Commentary Magazine


The Art of Being First

The decline of the novel as American culture’s depth-measuring gauge might be dated to the rise of big-bank premieres. Until very recently, first novels were a publisher’s gamble. For every debut like The Naked and the Dead, which sold 60,000 copies its first year in print, or From Here to Eternity, which sold 240,000, there were the first novels, even of later celebrated and best-selling novelists, that were forgotten almost as soon as they were published: Gore Vidal’s Williwaw, Mario Puzo’s The Dark Arena, John Updike’s The Poorhouse Fair, E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, John Irving’s Setting Free the Bears. Publishers were willing to put down good money on the chance that today’s unsure literary talent might someday prove a critical and bookstore winner.

Everything changed two decades ago when 25-year-old Michael Chabon was paid an advance of $155,000 with a guaranteed paperback income of at least another $100,000 for The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a novel submitted for a masters degree in creative writing. The figure was 20 or 30 times higher than the advance for a typical first novel in the postwar era. Suddenly young writers, recommended by their professors or their published friends, were a bankable commodity. Young readers, it was hoped, might even be enticed back to the novel by the celebrity of young novelists. Some first novels were news, and not just on the book pages (which were disappearing at any rate).

By the new measure, Chad Harbach’s first novel was a smash before hardly anyone had seen it. Harbach received a $650,000 advance for The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown, 512 pages), the highest amount for a “literary” first novel—a first novel with ambitions to be counted as lasting literature—ever recorded. Indeed, the tale of his success was so improbable and inspiring that Keith Gessen, his friend and coeditor at the literary magazine n+1, told it triumphantly first in Vanity Fair and then in an expanded e-book version timed to coincide with the novel’s release.  

Harbach’s novel, sadly, is not quite as impressive as its financing. The Art of Fielding is about a young baseball player who, like Roy Hobbs in The Natural, is destined to be the greatest ever—at least the greatest ever to play shortstop. Henry Skrimshander is dazzling in the field, “beautiful to watch,” with instincts that major-league scouts describe as having “prescience.” Along with his glove Zero (the only glove he has ever worn), he is recruited to play at Westish, a small liberal-arts college on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. By his junior year, Henry has become so good that he ties the NCAA record for consecutive errorless games. The streak is broken when Henry uncorks a bad throw on a routine play. The ball sails into the Westish dugout, hitting a teammate in the face and nearly killing him.

Terrified by what he has done, Henry suddenly loses the ability to throw to first. The ball sticks in his glove, he double-pumps, his throws careen wildly or flutter “like doves released from a box.” In practice, he is fine; in games, he is consistently off target, “like an army sniper hopped up on foreign drugs.” The unexplained phenomenon, sometimes called Steve Blass disease (after a Pirates right-hander whose control mysteriously deserted him in 1973), is very real. Harbach gives a brief roster of the major-league ballplayers who have been afflicted by it (Steve Sax, Mackey Sasser, Chuck Knoblauch, Rick Ankiel). It is a promising subject for a baseball novel. John R. Tunis—who wrote sports books for teenage boys and remains perhaps the best baseball novelist who has ever lived—would have treated it as a moral problem, a question of developing the character to accept physical limitation and defeat. But Harbach is hunting deeper prey:

It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation—the modernists of the First World War—would take a while to reveal itself throughout the population. And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport. In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era when even the athletes were anguished modernists.

The Art of Fielding, in other words, is not about baseball after all—not the baseball, at all events, that is played on any field in America. Like Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, it depicts the sport as a Homeric struggle, and completely falsifies it in the process. Harbach’s novel takes place in a world that is suspended somewhere between our world and a strange realm overgrown with fantastical shapes. Westish College is not quite “another” world, but it is still more metaphor than reality. Any sense of familiarity or recognition is undercut by the outlandish names (Skrimshander, Rick O’Shea, Guert Affenlight), the implausible details (during games one player, known as the Buddha to his teammates, reads Fear and Trembling in the dugout by a small reading light clipped to his cap brim), the half-mocking half-serious invocation of current crazes and their special dishonest language (“fresh-persons,” “despeciation,” “homoeroticism,” “carbon neutrality,” “Palestine”). The Art of Fielding is a novel of ideas in which the ideas are more fluent and exaggerated versions of undergraduate enthusiasms.

 _____________

William Giraldi adopts a similar tone in Busy Monsters (W.W. Norton, 282 pages), but the difference is that the exaggerations and outlandishness are for the sake of richly verbal comedy. Giraldi’s first novel is a mock-picaresque in which the narrator rogue wobbles through a series of adventures in a “creamy fog of dashed romance,” ricocheting around the country in quest of his lost love, a Southern Jew by the name of Gillian Lee. A 31-year-old Connecticut liberal and writer of “fanatical personal pieces” for a national magazine, Charles Homar opens the book by announcing his decision to kill Gillian’s last boyfriend, a Virginia state trooper who has threatened to end all their lives if she does not come back to him. Charles turns to Groot, “an old high school chum who just happens to be a Navy SEAL,” for weaponry and instruction. Groot warns that he “might be crossing a line into a whole new mode of existence,” but Charles protests that he is merely conducting a “preemptive strike against someone with a talent for menace and rout.” Charles’s adventures occur over the line, “beyond normal civilian standards,” where his life story goes haywire.

Charles shoots up the boat on which Gillian threatens to leave him, serves a stretch in prison, chases off in search of Bigfoot, diddles an ex-girlfriend who has become a UFO spotter, takes up with lesbians, and joins a troupe of ghost hunters in a haunted hotel. Girardi is an equal-opportunity satirist, openly spoofing both the affectations of liberalism (“My morality, what little of it remains, is offended”) and the counter-reactions to them, especially an unapologetic masculinity that has removed itself to the margins of culture. “My yarns,” Charles declares, “are propelled by the mysteries of human longing, which are essentially feminine. [Tom] Clancy’s are propelled by the ego, which is essentially masculine and destructive.”

The truth is that, for Giraldi, both idioms have been exhausted. His intention in Busy Monsters is to renew the language:

We human monsters make choices with the minds of worms; good sense lies east, we veer west; trouble sends an invitation, we RSVP the very same day. … Yes, I couldn’t have saved myself if you had given me a life vest and drained all the water from the lake I was drowning in, but I had the rather Christic (read: chivalric) urge to come to a lady’s rescue. I had my conscience, that underrated organ residing somewhere within the ghouls we are. Watch me work.

Giraldi is never predictable and never boring—even if his basic formula, the clashing marriage of high and low that Erich Auerbach traced to Christian rhetoric, can get monotonous. “The remorse was like the immolation of my entrails,” Charles confides. “I needed a shower and a massage. Maybe a haircut and an enema.”

Giraldi’s facetiousness has something of the young Evelyn Waugh, especially the 1930 satire Vile Bodies. William Giraldi does not yet display a literary gift the equal of Waugh’s, and his career may or may not have a similar trajectory, but Busy Monsters revives an appealing mode that has fallen out of favor and puts it to amusing and instructive use.

_____________

Amy Waldman, a former New York Times reporter, is ambitious for a more immediate splash of importance with her first novel, and if the wildly enthusiastic reception it has received is sufficient proof, her ambition has been fulfilled. The Submission (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 299 pages) combines the public furor over the “Ground Zero” mosque with Waldman’s own fashionable ambivalence over the war on terror to contrive a story that reads, as the remarkably fitting cliché goes, as if it were ripped from the headlines.

The national competition to design a memorial on the site of the World Trade Center is won by a Muslim. “It’s Maya Lin all over again,” says one of the contest judges, referring to the Chinese-American sculptor of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “but worse.” No one knows anything about the winner, a Virginia-born architect named Mohammad Khan, about his politics or sympathies. For that matter, no one appears to know much of anything about Muslims. “Two years on,” says the Jewish liberal appointed by New York’s governor to chair the contest jury, “we still don’t know whether we’re up against a handful of zealots who got lucky, or a global conspiracy of a billion Muslims who hate the West.”

Mohammad himself is not sure what to think. The 9/11 terrorists “had nothing to do with him,” he reflects, “yet weren’t entirely apart. They represented Islam no more than his own extended family did, but did they represent it less?” The question hangs over the rest of the novel. Mohammad is pulled from a security line at LAX and questioned closely about his love of country and his thoughts on jihad. After he is publicly identified as the winner of the competition, he is questioned about his motives and influences, his purity or secrecy of intent. Mohammad grows a beard, finds himself a Muslim girlfriend, and begins to fast during Ramadan. In the face of mounting pressure to withdraw, he grows increasingly resolute and clear of purpose.

The usual suspects emerge. A conservative talk-show host speculates that Mohammad is “the Manchurian Candidate of Islam.” The unemployed brother of a fireman killed in the Towers’ collapse believes that a “Muslim gaining control of the memorial was the worst possible thing that could happen.” The leader of a group known as Save Americans from Islam warns that Muslims are “trying to colonize this hallowed ground.”

But the struggle over the memorial comes down to two very different 9/11 widows—Claire Burwell, whose husband was a wealthy art collector and philanthropist, and Asma Anwar, whose husband was a janitor and an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. A member of the contest jury appointed to represent the families of the dead, Claire originally championed Mohammad’s plan for a tranquil garden on the site, but when his identity is revealed and it is suggested that he has designed an Islamic martyr’s paradise instead of an American memorial, she begins to waver. For the very same reason, Asma rises to become Mohammad’s most outspoken supporter. At a public hearing, she insists that Mohammad’s garden is not for the “bad people” who murder in the name of Islam: “The gardens of paradise are for men like my husband,” she says, “who never hurt anyone.” An Islamic garden is an appropriate design for an American memorial, she declares, 

because that is what America is—all the people Muslim and non-Muslim, who have come and grown together. How can you pretend we and our traditions are not part of this place? Does my husband matter less than all of your relatives?

Asma is murdered for her remarks, Claire turns decisively against the garden, calling for “unity, for flexibility, not for rigidity,” and ultimately Mohammad withdraws. In the sequel, he becomes an internationally famous architect. But America is left confused and divided and unwilling to compromise. The bitter struggle over memorial symbolism, Amy Waldman suggests, masks a deep national dysfunction. From a 9/11 novel, this is a disappointingly muddled message. The title of The Submission is intended to carry multiple meanings: Mohammad’s design is a blind submission in an open national competition, Islam is not a religion of peace, as popularly supposed, but of submission, Americans must learn to submit to their private griefs and public heterogeneity—but the end result is sameness of theme. The Submission preaches respect for difference, but as a novel it is old news.

About the Author

D.G. Myers, literary historian at the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at Ohio State University, writes the monthly fiction chronicle and is the author of our Literary Commentary blog.




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