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In a recent simultaneously entertaining and eccentric essay in the London Review of Books, Colm Tóibín wrote about the strange and strained relationship between Flann O’Brien and James Joyce. The younger author, whose debut novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, has always been compared to the work of the great man of Irish letters, seemed torturously to distance himself from Joyce even as their literary projects were so clearly entwined. Tóibín characterises the pair as the Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker of Irish modernism: sharing the same tradition, and even the same concerns, but one in the service of a new, uniting dawn and the other simply striving for freedom.

At Swim-Two-Birds can be read as an assault on Joyce’s ambitions, an attempt by a talented young writer to destroy Joyce’s synthesising process, to dismantle the great controlling ambition and mapped-out plenitude of Ulysses. The aim of Joyce’s book was not to destroy the novel but to re-create it and make it larger, more inclusive, more faithful to life and life’s complexities. The aim of At Swim-Two-Birds was to lose control, to take the pieces and refuse to reconcile them, to insist that it was too late for such trickery. O’Brien refused to believe that the writer re-creates the world, but instead he set out to show that the world re-creates the writer, and that both the writer and the world are, or might be, a set of illusions, highly implausible, not even worth mistrusting, and that all we have fully to mistrust are pages and the words on them.

This is in microcosm the journey of the novel from modern to postmodern, of course – from DH Lawrence to Julian Barnes. For writers with literary ambition, the novel has become less a form than a playground. For some time, a novelist aiming to be taken seriously has needed to allow for a healthy dose of the metafictional in their work: the legacy of Joyce et al has been to endorse the approach of writers such as O’Brien. Modernism simply opened the gates for more of the fragmentation so vividly, and terrifyingly, conjured in The Waste Land.

Curiously, however, a significant strand of North American letters has taken a different turn. That faithfulness to life for which Joyce strived has been re-embraced by writers of this stripe, but the means of achieving it remains a matter of debate. For instance, the literary magazine n+1, whilst being broadly complimentary about critical theory and those writers, such as Don DeLillo, who write realism in an attenuated manner informed by postmodernism, has also been eager to move on to the next place: “Theory is dead,” its editors wrote in 2005, “and long live theory. The designated mourners have tenure, anyway, so they’ll be around a bit. As for the rest of us, an opening has emerged, in the novel and in intellect. What to do with it?” The much-awaited debut novel from Chad Harbach, one of that organ’s founding editors, appears to offer a surprisingly conservative answer.

The story of a college baseball team, The Art of Fielding fuses those two great American staples, the campus and the sports novel, and does so in a plot-focused, character-driven fashion. Harbach cycles through the points of view of four protagonists, describing the soapy adventures of Henry Skrimshander, the young shortstop ace who is about to break the baseball record for matches without an error; Mike Schwartz, the charismatic team captain who lacks any transcendent talent of his own; Guert Affenlight, the President of the Midwest liberal arts college in which the action is set; and his wayward daughter, Pella, who is rather predictably fought over by the other three. The story proceeds in much the intelligently life-affirming way you might expect, albeit with a quite masterly control of suspense and tension: The Art of Fielding wants desperately to be read, and it knows how to gets its way.

This isn’t really new – as far back as the late 1980s, Tom Wolfe was exhorting a return to relevance and realism in his essay ‘Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast‘, advocating something called ‘the new social novel’. Likewise, David Foster Wallace was sceptical of postmodernism, seeing it as a literary outgrowth of that bastardising villain, television. Most recently, for all the playfulness of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, that book, too, reads in large part like Harbach’s: the only difference is that when, in The Art of Fielding, iPads and cell phones make an appearance, they jar the reader rather than jolt the plot; Westish College does not feel like the sort of place which has access to the 21st century. In a recent piece at the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum argued that most television has still to deal with Facebook; on the evidence of Harbach, the same is true of most novels.

What is different about the recent flush of realism, of which The Art of Fielding is only the most recent and prominent example, is the bullishness of it all. Though he tries to hide theme as best he can, Harbach’s is an argument for the modest novel, the unpretentious novelist. “Everyone’s problems were silly in the long run,” Pella reflects at one point, “silly when compared with global warming, despeciation, some birdborne or waterborne disease that was lying in wait to flatten us all, silly when compared to the brute fact of death, but Henry’s problem was just plain silly.” [pg. 248] Furthermore, her father realises: “In the end, in search of useful wisdom, you could only come back to the most hackneyed concepts, like kindness, forebearance, infinite patience.” [pg. 432]

Every one of Harbach’s characters has a youthful success they now cannot escape: Affenlight wrote an era-defining book, Schwartz has lifted Westish to unparalleled heights of sporting success, but can’t get into legal school. So, too, the novel: how to return, cutting through the accumulated academic thicket of the last 70-odd years of baroque accretion, to the accessible brilliance of the form’s 19th century forefathers, such as Westish’s own ersatz mascot, Herman Melville? Harbach makes a good fist of it, despite the suggestion in his phrase “hackneyed concepts” that such an achievement would be redundant. Partly he does so by refuting the fiction that people act as they do in novels, animated by theory and abstraction: “Humans are ridiculous creatures,” thinks Pella during a shift at her job in the college’s kitchens, “or maybe it’s just me: a purportedly intelligent person, purportedly aware of the ways in which women and wage labourers have been oppressed for millennia – and I get choked up because somebody tells me I’m good at washing dishes.” [pg. 264] Likewise, Pella lectures Mike on his strained relationship with his protege, Henry:

“What you two need is couples counselin. Classic codependency. The neuroses and secret wishes of one partner manifesting themselves in the symptoms of the oth – “

“Oh, shut up.” [pg. 241]

It’s impossible not to compare all this to The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides’s recent novel, which resolutely refuted the wheeling invention of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex in favour of the story of three college kids (two guys and, er, the girl they fight over), and their books. Eugenides cheats a little – he sets his story in the 1980s, when the email and SMS that don’t quite fit in Harbach’s world weren’t around to contend with – but it sets out similarly to craft a new cultural space beyond the postmodern. Early on, Eugenides’s own heroine is in a student cafe looking at posters for gigs and art projects: “all the clamorous Xeroxes whose subtext conveyed the message that the wholesome, patriotic values of her parents’ generation were now on the ash heap of history, replaced by a nihilistic, post-punk sensibility that Madeleine herself didn’t understand but was perfectly happy to scandalize her parents by pretending that she did.” [pg. 8] Madeleine even goes so far during her college years as to attend a seminar on critical theory taught by a character Eugenides decides not to understand but mercilessly lampoon: “Semiotics was the form Zipperstein’s midlife crisis had taken. Becoming a semiotician allowed Zipperstein to wear a leather jacket, to fly off to Douglas Sirk retrospectives in Vancouver, and to get all the sexy waifs in his classes.” [pg. 48]

The Marriage Plot asks itself, therefore, a similar question to the one with which The Art of Fielding concerns itself: in Eugenides’s particular case, he wonders how a form so reliant on sexual relations and marriage can refigure itself for the 21st century. Perhaps not coincidentally, it features a character modeled, consciously or otherwise, on Foster Wallace himself, and if its focus on the marriage plot is rather narrower than Harbach’s far broader conception of the novel (which he also simultaneously treats far more gently and supplely), the presence of the fiercely logical Leonard Bankhead, all headbands and manic depression, and his mystic rival, Mitchell Gramaticus, allows Eugenides to expand his enquiry beyond literature and into religion and philosophy: “Everyone he knew was convinced that religion was a sham and God a fiction,” muses Grammaticus. “But his friends’ replacements for religion didn’t look too impressive.” [pg. 96]

The absence of an alternative doesn’t make what you’ve got any better, though. Where can all this New Sincerity ultimately take us? Madeleine finds herself counselled that the secret of marriage is forebearance: “You have to forget about it,” her mother advises on the subject of the marital infraction. “Forget about it and go on.” [pg. 368]  Leonard’s approach is to behave like a diploid yeast cell in an insufficiently nutritious environment: become a haploid again, “because, in a crisis, it’s easier to survive as a single cell.” [pg. 382]  No balance is achieved. Eugenides – unlike Harbach, who strains towards the happy, resolved ending denied the novel by postmodernism – is, then, happier leaving questions asked rather than answered, but I’ve grown to distrust novels of this sort – posing a problem is, after all, too easy. Likewise, The Marriage Plot tries to introduce homosexuality to complicate the novel, both particularly and generally speaking, but it does so rather furtively and without much direction; the love Affenlight develops for a man – the first such experience he has had – is, on the other hand, a key plot point in The Art of Fielding, and feels (those dread words, alas) organic and authentic.

Indeed, those adjectives describe Harbach’s novel better than most. If this makes it sound like a fine old wooden chair, that would be to underestimate its cleverness. In a field recently joined by English novelists – John Lanchester’s recently published Capital, or Amanda Craig’s Hearts and Minds, are both being spoken of as neo-Dickensian masterpieces – The Art of Fielding reads like the most nimble of literary artifacts, an absorbing, addictive read which is also a considered thesis. There’s something that troubles me about its success, though. At one point in The Marriage Plot, Madeleine meets an old friend at a party. “I can’t believe you’re married,” she exclaims. “That’s so retrograde!” [pg. 377]  It’s hard not to wonder in this way whether looping backwards towards Jane Austen really is the only way to move the conversation forward from Joyce and O’Connor’s bantering brogues, particularly when the women get less good parts than they did in 1815. Harbach may need to throw a curveball next time, if he is to retain his streak.

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