Sarah Crown 

Chad Harbach: a heavy hitter from left field

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
  
  

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach's debut novel of love, doubt and college baseball, sailed into the UK earlier this year on a wave of hype. The book tracks the arc of poetic shortstop Henry Skrimshander's career at Westish, a fictional liberal arts university on the shores of Lake Michigan: his dizzying ascent to tie the National Collegiate Athletic Association NCAA record for consecutive errorless games; the moment he misfires a throw and finds he can fail; the subsequent awakening of self-awareness that sends him on a screeching slide from grace. Published last autumn in the US, it met with ecstatic reviews, pantheonic comparisons with everyone from Jonathan Franzen to Don DeLillo, and in December it waltzed away with the top slot in the New York Times's 10 best books of 2011. The British literary world was on tenterhooks, and it is at last available in paperback in the UK.

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").

In the end, it's not until we move on to his parallel career as co-editor of the successful internet magazine n+1 that Harbach loosens up. If the novel itself shows no mark of the rookie, this moment in the interview, rather endearingly, does: he is transparently more comfortable talking about a joint endeavour (Harbach founded the magazine in 2004 with four others, including Gessen), and visibly relaxes, speech settling into the easy, yarn-spinning rhythm that makes his written sentences so lovely. The name, he explains, was his: "It started as a sort of joke. Right from when we graduated, Keith and I had always had an imaginary magazine; even though we weren't doing anything about starting it, we'd have these really intense discussions about it. And one day Keith called me up, very distressed. He was like: 'Now McSweeney's is getting going, and there are all these magazines out there – we've missed our moment!' And I was just, like, 'n+1', meaning, however many magazines there are, we find them all unsatisfying in some way. There's always going to be room for the one that does what we want."

Someone setting out to write a debut novel might similarly have glanced at the outfield of US literature, crowded as it is with baseball books, and decided there wasn't room for another, but again, not Harbach. Was he unsatisfied by the baseball novels that had come before? Is The Art of Fielding n+1?

"Well, maybe," he grins. "There's certainly a large literature around baseball in the US. American history and the history of baseball are bound up together: our racial politics can be described and traced through it. Also, I think writers find it amenable because it's a slow-moving game, pastoral, with a lot of room for contemplation contained inside of it. But at the same time, there aren't many baseball novels I've really loved. The sport just fit the story I wanted to tell. I was interested in watching someone going through a purely psychological crisis in public. Lots of people have those breakdowns, but it's less interesting when you can hide away. For Henry, anyone who wants to can come and watch him fall apart. No one had written fiction about that; it seemed a very good start to something."

And where do you go, after a start like that? "I'm kind of feeling around," he admits. "I'm such a different person now than I was when I began The Art of Fielding. It's quite a feeling to finish something you have been 10 years beholden to, and to have a clean slate." I can't be alone in dying to see what he'll write on it.