Between the Lines: Reading Contemporary Americana

| February 1, 2012 | 1 Comment

I recently read two of last year’s highly praised novels. “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides is his long-awaited follow-up to the award-winning “Middlesex.” “The Art of Fielding” is Chad Harbach’s first novel, and he hit the jackpot—it was selected as one of the New York Times’ five best works of fiction for 2011. Both books made a number of “best of the year” lists.

Both novels are about contemporary young adults. Eugenides follows three Brown University seniors through graduation and their first year grappling with the big wide world. Harbach’s protagonists include three baseball players at a small private university in Northern Wisconsin. The university milieu and influences dominate both stories.

The characters in the two books are flawed and flailing—it’s called being human, and they’re relatively new at it. As readers, we may or may not like them and empathize with them, but we come to understand them. They make bad decisions, they hurt each other and their families, they fail miserably, but they have the rest of their lives to work things out. You get the impression that most of them will redeem themselves sooner or later.

I was immediately caught up in “The Marriage Plot,” even though the characters were self-absorbed and their stories somewhat myopic: Mitchell loves Madeleine, who loves Leonard, who’s hanging onto his wits by a thin thread. In an interview, Eugenides said that his title referred to Jane Austen and the Brontes and the days when novels ended with weddings and presumed happily-ever-afters. “Reader, I married him.” The end. Now, with such a high divorce rate, couples uncouple and rearrange themselves into different pairs, and the drama goes on. The novel was engrossing, a page-turner, but it didn’t quite come together for me. It left me wanting something more.

Okay, I thought, maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m ageist and want my protagonists to be rational and judicious adults, like me, not angst-ridden post-adolescents. Tales of narcissistic upper-middle-class kids groping their way into maturity are not the stuff of gripping fiction. But aren’t they? Jane Austen’s characters were well-to-do young adults whose sole preoccupation—since they weren’t even bothered by the necessity to earn a living—was making a good match.

Reviews for “The Art of Fielding” implied that it was more than just a baseball novel. Baseball as metaphor works for me, but this was baseball as baseball, and lots of it. These guys are jocks; they live for baseball. Other major characters—the school president and his daughter—are absorbed with baseball too, or with baseball players. And yet somehow it was more; it was satisfying and thought-provoking. Both failure and success loomed larger than you would expect. The characters were no more self-aware than the trio at Brown, and yet their choices seemed to be more attuned to the reality around them.

In retrospect, both novels were well written and compelling snapshots of our time. Their protagonists’ youth can’t be held against them; we were all young once, and our youthful indiscretions were part of what shaped us into the mature and lucid adults we are—or like to think we are—today.

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