Michael Chabon Essay - Chabon, Michael (Short Story Criticism)

Chabon, Michael (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

Michael Chabon 1963 -

American short story writer and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Chabon's short fiction career through 1999.

Chabon is considered one of America's most talented and popular fiction writers. Regarded as a skilled storyteller, his short stories and novels evoke the intense longing and emotional scarring that often 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.

Biographical Information

Born in Washington, D.C., Chabon is the child of accomplished professional parents. 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. 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 (1988), 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. His novel Wonder Boys (1995) became a best-seller and won recognition as a New York Times Notable Book in 1995. The novel was adapted to a film in 1999. Chabon's short fiction has appeared in various periodicals, including Gentleman's Quarterly, Esquire, and the New Yorker. In 1996 and 2002, respectively, Chabon wrote introductions for Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories, a collection of comic strip stories by Ben Katchor, and Casting the Runes: And Other Ghost Stories by the late-Victorian horror author M. R. James. In 2000 he published the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which, in addition to winning the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, was nominated for the National Book Critics' Circle Award in 2000.

Major Works of Short Fiction

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 sixteen-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. In 2003 Chabon contributed to and edited McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, a short story anthology of adventure and action tales by contemporary authors, such as Michael Crichton, Stephen King, and Rick Moody.

Critical Reception

Chabon's short fiction has garnered mixed critical reviews. Some reviewers consider his short stories inconsistent in quality and sometimes shallow, two-dimensional, and lacking in genuine emotion. Despite these criticisms, a majority of critics note 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, which is 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. Critics have traced the maturation of Chabon's short fiction and regard him as one of the best American writers today.

Principal Works

A Model World, and Other Stories 1991

Werewolves in Their Youth 1999

McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales [contributor and editor] 2003

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (novel) 1988

Wonder Boys (novel) 1995

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: A Novel (novel) 2000

Summerland (juvenilia) 2002

Criticism

Publishers Weekly (review date 1 February 1991)

SOURCE: Review of A Model World, by Michael Chabon. Publishers Weekly 238, no. 6 (1 February 1991): 67.

[In the following review, the critic applauds the stories of A Model World for their subtle irony, vivid characters, and effective understatement.]

An exceptional collection of short stories [A Model World] follows Chabon's well received debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. These subtly ironic tales have a brevity and clarity that allows Chabon's bittersweet observations to hit home. Understatement is Chabon's talent; using words economically, he deftly creates believable situations made remarkable by underlying twists of motivation and behavior. His vivid characters share the need to feel accepted and loved by others. In “S Angel” Ira, a drama student at UCLA, attends his favorite cousin Sheila's wedding and falls for a party guest named Carmen—an abrasive, unstable woman who is unresponsive to his flirtations. It's as much a surprise to the reader as to Ira when he realizes his true affections for Sheila. The unpredictability of love surfaces again in the dryly witty “Ocean Avenue,” in which Bobby Lazar, an architect in Laguna Beach, runs into his ex-lover, Suzette, a painfully thin exercise fanatic, and finds he can't suppress his indefinable feelings for her, despite the chaos they bring to each other's lives. Chabon's characters manage to find joy amidst disappointment, and thus a sense of purpose.

David W. Henderson (review date 15 February 1991)

SOURCE: Henderson, David W. Review of A Model World, by Michael Chabon. Library Journal 116, no. 3 (15 February 1991): 219.

[In the following review of A Model World, Henderson asserts that Chabon is one of the best young American fiction writers today.]

This collection of 11 stories [A Model World] by the author of the well-received Mysteries of Pittsburgh should help cement Chabon's status as one of the best of America's young fiction writers. Each of the stories concerns an individual's adaptation to a changed relationship, be it with wife (or ex-wife), friend, lover, or parent. Particularly evocative are the five final stories which fall...

(The entire section is 217 words.)

Jeffrey A. Frank (review date 7 April 1991)

SOURCE: Frank, Jeffrey A. “Confessions of a Young Man.” Washington Post Book World (7 April 1991): X5.

[In the following review of A Model World, Frank maintains that Chabon's prose is “technically terrific,” but that his stories are narrow in scope and not very interesting.]

One often hears, though usually several years after the fact, that an author's work was “reviewed respectfully.” Such a loaded phrase, and yet it perfectly sums up the spirit of some notices—including this one of Michael Chabon's new short-story collection.

Chabon is, in the technical sense, a terrific writer, able to come up with smart epigrammatic turns...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

Dan Cryer (review date 8 April 1991)

SOURCE: Cryer, Dan. “Bittersweet and Savory Stories of Love and Loss.” Newsday (8 April 1991): B46.

[In the following review, Cryer calls Chabon a gifted young writer, and applauds his fresh style, lyrical use of language, unexpected plot twists, and sense of humor in A Model World.]

Michael Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was one of the literary delectations of 1988 and offered a number of surprises. A charming coming-of-age tale, the book held up heterosexual and homosexual love as worthy equals. Emerging from a university writing program, it eschewed the fashionable minimalism of the young. And, I swear, the novel really did invest...

(The entire section is 818 words.)

Matthew Gilbert (review date 11 April 1991)

SOURCE: Gilbert, Matthew. “Clever Portraits of the Twenty-Somethings.” Boston Globe (11 April 1991): 70.

[In the following mixed review of A Model World, Gilbert contrasts the stories in the first half of the book to those stories in the “The Lost World” section.]

Late, late, late adolescence is Michael Chabon's favorite territory, miles after coming-of-age city but just before the dunes of yuppie angst. They are the neither years, when friends mistakenly become lovers, and lovers quickly become embarrassments. Amid the drunken dinner parties and underheated apartments, confused desires run amok. In his first story collection, A Model World, which...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

David Montrose (review date 26 April 1991)

SOURCE: Montrose, David. “Another Last Summer.” Times Literary Supplement (26 April 1991): 20.

[In the following review, Montrose asserts that although the stories in A Model World are flawed, the volume should be regarded as an early work by a promising young author.]

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...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

Anne Gowen (review date 29 April 1991)

SOURCE: Gowen, Anne. “Author Creates Vanished World of Nostalgia, Colorful Things.” Washington Times (29 April 1991): F3.

[In the following favorable review, Gowen considers the role of nostalgia in A Model World.]

Early on in one of Michael Chabon's stories, young Nathan Shapiro finds himself in the middle of what will be his family's last vacation to Nags Head, N.C. Staying at a rustic hotel called the Sandpiper, his parents about to separate, he is filled with a strange, inexplicable feeling brought on by the sight of an old bottle-dispensing Coke machine.

“The sight of the faded machine and of the whole Sandpiper,” Mr. Chabon writes,...

(The entire section is 958 words.)

Cheryl Younson (review date 19 May 1991)

SOURCE: Younson, Cheryl. “Growing Pains.” Sunday Times (19 May 1991): F4.

[In the following review, Younson contends that the stories in A Model World are insightful, charming, sensitive, and thoughtful.]

Michael Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, inspired a blaze of publicity three years ago, which hailed him, among other things, as the new Scott Fitzgerald. A hard act to follow, but, with his first collection of stories, Chabon has just about managed to justify the hype. In A Model World he retains the breezy style of the first book, a precocious tale of youthful angst and confused sexuality.

Chabon has lost...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Elizabeth Tallent (review date 9 June 1991)

SOURCE: Tallent, Elizabeth. “The Pleasure of His Company.” Los Angeles Times (9 June 1991): 3, 8.

[In the following review of A Model World, Tallent regards Chabon's stories as inventive, insightful, and engaging.]

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...

(The entire section is 1129 words.)

Susan Callahan (review date March 1992)

SOURCE: Callahan, Susan. Review of A Model World, by Michael Chabon. School Library Journal 38, no. 3 (March 1992): 266.

[In the following review of A Model World, Callahan praises Chabon for his delightful characters, light irony, and well-crafted prose.]

Originally published in The New Yorker and other magazines, these short stories [in A Model World] are delightful in their portrayal of characters, the light irony of the situations, and the flow of the sentences. Chabon deftly paints humorously odd people floundering for fulfillment. In the first part, readers glide into a kaleidoscope of worlds—a Jewish wedding in Los Angeles; Laguna...

(The entire section is 141 words.)

Greg Johnson (essay date summer 1992)

SOURCE: Johnson, Greg. “Heart Troubles.” Georgia Review 46, no. 2 (summer 1992): 358-60.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson finds A Model World to be “at once 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...

(The entire section is 1007 words.)

Douglas Fowler (essay date winter 1995)

SOURCE: Fowler, Douglas. “The Short Fiction of Michael Chabon: Nostalgia in the Very Young.” Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 1 (winter 1995): 75-82.

[In the following essay, Fowler discusses the themes of memory, nostalgia, and family in Chabon's short stories.]

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...

(The entire section is 3897 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 November 1998)

SOURCE: Review of Werewolves in Their Youth, by Michael Chabon. Kirkus Reviews (1 November 1998): 1549.

[In the following review of Werewolves in Their Youth, the critic derides the volume for its unoriginal and uninteresting stories.]

[Werewolves in Their Youth is a] mixed second collection of nine stories by novelist Chabon (A Model World, 1991; Wonder Boys, 1995, etc.), mostly set in the Pacific Northwest.

Domestic life has been the dominant subject of literary stories for many years, and the variations on it seem to be pretty well played out by now. Most of the characters in Chabon's tales are afflicted family...

(The entire section is 314 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 23 November 1998)

SOURCE: Review of Werewolves in Their Youth, by Michael Chabon. Publishers Weekly (23 November 1998): 57.

[In the following review of Werewolves in Their Youth, the reviewer praises Chabon's verbal wit, dark ironies, and sympathetic, three-dimensional characters.]

Applying his ironic talents to even darker material than in previous outings, Chabon [in Werewolves in Their Youth] has produced a winning collection of nine stories. Failed marriages haunt almost all the protagonists; personal disasters, depressive malaise and sexual violence are recurring themes. In “House Hunting,” a realtor is more intent on stealing objects from a house than on...

(The entire section is 298 words.)

Donna Seaman (review date 15 December 1998)

SOURCE: Seaman, Donna. Review of Werewolves in Their Youth, by Michael Chabon. Booklist (15 December 1998): 726.

[In the following review of Werewolves in Their Youth, Seaman commends the volume for its remarkable prose, inventive stories, and richly textured narratives.]

In his fourth book [Werewolves in Their Youth], Chabon again displays his nimble irony, sense of narrative adventure, flair for constructing astonishingly thorny predicaments, and remarkable facility with language. If there is a shared theme among the nine glimmering stories collected here, it is the puzzlements of fatherhood. In “Green's Book,” a divorced father of a toddler,...

(The entire section is 204 words.)

Joanna M. Burkhardt (review date January 1999)

SOURCE: Burkhardt, Joanna M. Review of Werewolves in Their Youth, by Michael Chabon. Library Journal 124, no. 1 (January 1999): 161.

[In the following review, Burkhardt lauds Werewolves in Their Youth for its remarkably crafted stories and skillful rendering of intricate emotional responses.]

This collection of short stories [Werewolves in Their Youth] from novelist Chabon reveals the intricacies of emotion in the lives of everyday people. Chabon's central figures are beset by divorce: the pressures that cause it, the traumas that accompany it, and the aftershock and readjustment that follow. Whether children or adults, they struggle to manage in...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Chris Solomon (review date 7 February 1999)

SOURCE: Solomon, Chris. “Werewolves: Life Stories with Bite.” Seattle Times (7 February 1999): M10.

[In the following review, Solomon asserts that the stories in Werewolves in Their Youth are funny and well-crafted.]

Disturbing and glib, outrageous, sad and poetic at turns, Michael Chabon's stories embrace the major heartbreaks and minor debacles that congeal into, well, life—though it is a life Chabon's characters would never have chosen had they seen it coming.

Regret, and then something that passes for acceptance and fragile hope, abound in Chabon's new collection, Werewolves in Their Youth. Frequently very funny and always told...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Alexandra Lange (review date 15 February 1999)

SOURCE: Lange, Alexandra. Review of Werewolves in Their Youth, by Michael Chabon. New York (15 February 1999): 59.

[In the following review of Werewolves in Their Youth, Lange faults the volume for its weak characters, ineffective plots, and generally lifeless stories.]

Werewolves in Their Youth, Michael Chabon's new story collection, reads as if he sat down and thought, What's the worst thing one could do? Betray a childhood friend, steal from an ex-wife's grandmother, sleep with the baby-sitter? He's got them all covered. But his weak-willed characters never go through with their emotional crimes, so the book is filled with...

(The entire section is 170 words.)

Barbara Fisher (review date 28 February 1999)

SOURCE: Fisher, Barbara. Review of Werewolves in Their Youth, by Michael Chabon. Boston Globe (28 February 1999): F2.

[In the following review, Fisher maintains that the stories in Werewolves in Their Youth “are often delightful, always disturbing, and oddly memorable.”]

The people in these stories [in Werewolves in Their Youth] are in trouble, either stuck or becoming unglued. They are trapped in bad marriages, neglectful families, or their own willfulness, stubbornness, and silence. They are thieves, liars, alcoholics, deceivers.

In the best story, the title story of the collection, a boy's wary friendship for another boy...

(The entire section is 282 words.)

Mark Greif (review date 5 March 1999)

SOURCE: Greif, Mark. “No Potions in the Lab.” Times Literary Supplement (5 March 1999): 23.

[In the following review of Werewolves in Their Youth, Greif praises Chabon's stylistic craftsmanship but criticizes the volume as disappointing in its thematic content.]

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...

(The entire section is 868 words.)

Michael Carroll (review date 2 May 1999)

SOURCE: Carroll, Michael. “Gothic Irony.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 May 1999): 7.

[In the following review of Werewolves in Their Youth, Carroll offers high praise for Chabon's skillful craftsmanship, elegant prose, complex descriptions, and effective use of figurative language.]

A young father haunted by a libidinous past is confronted by the need for real intimacy with his daughter. A couple troubled by an emptiness at the center of their relationship waver on the verge of buying their first house. Two schoolboys with only a single property line and their fatherless suburban households in common meet briefly on the invisible borders of their misfit...

(The entire section is 860 words.)