Wednesday, May 8, 2013

STL #112: Skills and Exhortations (The Art of Fielding and The Original of Laura)

I liked The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach's 2011 debut novel. Quite a bit, actually. It is a well-honed perfectly conventional novel. In reading it, you can tell it emerged from workshopping and rewriting, and blood and sweat and tears (or rather, typing, typing, and typing). What I remember enjoying in particular is a single refrain, the prototypical sports cheer: You are skilled! We exhort you!"  and also a handful characters including Henry Skrimshaw, the protagonist shortstop who comes down with the yips and his mentor, the catcher Schwarzy who is skilled, but falling apart at the age of twenty two. The novel is enjoyable, immensely readable. The author is skilled, we should exhort him.

I have a feeling that Harbach will always be, at least in part, the author of The Art of Fielding. In the end, the author is merely skilled. He may have another celebrated season, for his next novel or the one after that.  Vladimir Nabokov is many things, but is not the author of The Original of Laura. He certainly wouldn't claim it--he wanted his notes toward this unfinished novel destroyed because he did not have the time to develop it and refine it, or even finish it. The edition designed by Chip Kidd reproduces the index cards he composed on. Some are relatively fleshed out, some are just bare sketches of scenes. One scene sticks out in my head. It comes early on in the sequence, when the book still reads (nearly) as a finished novel. The title character is returning home late, after a night of illicit behavior, and she and we see a laughable character, "her obese husband, in a rumpled black suit and tartan booties with clasps... walking a striped cat on an overlong leash." This is just won gem in a drawerful, trunkful, of VN's career. The figure is pathetic, and it is the clasps on the booties that makes the reader disgusted even if sympathetic.  This is the consummate novelist's art, which Nabokov could seemingly invoke at will during his long career--finding an image that reveals whole unwritten stories, illuminate the life of a character, and allowing us to understand our world more fully.

What I seem to be doing here is weighing a single index card against a doorstop of a novel, and finding in favor of the 3 X 5 card. This isn't fair of me, pitting a rookie against a Hall-of-Famer. So what am I getting at in this comparison? Hymning a paean to genius? I spent an afternoon reading The Original of Laura, but several days with the The Art of Fielding. I have recommended the latter to numerous people, but can't imagine a scenario by which I would recommend the former (it is nowhere near where one would begin with Nabokov; surely any Nabokophile would be apprised of it already). I think I might be in the thought-territory that I enter every time I read a recently published novel: that the form is dead. Novels continue to be written for many years to come; they will emerge burnished and hopeful from workshops and they will drop roughly out of isolated writers' lonely years. But at this point, I fear we have nothing new to learn from novels. We are merely picking over images and shards. The fragmentary form of Nabokov's notes might represent a literature better suited for out times--brief and gestural, but gleaming out of the darkness.