British readers worried that US bestselling novel The Art of Fielding is purely about baseball can allay their fears. The sport is in the book to focus on the hero's very public crisis, says the author
So far, so familiar. Every year or so the transatlantic publicity machine cranks into overdrive, and everyone in the UK is briefly convulsed by rumours of the next big thing from across the water, before the dust settles and we all go back to what we were doing. The difference this time is that The Art of Fielding is every bit as good as billed. A big, beautiful blowout of a book, sure and generous, it reads like a throwback to the mid-20th century, when American literature was in its pomp. Henry's story is a work of rich psychological realism in the grand tradition, gaining pitch and heft from a meaty supporting cast, a resonant campus setting and a thicket of literary references. If we're not quite looking at Philip Roth's replacement – the novel, in the final analysis, is too affable and lacks the nerve of the truly great book to haul its readers over the coals – this is nevertheless an exceptional debut. And its author – in his mid-30s, with most of his writing life in front of him – may well yet step up to the plate.
Surprising, then, how self-effacing Harbach turns out to be in the flesh. Neat and diffident in a button-down shirt and navy blazer, visually he is hard to get a fix on, and for the first 20 minutes or so of our interview, the same proves true in conversation. When I put questions that I imagine he will have heard countless times, he blinks politely and bats them away with a faintly puzzled air. Did the book have a complicated genesis, I ask (it did; his friend Keith Gessen has published an ebook detailing the problems of its publication). Oh no, he insists; in a way the genesis was very simple: aged 24, he had the idea and started writing. What about its status as a Great American Novel? Surely, given the book's obsession with the American canon (Whitman, Emerson and particularly Melville, whom Harbach casts explicitly as its presiding genius), he must have given the question some thought? But he shrugs, smiles, shakes his head. "It's a common phrase, but it's never quite clear what people mean by it. 'What's the Great American novel?' It's like asking: 'What's the meaning of life?' And who cares what the meaning of life is, right?" This, from the man whose novel offers a definition of the human condition ("basically, that we're alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not").
Full story at The Guardian.