Michael Chabon’s distinctive strength in storytelling is a command of style that reminds his reviewers of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Chabon creates an engaging surface of epigrams, wit, and telling comparisons. His subjects are also similar to Fitzgerald’s, dealing mainly with young people trying to find their way through morally ambiguous and confusing situations. Though his style calls attention to the surface of his stories, they are, nevertheless, moving, mainly because his characters are realized fully enough and their problems and dilemmas are serious enough to involve the reader. A Model World is divided into two parts. “Part 1: A Model World” contains six stories on varied subjects. “Part 2: The Lost World” is a group of five stories about Nathan Shapiro, a boy who grows up while dealing with his parents’ divorce. Looking closely at three stories, “S ANGEL,” “A Model World,” and “The Little Knife,” will illustrate Chabon’s characteristics.
In “S ANGEL,” Ira Wiseman, a twenty-one-year-old senior drama student at the University of California, Los Angeles, goes to the wedding of his cousin, Sheila, in Los Angeles. A young romantic, Ira is waiting for fate to bring him together with the right woman: “Ira never went anywhere without expecting that when he arrived there he would meet the woman with whom he had been destined to fall in love.” His ideas of falling in love are confused, a mixture of unsatisfied sexual desire and idealism, but the world that he finds at the wedding seems dominated by sexual exploitation and economics.
At the reception, following the wedding, Ira feels uncomfortable and lonely. A woman attracts his notice: “Her body had aged better than her fading face, which nonetheless he found beautiful, and in which, in the skin at her throat and around her eyes, he thought he read strife and sad experience and a willingness to try her luck.” Is she attractive because suffering has deepened her character or her romantic appeal, or because she might prove willing to engage in sex? The narrative voice makes fairly clear that the advice that he gets from his lesbian cousin, Donna, is right; Carmen, a neurotic, abused divorcée, is not a good prospect for Ira’s first love affair.
As Ira approaches, meets, and attempts to begin a friendship with Carmen, he witnesses events that sketch out his activities and attitudes. He sees, and others confirm, that after two hours of wedded bliss, Sheila remains uncertain that marrying is what she wants. He overhears a conversation in which a non-Jew, Jeff Freebone, who affects Jewish speech and mannerisms, and who has rapidly become wealthy in the real-estate business, talks about firing an employee: “I should have done it the day it happened. Ha ha. Pow, fired in her own bed.” Later, this same man commands the “carnal” affections of the group of Jewish women at Ira’s table, including Carmen, his wealth overcoming even the unabashed lesbianism of Donna and her girlfriend and Carmen’s history of abuse by a husband not unlike Freebone. He takes them away from the reception to view Carmen’s house, which she would like to sell. These and other incidents underline Ira’s naïve attitudes toward sex and love. Left alone again, Ira receives the assignment of locating the bride, who is supposed to cut the cake but has disappeared. Ira finds her alone, and they sympathize with each other, seemingly renewing an old sexual attraction between them. The story ends with their kiss.
As the story of a young idealist looking for romantic love in what turns out ironically to be an inappropriate place, at a wedding, “S ANGEL” is light in tone. There are no great defeats or losses in the story, and Ira does not lose his sweet, idealistic side. Nevertheless, the threats to people such as Ira and Sheila are serious. They believe that they are looking for authentic relationships, untainted by sexual exploitation and the struggle for wealth and status, but virtually everyone around them seems to be the way Sheila feels at her wedding, like “a big stupid puppet or something, getting pulled around.” They may both be victims of rather silly romantic illusions about love. Chabon achieves this lightness of tone in part through his style, especially in sentences that carry readers over long thoughts containing interesting turns and amusing surprises. When Ira pretends to go to the bar in order to walk by Carmen’s table for a closer look at her, he is described: “Ira swung like a comet past the table, trailing, as he supposed, a sparkling wake of lustfulness and Eau Sauvage, but she seemed not to notice him, and when he reached the bar he found, to his surprise, that he genuinely wanted a drink.” Here, Chabon captures the contrast between Ira’s dream of his attractiveness and Carmen’s jaded response, which converts his pretense of going for a drink into a reality.
The story’s title refers to a misfolded map of Los Angeles in Carmen’s purse. Ira is following a metaphorical map of romantic love, believing that he knows the signposts: “He had yet to fall in love to the degree that he felt he was capable of falling, had never written villanelles or declarations veiled in careful metaphor, nor sold his blood plasma to buy champagne or jonquils. ” This only begins his list of the signs of love. Carmen has the map in a disorganized purse that reflects her lost life, and she apparently used it to find the location of the wedding, whereas Ira got lost and was late in arriving. This metaphor implies that Carmen, abused, divorced, depressed, and still looking for another rich husband, knows the road much better than Ira.
“A Model World”
“A Model World” shows Chabon setting up a complex social situation that might remind one of the parties that Fitzgerald created in The Great Gatsby (1925). Smith, the narrator, and his friend, Levine, are physics students at a Southern California university. Smith is working on subatomic particles with brief lives: “Evanescence itself was the object of my studies.” Levine is working on cloud dynamics, research that should lead toward the ability to control internal cloud movements. Both areas of study involve modeling, attempting to describe phenomena that are virtually impossible to measure and manipulate. This motif of modeling parts of the world turns up in a variety of ways, from the central image of a model of the greenhouse effect on Baldwin’s computer through the modeling of social life in drama and on television to the telling of stories, fictional models of human life. The story culminates in a dinner party at the home of Baldwin, Levine’s thesis adviser. There, social tensions mount as in a storm cloud until Smith manages to give them the spin that eases tension and contributes to changing the course of several people’s lives.
The tensions arise from the secrets shared between various pairs at the dinner party, secrets that amount to attempts to give shapes to different aspects of the relationships among these people. Having lost the excitement of science while working on his dissertation, Levine discovers in a used bookstore an obscure study of Antarctic clouds that completely and persuasively demonstrates the thesis toward which he has been working. This book arouses his passion, for it seems to have suffered the fate that he fears: “It was the horror of death, of the doom that waited all his efforts, and it was this horror, more than anything else that determined him to commit the mortal sin of Academe.” The sin is to plagiarize the book. By doing so, he will escape the prison of his fruitless studies so that he can go to New Mexico to make ceramic wind chimes and forget about measuring and controlling wind in clouds. In the process of plagiarizing, however, “his faith in the stoic nobility of scientific endeavor” is restored, and he once again dreams of a scientific career. This leads him to want to confer with Baldwin, to learn whether he has any real chance of getting away with plagiarizing. At this point, an academic reader might wonder why Levine does not simply use the book in the usual way, giving the author credit for his or her work instead of stealing it.
Smith’s dissertation is going well enough,...
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