Posts Tagged ‘The Corrections’

The Art of Fielding and Fictionalizing History

“What happened to Steve Blass? Nobody knows, but some speculation is permissible—indeed, is perhaps demanded of anyone who is even faintly aware of the qualities of Steve Blass and the depth of his suffering. Professional sports have a powerful hold on us because they display and glorify remarkable physical capacities, and because the artificial demands of games played for very high rewards produce vivid responses. But sometimes, of course, what is happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero, but only a man—only ourself. We are no longer at a game.”

—Roger Angell, “Gone for Good,” June 1975

Nobody knows. Even 35 years later, nobody knows what happened to Steve Blass, why, after his best season in the major leagues, Steve Blass lost the ability to pitch. Blass was, historically speaking, the first in a list of infamous players that now includes Mackey Sasser, Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch, and Rick Ankiel—baseball players who suddenly and inexplicably could no longer do simple tasks that they had long ago perfected.

Sports, as Chad Harbach points out at one point in The Art of Fielding, create a strange paradox between the art they aspire to and the artless, thoughtless repetition required to best attain it. Baseball, just like any other sport, relies heavily on muscle memory and on keeping your brain as far out of your physical movements as possible. KISS, we all hear at some Little League practice: keep it simple, stupid.

Harbach’s much-anticipated debut novel—it isn’t often first-timers get six-figure advances these days—adds another name to that ignominious list with Henry Skrimshander, a balletic shortstop for Division III Westish College in lakeshore Wisconsin. Harbach’s novel essentially takes its cue from Roger Angell’s oft-praised (and deservedly so) profile of Blass from 1975: What happens to a baseball player when he loses the ability to play baseball? What happens when your self-definition dissolves?*

Continue reading

Advertisements

Monday Medley

What we read while assigning baseball allegiances to past assassins…

  • If we were to begin a series of old, esoteric interviews, this one from the Paris Review of Jorge Luis Borges would be a good starting point. Learn, among other things, what Borges’ favorite fabricated English word is. Unfortunately, while discussing the origin of character names, he does not bring up our resident sports revolutionary.

Freedom, Franzen, and the Modern Middle Class

As you probably guessed, Freedom is not free

What if, long after the time when you could reasonably consider yourself young, you came to discover that you had lived the wrong kind of life? That you had married the wrong person, worked at the wrong job, or raised your kids the wrong way? It’s probably fair to say that this realization would constitute a kind of living nightmare.

And yet, if freedom exists and we are all ultimately responsible for the choices we make, there is a very realistic chance that such a nightmare could become real. After all, we can’t expect every free person to make all the right decisions all of the time. What happens when free individuals make the wrong choices?

This is the question Jonathan Franzen explores in his new novel, Freedom, his long-awaited follow-up to The Corrections. Like that novel, this one is about a Midwestern family that’s trying to flee the Midwest. When we are introduced to the Berglunds—Walter and Patty—they are a Rockwellesque family living in suburban St. Paul. They are early pioneers in the gentrification process, and a quiet mix of acceptable liberalism (Walter’s an environmentalist who works for the Nature Conservancy) and old-fashioned family values (rather than working, Patty stays home and bakes cookies for the neighborhood).

But, like all Rockwellian veneers, there are many things beneath the surface, and they grow to undermine the family’s suburban splendor. Joey, one of the Berglunds’ perfect children, begins to terrorize his parents with placid rebellion, and this rebellion gradually pulls at the seams of their marriage. Patty, a former college athlete, viewed her family and her house and her life as primarily an extension of the competition she always thrived on while growing up. Meanwhile, Walter’s devotion to Patty is tinged with the worry that he was always his wife’s second choice; he is also concerned that his suburban life represents a betrayal of his political and environmental ideals. Inevitably, these anxieties over whether they’ve chosen the right kind of life manifest themselves in Walter and Patty’s marriage. At the end of the novel’s opening chapter, one of the Berglunds’ neighbors speculates: “I don’t think they’ve figured out yet how to live.” Continue reading

Monday Medley

What we read while exiting through the evacuation slide….

  • Speaking of defense, definitely the legal defense of the week.

The Corrections and the Big Novel

In James Wood’s influential review, “Human, All Too Inhuman,” of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, he discussed what he calls “the littleness of the big novel.” His point, put somewhat crudely, was that as the ambition of novelists grows to include encompassing the entire geographical, political, and philosophical spectrum, works of fiction end up losing their humanity. As Smith herself said, “It is not the writer’s job to tell us how somebody felt about something; it’s to tell us how the world works.” As a result, Wood claims, the movement that he termed “hysterical realism” produces work that “knows a thousand things, but does not know a single human being.” 

About a year after Wood’s condemnation of contemporary fiction first appeared in The New Republic, The Corrections was published. Jonathan Franzen’s novel certainly does not lack the kind of ambition Wood talks about: The Corrections spans cities, countries, and continents, covers multiple generations, deals with financial disasters and Eastern European political instability, looks at modern academia and middle-class suburbia. In short, the book does seem to know a thousand things.

And yet Franzen’s story remains wholly grounded and deeply personal. At its heart, The Corrections is a story of a Midwestern family, the Lamberts. The Lambert patriarch, Alfred, is a stubborn, straight-laced, intelligent, and principled man who is suffering from early but unmistakable signs of senility as the novel begins. As Franzen puts it: Continue reading

Aught Lang Syne: The Decade in Literature, Part I

In addition to our Aught-themed Sunday Book Review, which we began last week, NPI is presenting a more general look at fiction of the decade in which we look quickly and some of the most significant works of literature published during this decade. This is Part I of a two-part series.

2666 — Roberto Bolaño

 The epic of the Aughts (so long as we’re not counting The Wire), 2666 affords Bolaño the posthumous chance to opine on death in all its forms: from the corporeal to the metaphysical. His characters are deep even when they are fleeting, and his style (in Natasha Wimmer’s translation) ranges from florid to hard-boiled. In contemplating his own legacy, Bolaño pretty much ensured it. 

–Tim

 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay — Michael Chabon

I’ve already expanded on my high opinion of Michael Chabon’s novel about the Golden Age of Comic Books; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay presents a compelling portrait of what it’s like to create fantasies in an era of global turmoil—a particularly resonant story of the Aughts, even if Chabon’s novel came out in 2000. While he deals with themes like evil and fantasy, however, Chabon is adept at depicting a rich setting of New York City in the 1930s.

— John S

Continue reading