I have the hardest time finding good fiction. One working theory to explain that is that I usually don’t try very hard to find good fiction. I’ll own up to it. But sometimes my laziness (i.e., willingness to let trusted internet sources filter culture for me) works to perfection. This one got recommended by Austin Kleon, Maris Kreiszman, and Ben Casnocha, so I thought I’d better pick it up.
Ignore for a moment the fact that they mentioned it about a year ago and I read it this summer and I didn’t write about it until now. It’s a novel of baseball and college and friendship and family, and it is delightful to read at all times, from the off-hand asides…
This was a real college, an enlightened place–you could get in trouble for hating people here.
…to the self-aware observations:
Literature could turn you into an asshole; he’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.
And there’s the realist/critical eye toward modern business life:
Management consulting terms like *industry ante* and *decision factor* were the glue of their relationship–Affenlight tried to learn as many of them as possible, and to intuit or invent the ones he hadn’t learned.
Another good example, observing baseball scouts:
Smooth-featured and polite, business-casual in dress, with slender laptops in their laps and BlackBerries laid beside them on the bleachers, they looked like oversize consultants or CIA agents playing a very reserved sort of hooky.
Austin already pulled one of the best excerpts in there:
He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph. Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose the form of your suffering. Most people couldn’t do this alone; they needed a coach. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you.
I also loved this section on the ontology of sport:
For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed *sometimes*, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer–you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error.
And one character’s thoughts on self-definition:
Don’t be dour about it. Straight gay black white young old–it’s not going to kill you or let you live.
This line reminded me of John Cage:
That was the idiot hopefulness of humans, always to love what was unformed.
Lastly, on men:
Men were such odd creatures. They didn’t duel anymore, even fistfights had come to seem barbaric, the old casual violence all channeled through institutions now, but they still loved to uphold their ancient codes. And what they loved even more was to forgive each other.