The Art of Fielding is quite a lovely, comforting book. In many ways it was the perfect holiday read this summer. In many ways it should have been my perfect book – easy-to-read mid-brow fare, feted by the likes of Jonathan Franzen, giving some sort of insight into the human condition, and fundamentally all about baseball. And yet something was lacking, something wasn’t quite right.
It might have been that the book wasn’t really about baseball. And if you follow the old maxim that the smaller the ball in the sport, the better the book, then that seems like a missed opportunity (This also means there must be some killer table-tennis books out there.). Baseball, much like cricket, is such a leisurely sport that it lends itself to something kind of meditative – there’s enough room to think between each passage of play. They are also team sports that very deliberately isolate their competitors. The inherent loneliness of a batter/batsman/pitcher/bowler is pretty good fodder for high works of literature as far as I’m concerned, let alone your standard mid-brow fare.
But then again, I knew it wasn’t going to be just about baseball. And the baseball that actually was in the book wasn’t too bad. The baseball wasn’t what was wrong with the book.
Maybe the problem with The Art of Fielding was the whole college/coming-of-age thing? Maybe it didn’t sit right that at times it read like a superior episode of Dawson’s Creek? Certain characters could be too verbose, too clever, for their own good. When the dialogue wasn’t too clever, the omnipresent narrator was describing the characters as being clever, of being capable of always saying the right things. Maybe that was the problem?
But then again, and hold on to your seats here, I’ve always been a bit of a fan of Dawson’s Creek. I liked the innocence of it, the wholesomeness. In some ways, even with the (vague AoF spoiler alert) student-school president sexual shenanigans, The Art of Fielding felt innocent too. The odd reference to iPhones felt really out-of-place as the story seemed quite timeless – with a quick edit most passages could just as easily be set in the 1950s as the present day.
And most of the time I like the verbose stuff in books/angst-ridden-yet-glossy teen dramas. I’d love to be able to just come out with really clever, thoughtful, earnest stuff all the time. I’d love to be witty and articulate. It can be satisfying to see/read a character being all those things – coming up with the smart retorts we always think of five hours too late, or expressing life’s ups and downs in a way that makes us all feel a little less alone, because there is someone else out there who gets it – even if they are a fictional construct.
Maybe it was because the book moved away from the fulcrum of the story – the star fielder who can no longer throw the ball. This isn’t as far-fetched a plot device as you might think. In real life there has been the cases of Steve Blass and Steve Sax amongst others, who inexplicably one day found they could no longer throw the ball accurately. The darts world has called a similar issue with throwing darts – ‘dartitis’.
I find these cases fascinating, as these are not physical problems, but psychological. They show that no matter how hard someone trains, or how well they are coached, there is always a mental element to being successful in sport. It is not just about being smart, or out-thinking your opponent. It is also about not thinking too much. And striking the right balance feels like a genuine mystery.
Which brings me on to one of the lesser sportsmen of our generation, that being my good self. In recent months my wife and I have really got into bowling – the ten-pin variety, rather than the crown green. We’re not that old. Now there are plenty of vintage-y places out there, decked out like 50s bowling alleys (or in some cases are actually genuine 50s/60s bowling alleys that have been restored), but they are not for us. We have frequented the shopping centre bowling alley, the multiplex bowling alley, and one alley in particular that could only be considered vintage if you consider somewhere untouched since the early 1990s to be vintage. Our kind of retro kitsch involves faded day-glo and the sound of clapped out arcade games.
Perhaps we haven’t frequented the real retro alleys as we’re not that cool. Or because they are incredibly expensive and involve booking a week in advance. Or maybe because we are all about the bowling. That is not to say that we’re very good, or have our own kit or anything. But going bowling is a great piece of escapism in itself, even when you’re not surrounded by slick retro decor. Bowling a ball with any degree of accuracy involves just enough thinking to take your mind off of the daily grind, yet not too much to be mentally taxing. And I’ve certainly discovered there is a fine line between not thinking enough about what I’m doing, and being rubbish, and overthinking my technique…and being rubbish. There is a narrow corridor of non-rubbishness when my mind is in just the right place to allow my physical action to be effective. And that is a lovely corridor to inhabit for a while – to feel in control, yet to not feel overburdened with thought.
Elements of instinct, muscle-memory and generally having the right disposition to perform play their part in sporting success. But this balancing act of thinking/not-overthinking still seems key and distinct, and separates the greats from us mere mortals – that ability to execute the clever act without having to think it through.
And I guess we encounter this balancing act outside of the bowling alley or the playing field. Sometimes things go wrong because we haven’t thought them through enough, sometimes because we’ve thought too much.
This predicament is illustrated really clearly in DT Max’s new biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. DFW seems the perfect example of someone who thought too much. His writing is dense, packed with information, played out in different registers, tempered with different clauses. You can see the mental knots in his epic sentences – and you can also see them untying those knots in the sentences that follow. His use of footnotes illustrated a brain spinning in many directions, working on multiple levels. Max’s book tells of multiple rewrites and endless back-and-forths with editors. DFW was clearly a thinker, yet also in his later years seemed to promote the idea of mindfulness – adding an almost spiritual element to being thoughtful, of thinking about others, thinking genuinely about your surroundings, of noticing the water, so to speak.
Yet the book recounts multiple occasions when he was pretty thoughtless. Rather than the St Dave persona/cliché that has sometimes been attributed to him, there was clearly more to him than that – both good and bad. I read the book (and so, I guess, his life) as an ongoing conflict of a man not thinking enough, and so not fully engaging in the world and hurting those around him, but a man also capable of great swathes of thought (he didn’t win a Genius Grant for nothing), who could think his way towards a greater understanding of how to get on in the world and how to connect, and yet also someone capable of overthinking himself into terrible corners of indecision, doubt, inactivity and more. A very human story then, and perhaps a more tragic account of someone who couldn’t get the balance straight between thinking/not-thinking.
So, do we think too hard, or do we not think enough? What does either scenario really look like? And how can we consider this without disappearing up our own backsides or sending ourselves crazy? Or maybe it is a good thing to not always get it right, as long as we are aware of it (yet not consumed by it). Perhaps we shouldn’t always throw the ball straight.
I also recently read Tom McCarthy’s short essay Transmission and the Individual Remix. For a piece of critical theory it is very approachable read. Now, I should really read it a couple more times before coming up with my take, but McCarthy seems to propose that literature shouldn’t be too tidy, shouldn’t fit the rules and constraints of classic storytelling. Meaningful literature isn’t quite right, there is something broken in the workings. The best writing doesn’t just re-imagine or reinterpret past stories, but in dispersing them, broadcasting them, makes them disappear somehow.
And perhaps that is a more real picture of the world. We don’t always get the happy, tidy endings. We can’t always articulate ourselves immediately. We are constantly torn between thinking too much and not thinking enough, between indecision and potentially selfish action. Maybe we need to accept that life isn’t as compact and straightforward as The Art of Fielding or any number of other books. And perhaps we need books that attempt to represent that world, if not make sense of it.
I guess that is an old argument, and an argument made far more coherently by other people. But it is where I ended up, thinking it through. Now, overthinking the argument, perhaps this whole post is irrelevant. Maybe my argument is actually full of holes, or is an argument my limited writing skills has led me to, and the argument doesn’t actually accurately articulate that I think. Maybe I don’t know what I think. Or perhaps I’m just heading towards a conclusion that is too cute for its own good. And maybe, in the interests of avoiding a tidy conclusion, I should finish this post mid-
This was a really well-written post. Kudos.
The Art of Fielding was actually half the reason I got turned me off from contemporary fiction. I know the author probably wrote the book knowing it was fairly lightweight and inconsequential, but then he threw in the Moby Dick/Herman Melville plot, which screams of Serious Novel, and the same-sex/May-December relationship might have coalesced fairly well with the Moby Dick motif, except The Art of Fielding’s romance wasn’t terribly convincing. I do think the Steve Sax syndrome part of the novel was slightly more convincing, if a bit forced–I suspect the author was trying to force this storyline into being convincing.
Plus, the publishing industry promoted it as a Serious Novel with Big Ideas, which annoyed me once I finished.
And well said re: the Tom McCarthy essay; I haven’t read it but I agree with your assessment.
(The reprint of Tom McCarthy’s excellent Men in Space was almost enough to get me back into contemporary fiction, but it seems like the industry’s highly-touted misses have greatly outweighed the highly-touted hits recently. And if you need your faith restored in baseball books, you really need to check out Universal Baseball Association; it gets closer to anything else I’ve read of capturing the baseball experience.)
The other half of what turned me off of newer books was the industry’s unsportsmanlike “Six Degrees of David Foster Wallace” that they used to promote damn near every Serious Book of the past 2-3 years. The bio sounds intriguing, though.
And bowling–now you’re speaking my language. I used to roll in leagues all the time, and a bowling scholarship paid for a bit of my college education. My problem with bowling wasn’t over- or underthinking, though; usually I struggled when I had too much to drink. You’re going to have to explain crown green bowling, though: we only have the Lebowski kind out here.
The hype machine within the publishing industry certainly can be offputting and leave a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. Without the hype, I’d have probably read The Art of Fielding and enjoyed it as a reasonably well-written, yet ultimately throwaway, book. Yet I left it feeling like it was an opportunity missed and was far from the Great American Novel the hype hinted at. It was a neat little story, but I don’t think it had much to say about wider issues and themes.
Now Universal Baseball Association is available to order through the Kindle store I’ll definitely give it a go soon. It’s been on my list a while.
The DFW bio is worth a look, as long as you don’t expect too much. It is pretty much an expanded version of the New Yorker article DT Max put together a few years ago, and is very much written in standard New Yorker style and is all the better for it – when there must have been a real temptation to ape DFW’s style.
It is a little gossip-y in parts (essentially DFW was a weirdo when it came to relationships) and doesn’t have much detail re: his later years, but as a first attempt at a DFW bio it isn’t a bad one. I expect there is someone out there trawling all the newly released papers who is already putting together another attempt at a bio who may well build on Max’s efforts.
Bowling scholarship? That’s pretty fantastic. Crown green bowls is played on turf, and is generally played by people who are incredibly old. It may well be the gentlest sport ever. More info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowls