Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Art of Novel Writing

I read voraciously. Ask Warren—there are always stacks of books and articles on my side of the little couch on which we spend most of our evenings. My piles tend towards non-fiction. Without making a precise study of my reading patterns, I would estimate I read non-fiction over fiction at a rate of at least 5-1, and that is being conservative.

Sometimes my stack of books-in-waiting will be replaced with a tower of young adult (YA) fiction, which is a genre unto itself. But rarely does adult fiction of any ilk figure into the stack or linger long in the pile.

I am not sure what it is about fiction, especially contemporary fiction. I find most of it inconsistent and unsatisfying. I don't approach each novel looking for the Great American Novel (or the equivalent from other countries), but I do always carry the faint hope for something with a little more staying power than a stale cookie or tired sandwich.

My fiction choices are the books most readily sanchezed. I just sanchezed one last night; I finished one last week that should have been tossed.

But there are exceptions. I recently read Ruth Ozeki's A Tale Told in the Time Being. I wrote my son Ben that I had started it with indifference and was unsure whether I would stay with it, but gradually the story pulled me in. When I finished, I wrote,  "I cannot recommend it highly enough. I cannot describe it, except to say I have never seen a novel structured  in quite this way, with a quantum physics thread through it that makes the narrative work." (Hint: You can read the book without understanding the quantum physics. Trust me on that.)

A really well-written novel, weaving together characters and story lines into a glowing tapestry, is an art. It is a carefully layered savory pie, with a rich vein of portobello mushrooms threaded through the zucchini and the onions. A well-written novel is a celebration and a feast.

This past week I came away from the fiction table, satisfied and sated.

The recommendation came over a year ago from my dear daughter-in-law Alise, no slouch herself when it comes to reading. She had just finished The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and wrote that the book was "sort of old-fashioned in its storytelling. Especially if you read a lot of contemporary literature, which seems to me, at least, to often be very cynical and overly opaque to the point of seeming affected...This novel, by contrast, is just plain good storytelling." (Good enough storytelling that Alise by her own admission stayed up to the middle of the night to finish it.)

I finally good around to checking out The Art of Fielding. My only regret is I waited so long to read it.

The Art of Fielding has a solid baseball foundation in it, but you need not be a baseball fan to understand the story. There is a strong current of Herman Melville too, but you need not know your Melville to enjoy the book. There are five primary characters, but you need not fall in love with any of them to follow the novel. 

What you need is an appreciation of the art of writing, the art of carefully fashioning a story. You need to appreciate the author's skill in seeing one story line run to the distant horizon, and being able to also see the other story lines joining in at a gentle sweep and strengthening the main line. Harbach exercises that craft precisely and beautifully. 

The Art of Fielding is about baseball and Melville. It is also about death, life, desire, perfection, loss of faith, and about finding that faith in oneself all over again. Like all great novels, it is about universal themes set in the most ordinary of settings.

I mentioned the book last Wednesday to my friend Mel, another book devourer, and she immediately said, "Oh, I LOVED that book." She had read it some months ago. "I remember I just didn't want it to end."

I told Mel I was afraid I was at the same place. When she and I spoke, I had another 20-25 pages left. I knew the ending was coming, and I just didn't want to let the story go.

I finished The Art of Fielding that evening and set it on the coffee table reverently. Warren was at a meeting; I was alone in the house. I put my hand on the cover and said aloud to the empty house, "That was a great book." 

I emailed Mel. "That was beautiful."

I emailed Alise, thanking her for the recommendation. She responded, "I LOVED it. I don't really read many novels these days (mostly non-fiction for me). But Art of Fielding was such a good, kind of old-fashioned novel. I devoured it."

I raved to Ben about it when he called to wish me a happy birthday. Ben had also read the book and was most enthusiastic about it. 

And now I am writing about the book, because it is just too good not to.

It is time to take the book back to the library. I will hand it over sadly, hoping that it will soon fall into someone else's hands. I do not buy a lot of books anymore, but this one may have to be an exception. It is a keeper.

Baseball season opened April 1. The radios in the car and house are all set to the Cincinnati Reds (Warren's team, not mine). I love baseball, and I love to hear it on the radio. There is a rhythm to a good game and an old-fashioned storytelling aspect to a well-called game. How timely that just as the stadiums roar back to life for another season that I finish The Art of Fielding.

And as in a good baseball game, where the bases are loaded, the payoff pitch is on the way, and the announcer is quiet while the pitch carries forward,  the last line of the book delivers that same hushed anticipation.

"The ball came off the bat." 



see you there! said...

Because you recommend it so highly, I am going to put this on my library list. I am NOT a baseball or other sports fan and I have to tell you the title definitely puts me off. However, I trust your judgement.


Jennifer said...

Oh I love a good book recommendation. I've been unable to settle into a book as of late, nothing has grabbed me. I have been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction as my sister runs the teen programs at our local library and always has good recommendations. Give me good characters I can love or hate and a storyline I don't see coming and I'm happy.

Sue said...

I too read Art of Fielding about a year ago and was spellbound. You certainly don't have to be interested in baseball to savor this multi level story.

sfo2lhr said...

I read this on your recommendation and, alas, I was very disappointed. I respect your opinion and just don't see what you loved so much: to me, critical elements of the plot and story didn't hold together, the characters were without real nuance or depth, so it ended up that it just left me cold. In fact, with 100 pages to go, I would have stopped reading the book altogether had I not been on public transportation with no other book to read. My biggest problem was with the Guert character. I found his actions particularly unebelievable. He's pretty much our age, and I could in no way relate to nor even believe the plausibility of many of the decisions that he made. Anyway, glad you loved the book ... sorry that it left me cold.