Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why the College Novel Continues to Inspire So Many Writers, in Particular, Two Who are Appearing at Boswell on Thursday (Harbach) and Sunday (Eugenides).

College is such an intense thing. In one week, you find yourself with an intense friendship that would take a year to develop in the outside world.  Every single event came with such drama. Perhaps that's why so many novelists wind up eventually writing a college novel.

I note this as two of the most high profile novels of the fall, The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, and The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, have academic settings, and both authors are going to be at Boswell in the next few days. Both center of sorts with a love triangle, perhaps the greatest plot device of all time, although tragedy of war is also popular.

I'm still in the middle of The Marriage Plot, but fortunately we've had three other reads in the store. If you know how this stuff works, you'll understand that while you want as many people as possible to read a book, sometimes several other reads take you off the hook and you wind up gravitating towards another book that's not getting as much love.  Oh, and speaking of Eugenides, he's the featured author evet this week in the Shepherd Express--here's a link to the page.

Plus I constantly underestimate how long it will take me to read things.  Three days?  Sure, I can do it. (No, I can't, for the most part).

Some might say The Art of Fielding centers on a love hexagonal, which consists of:
a. Henry Skrimshander, a baseball natural
b. Mike Schwartz, his teammate and mentor
c. Guert Affenglight, the college president
d. Pella Affenlight, daughter of c and love interest of b and well...
e. Owen Moore, roommate and teammate of "a" and I'm not giving anything away as it's in every review and description, love interest of c.
f. baseball, the love interest of a and b, and the dalliance of e.

The action takes place at Westish College, which I've said is something between Ripon and Lawrence. Neither one is on Lake Michigan, however (Lawrence is on the Fox River, while Ripon's closest large water body is Green Lake), but UWM-Green Bay just doesn't seem to fit the bill. I spend a lot of time thinking about this, and if nobody asks at the event, I just might.  Another hint--Pella goes shopping in Door County.

So let's just say that Harbach captures the intensity of college life very well. And yes, I learned afterwards that one of my favorite professors (female) became involved with and left academia for a younger student; one of my other favorites (male) was married, and left his wife for a much younger man (not a student, I believe). And one of my high school teachers (male) wound up marrying one of his students (female).  But that's another novel, I guess. One of these people was not a president, but was a department head--I won't say which to throw you off the track and I'm absolutely not giving out their academic disciplines. What I'm saying is, these things can happen.

I'm not a sports person as such, but one of the great things about Harbach's novel is that the baseball is totally intense and yet doesn't overwhelm the story. They are definitely some of the most eloquent passages in the novel. But needless to say, The Art of Fielding is filled with the kind of passages that make you want to call someone over and read to them. I just give this small quote that continues to make me chuckle.  It's totally out of context so I'm not giving anything away.

"I was planning to tell you."
"When, on your deathbed?"
"Maybe," he said.  "Or a little after that."

Ever since the buzz panel at Book Expo, ever since right afterwards, when our pal Tracy came back from the show (she went sort of for the JCC--long story) incredibly effusive about Harbach, ever since the amazing advance reads, including one from a sales rep (not Hachette) telling me it was the best novel she'd read all year, we've had heightened awareness of The Art of Fielding.  But it seems like nothing created buzz like that Vanity Fair article written by Keith Gessen, "The Book on Publishing."  (Gessen's novel pictured below right). It's not available for a free link, but you can buy the ebook.  I just don't think you can buy it as a Google Editions ebook, which really sucks.

Gessen documents the book from the college group to the small writing workshop where everybody got a nice-sized advance for their first published work* and through it all, Harbach continued to work on this novel.  It shows the fortuitous of being passed over by numerous agents until he found one, Chris Parris-Lamb, who was not just adept at selling books (his first sale was Hillary Jordan's beloved Mudbound. I think this was the last scheduled author evet at Schwartz and either our first or second in-store lit group selection) but played baseball in college. Yes, everyone has a book sale in this group, even the agent's boss, Bill Clegg (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, which I read and I think, wrote about on the blog). Just seeing all the cover treatments of the novel (12 others) is really amazing.  The final one obviously has the look of an old-fashioned baseball team jersey, and was only one of three that was type plus stylized arrows.  The rest all had photos, some of which really looked a lot like other novels.  It's fascinating how one cover can say to me "Delillo" while another says "Irving" a third and fourth whispered "Jay McInerney" and "Russell Banks." And then there was the one that hinted "Malcolm Gladwell" to me; that seemed the most off.

Funny that in the end, the cover most reminds me of The Marriage Plot!

You can the purchase the magazine story for Nook or Kindle here, but alas, not from us. I almost left the link off, but it's tough for a bookseller not to give away info.

So don't forget, Chad Harbach reads with Stuart Nadler (read my blog about his wonderful collection here) on Thursday, October 20, 7 pm, at Boswell. No ticket, no cost, though it is against the 2nd game of the World Series.  And interestingly enough, it's with the St. Louis Cardinals, who of course play a role in the novel.

More on The Art of Fielding:
--The Journal Sentinel piece from Jim Higgins
--The Michiko Kakutani review in The New York Times that called Harbach "immensely talented" and put the novel in "the pantheon of classics"
--Judith Shulevitz's review in Slate
--The interview with Chad Harbach in The Paris Review.

Get a signed copy of The Art of Fielding, while supplies last
Get a signed copy of The Marriage Plot, likewise.

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