Chabon, Michael (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Michael Chabon 1963-
American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Chabon's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 55.
With the publication of his debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), Chabon was recognized as one of the most promising young writers of his generation. Regarded as a skilled storyteller, Chabon's prose evokes the intense longing and emotional scarring that accompanies adolescence, broken families, sexual initiation, and unrequited love. Chabon's protagonists—typically confused teenagers and disillusioned men—are often tragicomic figures who fall victim to their own earnestness, infatuations, and obsessive need to make sense of their lives. Chabon is best known for Wonder Boys (1995), a novel that was adapted into a critically acclaimed film in 1999, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Born in Washington, D.C., Chabon is the child of accomplished professional parents; his father is a physician, lawyer, and hospital administrator, and his mother is a lawyer. Chabon's parents divorced while he was in middle school, and his father moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Chabon visited during the summer and holidays. Chabon was primarily raised in Columbia, Maryland, a progressive planned living community in which racial, economic, and religious diversity were actively fostered. At an early age Chabon envisioned a future for himself as a writer. When he was thirteen, he wrote a story about a meeting between Sherlock Holmes and Captain Nemo that received a positive response from his teachers and family, further encouraging his desire to pursue a literary career. After a year at Carnegie Mellon University, Chabon transferred to the University of Pittsburgh, where he received an undergraduate degree in 1984. In 1987, Chabon entered and won a short story contest sponsored by Mademoiselle Magazine. His first book, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was written as his thesis while pursuing his master of fine arts degree at the University of California, Irvine. Without his knowledge, two of Chabon's professors sent the manuscript to an agent in New York City. Within two months, Chabon's book was sold to a publisher and the young author quickly rose to prominence. In 1991, Chabon's marriage to writer Lollie Groth ended in divorce. He married Ayelet Waldman, an author and attorney, in 1993. After abandoning work on a languishing second novel titled “Fountain City,” Chabon wrote Wonder Boys, which became a bestseller and won recognition as a New York Times Notable Book in 1995. The novel was optioned by producer Scott Rudin, who adapted the story into a 1999 film starring Michael Douglas. Chabon's short fiction has appeared in various periodicals, including Gentleman's Quarterly, Esquire, and New Yorker. In 2000, Chabon published The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which, in addition to winning the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, was nominated for the National Book Critics' Circle Award in 2000.
Chabon's first two novels are set on college campuses with the city of Pittsburgh as their backdrop. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh centers around Art Bechstein, a college student who struggles to complete his baccalaureate degree at the University of Pittsburgh while coming to terms with his bisexuality and the disdain of his father, a Pittsburgh gangster. Art's simultaneous affairs with a man and a woman (Arthur and Phlox) are further complicated by the illegal dealings of his best friend, Cleveland, who is pursued both by the police and Art's mobster father. Wonder Boys was inspired partially by Chabon's own frustration with writing and rewriting a second novel. The satirical comedy chronicles three manic days in the life of Grady Tripp, a marijuana-smoking English professor whose life unravels as he struggles to complete a long overdue fourth novel which he hopes will match the acclaim of his debut book. Instead of writer's block, Tripp suffers from an inability to stop writing, with thousands of manuscript pages accumulating and no end in sight. The complex plot revolves around Tripp's attempt to finish his book, titled “Wonder Boys”—a task given new urgency by the arrival of his New York editor, Terry Crabtree. While Crabtree hounds him for the book, Tripp is forced to deal with his estranged wife Emily and his gifted and suicidal creative-writing student, James Leer. Emily is a Korean orphan raised by American parents as an Orthodox Jew, and she leaves Tripp after learning of his affair with the college provost, Sara Gaskell. The ensuing complications, including additional farcical subplots, force Tripp into an emotional crisis, and his eventual undoing leaves him open to the possibility of a fresh start.
Chabon's first short story collection, A Model World and Other Stories (1991) consists of eleven stories, many of which previously appeared in the New Yorker. The first six stories address various aspects of love and disappointment, as in “Blumenthal on the Air,” in which an American disc jockey falls in love with an Iranian woman. He marries her to secure her U.S. citizenship, but his new wife ultimately rejects his love and leaves him. The final five stories, a linked sequence entitled “The Lost World,” describe the effect of divorce on a boy named Nathan Shapiro. “The Little Knife” explores ten-year-old Nathan's growing realization that his parents will divorce; “More Than Human” focuses on the transition period of his parents' separation, during which Nathan views his father as unable to protect him from pain; “Admirals” takes place eighteen months after the divorce, when Nathan's father has decided to remarry; “The Halloween Party” relates Nathan's excruciating crush on one of his mother's married friends; and the title story, “The Lost World,” concludes the sequence as Nathan, a 16-year-old virgin, is unable to bring about a sexual encounter with his neighbor, Chaya. The short stories of Werewolves in Their Youth (1999) probe the undercurrents of depravity and criminal desire that lurk within decent, law-abiding people. In “Green's Book,” a thirteen-year-old boy feels a sexual urge for the four-year-old girl whom he baby-sits. Though he does not act on the urge, the fact that he experienced it haunts him years later. Despite the fact that he has become a psychologist, he still perceives himself to be a dangerous man. Another story, “Son of the Wolfman,” involves a married couple who, after trying and failing to conceive, must cope after the wife is raped and becomes pregnant. The concluding story, “In the Black Mill,” is a mock horror story attributed to August van Zorn, a fictitious pulp writer Chabon created in Wonder Boys.
Chabon's Pulitzer-prize wining novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, was inspired by two historical figures, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two artists who created Superman and sold the copyright to their idea for a mere $100. Unlike Siegel and Shuster, the protagonists of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Josef Kavalier and Sam Clay, are cousins who create a successful comic book empire. The novel spans sixteen years in American history, from 1939 to 1955, and its leitmotif of escape is examined from multiple points of view. Born in Prague, Josef is enchanted as a child by the illusions of magician Harry Houdini and spends his days practicing his own tricks and escapes. When Adolf Hitler rises to power in Europe in the late 1930s, Josef decides to escape to the United States, but not before locating the Golem of Prague, a legendary clay figure said to have been created by a sixteenth-century rabbi to protect the Jews from their enemies. Josef is able to smuggle the Golem out of Europe by posing as an undertaker and hiding the statue (and himself) in a coffin. On his way to America, Josef travels east from Russia to Japan and finally to New York City, where his cousin Sam introduces him to comic books. The two create a superhero named The Escapist, and their comic book series featuring the character is a commercial success, making Josef and Sam wealthy. The Escapist also serves as a means for Josef and Sam to work out their own emotional conflicts and, by extension, the conflicts of their young readers. Josef joins the war effort to fight the Nazis, but ends up stationed in Antarctica for the duration of the war. After the war, he and Sam must defend their art against a commission on decency that finds comic books pernicious to young minds.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was hailed as an exemplary first novel and prompted critics to compare Chabon to such literary figures as Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. Although many critics were wary of the hyperbolic publicity surrounding Chabon's debut novel, even skeptical reviewers praised his unusual narrative control and noted some stylistic similarities between Chabon and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Chabon's first novel also attracted notice for its bisexual protagonist, prompting at least one major reviewer to misidentify Chabon as a gay writer. While A Model World and Other Stories received a mixed assessment, with several critics finding the collection a mingling of excellent and average work, Wonder Boys solidified Chabon's reputation as a serious literary talent. Reviewers have consistently praised Chabon's rich prose and strong narrative skill, emphasizing his ability to sketch vivid characters and subtle scenes in sophisticated language enlivened by perceptive use of metaphor. Critics have frequently cited an underlying element of nostalgia and optimism in Chabon's work regarded by many as a refreshing contrast to the nihilism and self-pity in much contemporary fiction. Likewise, Chabon's lack of authorial narcissism and his emphasis on plot and character is viewed by many reviewers as a notable departure from the solipsism and trendy artifice of recent postmodern fiction. However, some critics have noted that Chabon's prose is at times overwrought and that his complex narratives, particularly that of Wonder Boys, suffer from the author's antic imagination and tendency toward sentimentality. Both Werewolves in Their Youth and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay have been greeted by reviewers as further evidence of Chabon's maturation, with the latter work receiving nearly unanimous praise.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (novel) 1988
A Model World and Other Stories (short stories) 1991
Wonder Boys (novel) 1995
Werewolves in Their Youth (short stories) 1999
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (novel) 2000
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SOURCE: “Another Last Summer,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 26, 1991, p. 20.
[In the following review of A Model World, Montrose finds Chabon's short fiction well composed but unexceptional.]
Over recent years, certain hypesters in American publishing have managed to pass off a potential to achieve great things some day as great things already achieved. The result has been a string of young writers whose books possessed, the PR went, serious literary merit as well as impressive sales.
Michael Chabon's novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) was the unlikeliest bestseller of the bunch. The hype-assisted successes of Less Than Zero, Slaves of New York and Bright Lights, Big City were not unexpected, given that fictional guides to new lifestyles have been popular, and overpraised, at least since F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise supposedly anatomized the Jazz Age. Chabon's book, however, lacked that brand of currency, harking back ten years, to before AIDS and the cocaine boom. In addition, for all narrator Art Bechstein's active bisexuality, it was an unusually genteel work: Bechstein and his raffish circle were pretty subdued in their misbehaviour, notably in preferring booze to drugs; Chabon's elegant, albeit affectation-peppered, prose and mythopoeic/nostalgic tone prompted comparisons with the young Fitzgerald, though his...
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SOURCE: “The Pleasure of His Company,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 9, 1991, pp. 3, 8.
[In the following review, Tallent offers a positive assessment of A Model World.]
Michael Chabon writes a prose so engaging—so rapid, graceful, allusive, and resourceful—that its reader can't help feeling flattered, singled out for brilliant attention, as when a witty friend brings every last ounce of vivacity to a conversation.
In the novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon's first book, joi de vivre was half the story. The other half was a diligently plotted plot, variously enamored characters, a brooding gangster father and the young narrator's troubled decoding of his own sexuality. The novel included, as an anti-romantic element, the industrial swelter of summer Pittsburgh, yet it was romance, really, that carried the day.
It was a largely unclouded summer's day: The exhalations of factories never smelled toxic, fear of AIDS did not haunt gay sex, and the mourners at a funeral included “drunks, mysterious riffraff” and a grieving girlfriend dressed to achieve an effect of “comic sadness.” If the other characters’ escapades seemed sometimes less absorbing than the narrator's changeable, resplendent sensibility, there was not a dead moment, stylistically, in the entire book. In its élan, the novel shone a radical light on a good deal...
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SOURCE: A review of A Model World and Other Stories, in Ploughshares, Vol. 17, Nos. 2–3, Fall, 1991, p. 284.
[In the following review, Herold offers a favorable assessment of A Model World and Other Stories.]
You might think that Michael Chabon is simply trying to twist your tongue when he writes sentences like this: “She had on one of those glittering, opalescent Intergalactic Amazon leotard-and-tights combinations that seem to be made of cavorite and adamantium and do not so much cling to a woman's body as seal her off from gamma rays and lethal stardust.” In fact there is at times a certain kind of cosmic breathlessness that characterizes Chabon's style, but it never twists or stumbles. The stories in A Model World carry out the vaunted promise of Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and most readers will welcome both the broader range of his new work and its assured prose.
The first half of this new collection (many stories were previously published in The New Yorker) contains stories like “Ocean Avenue” that are pure delights. Chabon has a gift for capturing the giddiness we feel when life gets a little too serious, and this is what makes his characters both amusing and sad. The second half of the collection is a group of stories about a young boy whose parents are in the process of divorce, and there's nothing overworked in...
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SOURCE: “Heart Troubles,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 358–65.
[In the following excerpt, Johnson offers a mixed assessment of A Model World, calling the short story collection an “immensely promising and curiously disappointing book.”]
Jane Austen declared that there were only two things worth writing about: love and money. Though one might wonder how Austen's sensibility would have coped with an era of AIDS and Reaganomics, it's clear from the lively gathering of short-story volumes reviewed here that contemporary writers are finding a particularly rich source of narrative possibilities in the conflict between the ageless intensity of passion and some of the bizarre conditions—by turns tragic, heartening, and absurd—of late twentieth-century America. Like the culture itself, current fiction is reflecting with admirable honesty the diversity of human love—there are convincing portrayals of gay, lesbian, and interracial relationships in these volumes—and it's equally encouraging that the fortunate decline of minimalism as a relevant force in American fiction appears to be giving younger writers the freedom to demonstrate their passion for language in exploring the various passions of their characters.
Youthful love and longing are at the center of Michael Chabon's first collection, A Model World. Reviewers of his best-selling...
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SOURCE: “The Short Fiction of Michael Chabon: Nostalgia in the Very Young,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 75–82.
[In the following essay, Fowler examines Chabon's prose style in the collection A Model World and Other Stories as well as his portrayal of adolescent love, loss, and disillusionment.]
The heavy burden of the growing soul Perplexes and offends more, day by day; Week by week, offends and perplexes more With the imperatives of ‘is and seems’ And may and may not, desire and control. The pain of living and the drug of dreams Curl up the small soul in the window seat Behind the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
T. S. Eliot, “Animula”
At its best, Michael Chabon's fiction depicts the nostalgia his characters feel for their former lives, which they have seen severed from them through an aboriginal emotional catastrophe. This sense of an intense nostalgia permeating his fictional world is all the more striking since Chabon's subjects are almost always young and bright and socially advantaged Jewish males, and his prose style is urbane, vivacious, and decorated with end-of-the-century American proper nouns and brand names—for it is in no sense misleading to point out that all 12 stories constituting Chabon's 1991 story collection A Model World were first published in The New Yorker, Gentleman's...
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SOURCE: “The Paper Chase,” in Washington Post Book World, March 19, 1995, p. 3.
[In the following review, Yardley praises Wonder Boys and affirms Chabon's literary accolades.]
Michael Chabon is so stupendously gifted and accomplished a writer at so early an age that it is tempting, when writing about him and his work, to hold back, to leave some of the superlatives unused, to reserve judgment. So many American writers have been impaled upon those early reviews, their careers wrecked by excesses of praise and the distractions that they bring. Even to think of this happening to Chabon—a writer not merely of rare skill and wit but of self-evident and immensely appealing generosity—is painful and thus encourages reticence.
Yet there's no getting around it. With this [Wonder Boys], his second novel and third book, Chabon leaves no doubt that he is the young star of American letters, “star” not in the current sense of cheap celebrity but in the old one of brightly shining hope. As one who reluctantly but firmly believes that literary fiction no longer contributes significantly to American cultural life, I welcome Chabon as that most unlikely of anachronisms, a serious writer who actually connects.
Chabon's wonderful first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, published seven years ago when he was 24, was followed three years later by an even...
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SOURCE: “A Bag of Pot, a Purloined Jacket, and Thou,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 26, 1995, pp. 3, 12.
[In the following review, Eder offers a positive assessment of Wonder Boys.]
[In Wonder Boys on] one dark night, though by no means his darkest, Grady Tripp, a writer-in-residence at a Pennsylvania college, finds himself trying to accommodate in his decrepit Ford Galaxie, among other things:
A stash of assorted drugs belonging to Grady's editor, who has come to harass him about his bogged-down novel, currently running at 2,600 pages.
A tuba belonging to Miss Sloviak, the editor's transvestite companion.
James, a suicidal writing student whose derringer Grady has just confiscated.
The corpse of a large dog, just shot by the student and belonging to Grady's English department chairman, whose wife is the college chancellor and Grady's longtime lover.
Marilyn Monroe's fur-trimmed jacket; the one she wore to marry Joe DiMaggio.
“That's a big trunk,” placidly observes James, a veritable Charybdis of neediness and certain sucking death to any small craft in the vicinity. “It fits a tuba, four...
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SOURCE: “Novel Complications: Michael Chabon's ‘Wildly Funny’ Tale of a Problem-Plagued Writer's Final Fling,” in Chicago Tribune Books, April 2, 1995, p. 5.
[In the following review, Hearon offers a positive assessment of Wonder Boys.]
At the start of Michael Chabon's second novel, Wonder Boys, Grady Tripp, a fat, 40ish, 6-foot-3 academic in small-town Pennsylvania, is laboring on his fourth novel, Wonder Boys, already over a thousand pages long and with five possible endings involving biblical disasters and Shakespearean bloodbaths. He's trying to complete it before his best friend and longtime editor, Terry Crabtree, arrives to give a lecture at the college where Tripp is trapped in the chicken coop of teaching fiction.
This, then, is that agreeable and ironic staple, the novelist's novel about a novelist and his novel. What makes this wise, wildly funny story much more than that is the fact that Chabon is a flat-out wonderful writer—evocative and inventive, pointed and poignant.
Tripp and Crabtree have enjoyed a great era of friendship since “before stars were lost from certain constellations.” Tripp's dad, a cop and Korean War vet, died at the poker table in the back room of the Alibi tavern, after having shot the first Jew to graduate from Coxley College. Crabtree's dad was a Pentacostal preacher out in Hogscrotum County, Mo., and his...
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SOURCE: “Michael Chabon: Wonder Boy in Transition,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 15, April 10, 1995, pp. 44–45.
[In the following interview, See discusses Chabon's life, publishing history, and the origins of Wonder Boys.]
Michael Chabon, once pegged as a wonder boy for his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, languidly lounges in an overstuffed-chair in his Spanish duplex in Los Angeles. With lanky hair, loose-fitting clothes and a modest demeanor, he looks like a nice boy that any mother would be happy to see her daughter bring home. He's self-deprecating, soft-spoken, and he has the endearing habit of paying more attention to the squeals of delight issuing from his four-month-old daughter in the back bedroom than to the discussion of his long-anticipated new novel, Wonder Boys, just released by Villard.
The novel has wonderfully wry connotations. Narrator Grady Tripp, once deemed a “wonder boy” on the strength of his first novel, remains mired in his second attempt, a hopelessly long work-in-progress called Wonder Boys. His editor, Terry Crabtree, also once a rising star, is on the skids. And the next generation is coming up fast: at the college where Grady teaches, a talented but incurably mendacious student seems poised to begin a stellar writing career.
Chabon knows whereof he speaks. His own career took off like a...
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SOURCE: “A Novelist's Nightmare,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 21, 1995, p. 20.
[In the following review, Tandon offers a generally favorable assessment of Wonder Boys.]
Henry James exhorted the potential novelist “to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” Grady Tripp, the narrator of Michael Chabon's second novel, a literary enfant terrible turned embarrassing adult, is less sanguine about the sensitivity of artists:
The midnight disease is a kind of emotional insomnia; at every conscious moment its victim—even if he or she writes at dawn, or in the middle of the afternoon—feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the window thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and airplanes, listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a Coke bottle, while all round him the neighbours soundly sleep.
Much of Wonder Boys possesses this fever-dream quality of narration, as the perpetually drugged, failed author Tripp stumbles through a weekend that would be much better lost, but refuses to go away.
Tripp's problem is not writer's block but writer's bloat; he is a former Wunderkind whose fourth novel, Wonder Boys, is clearly turning into a monster as flabby and directionless as its author. It is hard to avoid making...
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SOURCE: “A Life of Wonder,” in Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1995, p. B11.
[In the following essay, Himmelsbach discusses Chabon's literary success, the author's struggle to write a second novel, and Wonder Boys.]
Michael Chabon was just your not-so-average literary wonder boy trying to splashily follow up his phenomenally successful debut, 1988's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, with a great second novel.
After all, from the moment Chabon discovered his gift for writing, at 13, Chabon penned a story about Sherlock Homes meeting Captain Nemo, and he was hooked.
“It wasn't that hard,” he says. “I had fun doing it, and I got all this praise and attention.”
A mere decade later, while completing his master's in fine arts at UC Irvine, Chabon became the toast of the publishing world with the release of Mysteries, which, although intended as his thesis, touched off an intense bidding war. (William Morrow ultimately plunked down ＄155,000.)
And, if critics were to be believed, he had the goods. Finally, they exclaimed, a literate young writer, someone more concerned with craft than attitude.
Unlike other authors of his age, Chabon embraced, rather than scorned, the power of words and language; his writing was lively, funny, involving, beautiful, the kind of stuff from which great literature is made....
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SOURCE: “Panic in Pittsburgh,” in New Statesman and Society, June 9, 1995, p. 38.
[In the following review, Kaveney offers a positive assessment of Wonder Boys.]
When a much-praised young writer turns to writing about writing, the patter of diminishing returns usually approaches. However, in Michael Chabon's excellent second novel [Wonder Boys], a novelist's rapid tumble towards disaster comes to seem no more than a special case of the rule, no less general for being the determinant of Aristotelian tragedy: that chickens have to come home to roost.
In three tragi-comic days, Grady Tripp loses almost everything—his marriage, his car, his job, his best friend, the adoration of his favourite students and the novel on which he has been working for seven years. He almost loses his life and his lover as well, but his author is merciful and Grady gets pulled back, literally, from the brink. As he lurches stoned round Pittsburgh, he accumulates plot tokens like a fantasy swordsman—a dead dog, a tuba and the jacket in which Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio. These tokens weigh him down with the guilt of past infidelities and stupidities.
Grady's personal symbol of the sickness of all writers is August Van Zorn, aka Albert Vetch: the horror writer he knew as a child, whose works periodically loom out of memory or bookshelves like the retributive monsters in...
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SOURCE: “Youth and Consequences,” in New Republic, June 26, 1995, pp. 40–41.
[In the following review of Wonder Boys, Gorra finds flaws in the novel's disparate plotlines and the protagonist's disingenuous observations.]
It [Wonder Boys] starts well. “The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn. He lived at the McClelland Hotel, which my grandmother owned, in the uppermost room of its turret, and taught English literature at Coxley, a small college on the other side of the minor Pennsylvania river that split our town in two.” Already the peculiarly American resonance begins to catch you, the note of the young man from the provinces who has begun to discover a wider world. It is the voice of Nick Carraway and also of the young Nathan Zuckerman; a voice you recognize, that you like and trust. Or no, a voice you want to like and trust.
I first encountered Michael Chabon in the form of a xeroxed page scotch-taped to a colleague's office door. The page came from his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and it began with the young narrator's admission of his “ugly fondness for generalizations,” a fondness indulged in his explanation as to why “there is always something weird about a girl who majors in French.” As a passage on an office door, it was sharp enough, and it made me remember its...
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SOURCE: A review of Wonder Boys, in Antioch Review, Vol. 53, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 498–99.
[In the following review of Wonder Boys, Bick finds the novel's conclusion overly romanticized, but commends Chabon's emotionally complex protagonist.]
Chabon has changed the setting of his second novel [Wonder Boys] from the motorcycle milieu of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to an academic one. Although Volvos have replaced motorcycles and central characters have aged, the riotous pace continues.
The novel opens with Grady Tripp, a creative-writing instructor at a Pennsylvania college, facing personal and professional dilemmas. Tripp's novel, slaved over for years, has reached 2,600 pages with no conclusion in sight; Crabtree, his long-time editor and friend, is losing patience and perhaps his job; Grady's third wife has left him; and his lover, the chancellor of the school where he teaches, has discovered she is pregnant.
To the hermetic atmosphere of “Wordfest,” the college's yearly creative-writing conference, is added James Leer, a student of Grady's. Unlike his teacher, James has actually completed his novel, The Love Parade. Though Grady spots the book's inadequacies, he is also jealous, realizing that James is destined to be the “Wonder Boy,” the working title of Grady's putative novel.
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SOURCE: “Fiction in Review,” in Yale Review, Vol. 84, No. 1, January, 1996, pp. 157–65.
[In the following excerpt, Birkerts offers a positive assessment of Wonder Boys.]
Novelists writing novels about novelists are like doctors taking their own blood pressure and temperature. The thermometer goes straight into the horse's mouth and those who are interested in the health of the art ought to pay close attention.
This past publishing season has been striking in that three novels [Men in Black, The Information, and Wonder Boys], all by seasoned practitioners, have not only featured novelist protagonists but have, each in its own way, used the erosion of writerly dreams as a way to look at the larger context of literary culture in our day. Martin Amis and Scott Spencer, both in their forties—writing about novelists in their forties—are, as perhaps is fitting, more attuned to the corrosive forces of the whole publishing system, whereas Michael Chabon, still in his thirties, focuses more on the private demons of his protagonist. In all three novels, however, ideas of failure and concession are writ large. Ridicule, self-pity, and a swarm of pestering sarcasms crowd around the various exemplars of the creative imagination. And although writer protagonists have always been made to suffer—for their hubris, their privileged disconnectedness from the messy business...
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SOURCE: “No Potions in the Lab,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 5, 1999, p. 23.
[In the following review, Greif offers a mixed assessment of Werewolves in Their Youth, stating that the collection “leaves the reader poised between elation and disappointment.”]
Men wish they were monsters or criminals in the New America. They aspire to be werewolves, child molesters, rapists and thieves. Fathers dream their sons are monster births. Sons hope their fathers are mad scientists. Couples try to anesthetize themselves to love, trading partners or having sex for medical purposes. None of it works. The American male finds himself bound by a peaceable civilization and unforeseen moral scruples. His transgressions are less dramatic than he thinks.
This frustration, springing from a gap between inner drama and dull reality, touches each of Michael Chabon's characters in his ragtag new collection of stories, Werewolves in Their Youth. All any character wants to be is the kind of person who can do or suffer evil. Instead, each one learns that he's one more example of what Americans know to call a “nice guy”: a man who is decent and good, but ordinary as the wallpaper.
A few wonderful stories are hidden in the middle of the volume. “Green's Book” is a stunner. At the age of thirteen, Green had been tempted by the sex of Ruby, the little girl he was...
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SOURCE: “Bourgeois Blues,” in Washington Post Book World, April 4, 1999, p. 7.
[In the following review, Hynes offers a positive assessment of Werewolves in Their Youth.]
Michael Chabon is a rarity among American writers, a wunderkind who not only survived instant and early success but who has thrived and grown, becoming more accomplished and successful with each book. His bestselling first novel, the giddy Mysteries of Pittsburgh, published when he was 24, was aptly described as “a nearly perfect example of the promising first novel,” and his first volume of short stories, A Model World, provided further evidence of the elegance of his prose while demonstrating even more emotional depth and technical control than the novel. Wonder Boys, his second novel and first fully realized work, was a gleefully inventive and hugely entertaining story of writers behaving badly; it managed to be madcap and moving all at once.
Now, with Werewolves in Their Youth, his splendid new volume of short stories, it's possible to speak of a Chabon oeuvre, to recognize a style and certain subject matters as Chabonesque. With wit and compassion, Chabon writes especially well in these stories about pre-teen boys (the title story), the uneasy relationship of parent and child (“Green's Book”), failing relationships (“House Hunting” and “That Was Me”), and middle-aged...
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SOURCE: “Exploring Our Inner Conflicts,” in Chicago Tribune Books, May 16, 1999, p. C3.
[In the following review, Seaman offers a positive assessment of Werewolves in Their Youth.]
The children in short stories and novels offer clues to the source of a writer's inspiration and sensibility. It is the trauma and triumphs of childhood, after all, that orient you to the human world. A persistent sense of alienation can foster keen observational skills, while love engenders empathy, and a volatile mix of these two precious qualities is essential to the mysterious process of writing fiction.
Michael Chabon possesses both in spades, as well as such intimacy with language that his psychologically acute metaphoric descriptions bloom in the mind with as much prismatic dazzle as the fireworks ignited by psychedelics. His fictional children are ardent and critical beings sparking with off-kilter wisdom and wit, edgy imaginations and precocious resiliency. Chabon writes confidently from their point of view, and then, making the leap from child to man, captures the confusion, wonder, fear and gratitude fathers experience as they muddle through each stage of parenthood, entranced and frightened by the magnetism and vulnerability of the young.
The title story in this knockout volume [Werewolves in Their Youth], Chabon's second story collection, is a droll yet searching tale...
(The entire section is 972 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in Washington Post Book World, September 17, 2000, p. 15.
[In the following review, Dirda offers a positive assessment of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.]
Just how amazing [is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay], you ask? Well, consider: A teenager named Joseph Kavalier escapes from Nazi-occupied Prague by hiding in a sealed coffin that also contains the legendary Jewish monster, the Golem. Yet another young man, gimpy-legged Tom Mayflower, discovers that he has been chosen by the mystic League of the Golden Key to become the scourge of injustice and savior of the oppressed, none other than the blue-suited superhero the Escapist. About the same time, a bespectacled librarian, Miss Judy Dark, “Under Assistant Cataloguer of Decommissioned Volumes,” finds herself unexpectedly metamorphosed (electric wire, ancient artifact) into, yes, that darkly radiant Mistress of the Night, the revealingly attired (i.e., unattired) crime-fighter Luna Moth. And not least, by any means, there's scrappy, fast-talking Sammy Clayman, all-American adolescent visionary, vintage 1939:
“Sammy dreamed the usual Brooklyn dreams of flight and transformation and escape. He dreamed with fierce contrivance, transmuting himself into a major American novelist, or a famous smart person, like Clifton Fadiman, or...
(The entire section is 1690 words.)
SOURCE: “Sam and Joe Take on the Nazis,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 6, 2000, p. 24.
[In the following review, Horspool offers a positive assessment of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.]
Until now, it has been difficult to notice a pattern to Michael Chabon's work, mainly because he has published comparatively little. His first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was published in 1987, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is only his third, after Wonder Boys (1995) and two collections of short stories (A Model World and Other Stories, 1991, and Werewolves in Their Youth, published last year). But some landmarks are beginning to be discernible. First, the critics’ early, convenient comparisons with his contemporaries Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis have been shown, with each book, to be ever wider of the mark. Chabon seems much more interested in innocence than experience—his characters tend to be ingénus trying to pass themselves off as old hands (“Like all of his friends, [Sam Clay] considered it a compliment when somebody called him a wiseass”). Though he shares with McInerney a smooth, stylish eloquence, Chabon seems less concerned with experimenting with form or structure. In Kavalier & Clay, the extent of his technical innovation consists of infrequent intrusions of an authorial voice into a tale simply...
(The entire section is 1419 words.)
SOURCE: “Hope Against Hope,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 8, 2000, p. 2.
[In the following review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Levi commends Chabon's prose and narrative skill, but concludes that the novel lacks passion.]
Gadzooks! The Amazing Adventurers of Kavalier & Clay. Not since the Celebrated Mr. Kite have such superheroes been trumpeted with such promise and panache. And though Michael Chabon, who burst upon the literary scene 15 years ago with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, may be no John Lennon, his broadsheet of a title announces a center-ring spectacle as entertaining as any circus act, even without Henry the Horse.
Kavalier is young Josef Kavalier, a child of pre-World War II Prague, born to a professional secular Jewish family, in a time before tragedy. But as he grows into his late teens, the grip of Hitler tightens around his country and his city. It is Josef's boyhood obsession with the legend of the late Houdini and the secrets of locks and chains makes him the likeliest member of the family to escape. From Czechoslovakia to Russia to Japan and finally the United States, Joe uses silence and cunning to enter the land of his exile. And as the son of an endocrinologist and an analyst, it is little wonder that upon arriving in New York, Joe begins to earn his family's ransom by entering the business of comic...
(The entire section is 949 words.)
SOURCE: “The Novelist as Wonder Boy,” in Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2000, pp. E1, E4.
[In the following interview, Ybarra provides an overview of Chabon's life and literary career, discusses Chabon's comments about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and examines the author's interest in comic books and 1940s-era American culture.]
When Michael Chabon was a child, his pediatrician father would lug stacks of comic books back to their Columbia, Md., home, where the young devotee devoured each issue, especially the work of Fantastic Four creator Jack Kirby, amassing thousands of skinny volumes. Three decades later Chabon, 37, a celebrated prose stylist whose first two novels were bestsellers, has written an effusive, magisterial paean to the genre and its creators; the 600-page story [The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay] plumbs the admittedly shallow depths of the Golden Age of Comics while at the same time sounding the unfathomable abyss of the Holocaust and its meaning for a young refugee in New York who finds fleeting fortune drawing characters that right the world's wrongs while dressed in long underwear.
Here is how Chabon describes what comic books mean to Joe Kavalier in his new novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay:
Joe sighed. Although all the world—even Sam Clay, who had...
(The entire section is 1747 words.)
SOURCE: “Chabon's Excellent Adventures,” in The Advocate, December 19, 2000, pp. 62–63.
[In the following essay, Bahr discusses Chabon's incorporation of homosexual characters in his fiction and the author's misidentification as a homosexual writer upon the publication of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.]
Recently Michael Chabon was speaking to a New York Times reporter about his dazzling and delightful new novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, when he was asked “the question,” the one that Chabon has been asked repeatedly during the 11-plus years since publication of his first book, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a sensitive and smart story of bisexual love. So, the reporter inquired, how did the happily heterosexual Chabon feel about being labeled by Newsweek as one of the most promising new gay writers? Chabon simply said, “I felt very lucky about all of that. It really opened up a new readership to me, and a very loyal one.”
While certain famous folks, misperceived as gay, have taken out full-page ads proclaiming their heterosexuality, it's refreshing to meet someone who views being mistaken for gay as a stroke of luck. “Since my first book came out, so many young men and women have told me they read that book at exactly the right moment,” explains Chabon from Berkeley, Calif., where he lives with his wife and two children....
(The entire section is 506 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in World & I, Vol. 16, No. 2, February, 2001, p. 213.
[In the following review, Deignan provides an overview of Chabon's literary career up to the publication of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.]
The greatest difference between Michael Chabon's latest novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and his previous two is the book's grand scope. His first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988)—seen largely as a somewhat flawed yet undeniably impressive debut—was a coming-of-age tale, told over the course of one summer. Chabon's second novel, Wonder Boys (made into a much-acclaimed movie starring Michael Douglas and directed by L.A. Confidential's Curtis Hanson), told the story of a shaggy, aging professor whose once-promising literary career is mired in yet another bad marriage, an unexpected pregnancy, too much pot, and a behemoth, unfinishable novel.
Wonder Boys (1995) is set over a single weekend, around a college campus. It is excellently written and funny, though its intense focus on academia and publishing—not to mention its insufferably irresponsible yet lovable writer/lead character—will annoy a fair share of readers.
Now comes Amazing Adventures, which sprawls across three decades and as many continents, and...
(The entire section is 737 words.)
SOURCE: “Playing with Kiddie Dynamite,” in World & I, Vol. 16, No. 2, February, 2001, p. 220.
[In the following essay, Deignan examines the narrative structure, authorial voice, and thematic significance of comic books in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.]
It's not hard to imagine the great works of American literature as comic books. Think of Huck and Jim diving into the Mississippi, in a colorful explosion of white foam and splintered wood, just as their raft is destroyed by a steamboat. Or think of Gatsby, a soft-focus silhouette at dusk, staring out at the harbor with its flashing lights. Such imagery is easy to imagine, not only because these are memorable and vivid archetypes, but because there have already been countless versions of “classic” comic book lit. In fact, as American as the comic book is, foreigners such as raging King Lear, or even suffering Job, have found their anguished words floating above their heads in white balloons.
The purpose of comic book “classics” is obvious: to make literature more accessible to kids. It's the literary version of sneaking vitamins into Yoo-Hoo or Hi-C. But there's an unquestioned assumption here, that the comic book form is inherently “low.” The best we can seem to do, since the kids are hopelessly hooked, is use this “low” form for positive ends. That is, to feed the kids what's ultimately good for...
(The entire section is 3191 words.)
Arana, Marie. “Michael Chabon: Touched by Fortune.” Washington Post Book World (16 July 2000): 6.
Arana discusses Chabon's literary success and his Columbia, Maryland, upbringing.
Balz, Douglas. “The Different Styles of Michael Chabon.” Chicago Tribune Books (14 April 1991): C7.
Balz offers a positive assessment of A Model World.
Benedict, E. “Sorrow at the Mall.” New York Times Book Review (26 May 1991): 7.
Benedict praises the vivid prose in A Model World and Other Stories, but faults Chabon for his tidy resolutions and for failing to properly describe the raw emotions that accompany the difficult life situations depicted in his stories.
Buzbee, Lewis. “Michael Chabon: Comics Came First.” New York Times Book Review (24 September 2000): 9.
In this interview, Chabon discusses The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, his life and writing, and his early interest in comic books.
Frank, Jeffrey A. “Confessions of a Young Man.” Washington Post Book World (7 April 1991): 5.
Frank offers a mixed assessment of A Model World, noting that Chabon's writing is competent but unmemorable.
Giles, Jeff. “He's a Real Boy Wonder.”...
(The entire section is 583 words.)