I have a copy of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, one of the Great American Novels, given me as a school prize. (I didn't win many.) As a ten-year-old, it was above my head, and indeed it remains unread. But I have just learnt a bit about Melville himself from Chad Harbach's debut novel The Art of Fielding, which I finished yesterday.
Harbach's book looked intimidating - for being ostensibly about baseball, another no-go area for me, though I doubt it's any more arcane than cricket (which I love). I don't often think either about tackling books more than 500 pages long, but I needn't have worried: the story swings along nicely, with some neat twists. Whenever it threatens to get too frightening, the plot veers towards grand guignol.
I particularly liked the author's inventiveness with adjectives ("clean, chromatic, shapely, sun-kissed" for "girl/women": "bread-based" for religions) and
names: Opentoe College; Sarah Coowe, an infectious-disease specialist; Angela Fan; President Valerie Molina; Chef Spirodocus.
And then there are the philosophical riffs: “... the Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”
Franzen evinces a genuine concern for the environment: Harbach, it seems to me, doesn't, even though one of the characters has a lyric comprimario role as the Green voice. Addressing the question of whether his lover should or shouldn't make a major property investment, he says: "Thoreau's Journals...When a philosopher wants high ceilings, he goes outside. He doesn't buy an oversize house that requires massive amounts of dwindling resources to heat in the winter. And to cool in the Summer. Let's not even talk about air-conditioning... Do you think you get a free pass because the house is old and lovely? ... Waste is waste, sprawl is sprawl. Your good taste doesn't count. If there's any kind of exclusionary, private-club-style afterlife, St Peter won't be asking questions at the gate. You'll just be lugging all the coal and oil you've burnt in your life, that's been burnt on your behalf, and if it fits through the gate, you're in. And the gate's not big. It's like eye-of-a-needle sized. That's what constitutes ethics these days - not who screwed or got screwed by whom."