new forms do need to stand (or fall) on their authentic representation of human psychology. Here I don't think "The Art of Fielding" passes muster. This novel apologizes for its celebration of man-on-man love by hiding it beneath its baseball philosophy and its superficial representation of a single male/female relationship that doesn't really bear scrutiny and that in fact is merely the vehicle for male rivalry and romantic emulation. This book should not be given a pass because its subject matter excites various forms of sympathy or because its author has the gift of storytelling. Psychological truth is also a touchstone of the form of the novel, and in this respect, "The Art of Fielding" falls short.