American novelists such as Harbach, and those who came before him such as Roth, Foster Wallace and DeLillo, are doing something much more imaginatively difficult when they dare to write fiction about sport, because they aren’t merely rubbing up against, or seeking to recast, the actuality of events already known and familiar. Or to tell us what they were thinking about or how they were affected by them. Rather, they are creating entire fictional sporting worlds – something from nothing, as it were – populated by characters who can seem as real to us as Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi. In fact, they seem more real – more complex, more human even, because the novel, at its best, is the one art form that offers privileged access to consciousness and interiority, to the inner torments, excitements, contradictions and indeed boredom of the human story.
“You loved it,” Harbach writes of baseball in The Art of Fielding, “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.” And that something crucial is that: “We’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”
So for Harbach, the secret of the appeal of sport to the American novelist is this: that, like art, it is a potential gateway to beauty, and can make us feel fully alive. Foster Wallace said something similar in a 2006 essay on the Swiss tennis genius Roger Federer: “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.”
Can we ever expect an equivalent of The Art of Fielding on this side of the Atlantic? The portents at last seem promising. In March, John Lanchester publishes Capital, a sprawling, panoramic state-of-the nation novel in the realist tradition of Mrs Gaskell’s North and South or HG Wells’s Tonay-Bungay. Its setting is one London street and, through the lives of those who live on it, seeks to dramatise the larger story of the English nation at a time of soaring inequalities and profound economic crisis. Lanchester is a clever fellow who knows a lot of stuff – including a lot about football and one of the main characters is a young African Premier League player.
Lanchester understands how football, in the age of the globalised Premier League with its clubs owned by Gulf oil theocracies and international plutocrats, has become the dominant cultural form of our times and that no novel that seriously wants to take the temperature of modern England, to hold up a mirror up to how we live today, can ignore sport.
What I like is that Lanchester is not content with merely describing the African’s life away from the pitch but follows him on to it, describing his debut in an extended scene that savours what Blake called “the holiness of minute particulars”. It’s worthy of Updike at his most promiscuous and, I hope, signals a new, more ambitious direction in English fiction.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.