Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Stealing Home

Put your arms around me
Like a circle round the sun
You know I'll love you baby
When my easy riding’s done
You don't believe I love you
Look at the fool I've been
You don't believe I'm sinking
Look at the hole I'm in
Stealing, stealing
Pretty mama don't you tell on me
I'm just stealing back to my
Same old used to be

- Gus Cannon/Arlo Guthrie

I’ve been away for a while. I’ve been elsewhere. I’ve been otherwise. I’ve been doing a lot of drawing and a lot of work and a fair amount of reading and thinking, but not a lot of writing. And now I’m back. Perhaps for a visit. Perhaps to settle in for a while.

My recent reading has included The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. It’s a novel about baseball. Sort of. Three of the five main characters are in fact baseball players, and the novel spans several years in the trajectory of a particular college baseball team on a quest for the national championship. (The other two main characters are the president of the school, and his daughter Pella, a prodigal daughter recently returned home.) The book is in a very literal way a sports story, relying on familiar and somewhat reassuring sports motifs. But it is also in a very literary way an odyssey, relying just as much, if not moreso, on analogy and allusion and archetype. The history and intellectual identity of Westish College, for example, is linked up with Herman Melville, whose spiritual presence suffuses the pages of this book in playful ways (the name of the school team is the Harpooners, and the central character is named Henry Scrimshander), but also in more subtle and resonant ways. It’s a story about the heroic ambitions—not to say obsessions, although there are plenty of those—of ordinary people, and how those ambitions bring them to grief, but also somehow redeem them. Here, for example, is Henry Scrimshander, considering what condition his condition is in:

All he’d ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever. It sounded crazy when you said it like that, but that was what baseball had promised him, what Westish College had promised him... The dream of every day the same. Every day was like the day before but a little better. You ran the stadium a little faster. You bench-pressed a little more. You hit the ball a little harder in the cage; you watched the tape afterward and gained a little insight into your swing. Your swing grew a little simpler. Everything grew simpler, little by little. You ate the same food, woke up at the same time, wore the same clothes. Hitches, bad habits, useless thoughts—whatever you didn’t need slowly fell away. Whatever was simple and useful remained. You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever. He knew it sounded crazy when you put it like that. To want to be perfect. To want everything to be perfect. But now it felt like that was all he’d ever craved since he’d been born. Maybe it wasn’t even baseball that he loved but only this idea of perfection, a perfectly simple life in which every move had meaning, and baseball was just the medium through which he could make that happen. Could have made that happen. It sounded crazy, sure. But what did it mean if your deepest hope, the premise on which you’d based your whole life, sounded crazy as soon as you put it in words? It meant you were crazy.

The book does not limit itself to the realm of sport. It also considers, investigates, and in a sense interrogates other sorts of complicated dynamics in human relations, including not just the two most obvious, eros and thanatos, although both figure into the story, but the very act of writing itself: Here, for example, is (Westish College President) Guert Affenlight, looking back on his early ambitions to be a novelist, like his hero Herman Melville:

It was easy enough to write a sentence, but if you were going to create a work of art, the way Melville had, each sentence needed to fit perfectly with the one that preceded it, and the unwritten one that would follow. And each of those sentences needed to square with the ones on either side, so that three became five and five became seven, seven became nine, and whichever sentence he was writing became the slender fulcrum on which the whole precarious edifice depended. That sentence could contain anything, anything, and so it promised the kind of absolute freedom that, to Affenlight’s mind, belonged to the artist and the artist alone. And yet that sentence was also beholden to the book’s very first one, and its last unwritten one, and every sentence in between. Every phrase, every word, exhausted him.

There’s a quote attributed to Dostoevsky that says “There are only two stories: a man leaves home, and a stranger comes to town.” He might have added a third, one which does not always happen but has an archetypal resonance when it does: the man finds his way back home. The Art of Fielding is that story. Among others. It’s a very deliberate, thoughtful, satisfying book.

And maybe this is that post as well.

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