Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Art of Fielding - not as good as Dawson

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (Fourth Estate: 2012) Set in a small liberal arts College, a baseball phenomenon is uncovered and promises to carry his previously unknown team to its most successful season ever. On the verge of breaking all sorts of records, he makes a disastrously errant throw which has profound consequences – for the young star, for his tireless mentor, for his gay roommate, for the College President, and for the President’s daughter.
Holy Mother it's a hot day outside! Let's all cool down with a bit of GBRing, huh?
This book came with some pedigree. It was well reviewed. It was one of the Sunday Times’ books of the year. People said nice things about it.
But it had some red flags. The blurb on the back didn’t grab me. It had all the marks of a drama fertile for cliché and Dawson’s Creek like heartache (which is something only Dawson’s Creek can get away with).
There was the cover as well. I know, I’m not supposed to judge a book by that. But there’s a team of people behind it whose job it is to design something they think represents the book, something that will make it appeal to the right market. This cover looked sugary sweet, the kind of powdery cover you’d see on the book peeking outside a thirteen year-old girl’s knapsack (kid’s still use knapsacks, right)?
But no, I ignored these red flags. I decided to give it a chance. To believe the critical acclaim the book received. I couldn’t find a bad word written about it. I didn’t search too hard, granted, but there seemed to be an overwhelming swell of good feeling about this.
Bah! I should have trusted my first instinct. I should have, despite all advice to the contrary, judged this book by its cover. Those guys who put it together, spent their days coming up with the perfect front cover, the one that expressed what this book feels like, what it reads like, its shape, its niche – I should have believed them. I bet they hate that “don’t judge a book by its cover” saying. I bet they despise it. It’s their whole job. It’s their art. Distilling this whole book done into a single image. Careful choice of font. Just the right colours. They put effort into it, and I should have believed them, should have trusted what they came up with.
This is a soap opera of a book. A bunch of instantly recognisable characters, but not because you love them, rather because you’ve seen them a million times before. True, they had some interesting character quirks. There were a few original ingredients. But none of them hooked me. None of them stopped me imagining this whole thing being played out with a Mexican soap opera’s sense of over acting, over dramatisation.
It’s a story driven book, but one that fails in creating any genuine tension. The Amazon reviews will tell you it is anchored by a cast of strong characters, but I found them all paper thin. The premise relies on the power of a coming of age tale, but I simply didn’t care enough about these people to be swept up in their metamorphosis.
It does play one effective trick though. It drags the whole thing out. Which means I spent a while reading this. Turned a lot of pages. And now I’ve finished it, and I look at it on my coffee table. I do feel a sense of nostalgia. I care about it a whole lot more now I’m done with it. The setting, the people, the main events, I think back to them and can’t help but feel a little fondness for them.
It’s a dirty trick. It elicited a spark of a connection purely because of its length. But I shouldn’t dismiss that. It probably says something about the writing. About the pacing. About the plot ingredients used. That it creates this sense of nostalgia without me noticing it at the time is probably a redeeming factor that shouldn’t be thrown away entirely.
I suggest your time would be better spent digging out that Dawson’s Creek DVD box set. They did this first, and better.
Next week, I’ll be blogging live from the Edinburgh Literary Festival (because I’m a new media sort, and can do some of that real time stuff, 2.0 style). Highlights will include chats with Will Self, Wilbur Smith, and catching up with the Reids!
Stay tuned.

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