Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1154
Often associated by critics with the coterie of young writers who emerged during the mid-1980’s—the “brat pack” that included such figures as Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, and Bret Easton Ellis—Michael Chabon (SHAY-bahn) enjoyed national renown following the critical and popular success of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Chabon earned a B.A. in English in 1984 from the University of Pittsburgh and an M.F.A. in 1987 from the University of California, Irvine, where he studied under Donald Heiney (MacDonald Harris). Inspired after winning a 1987 Mademoiselle short-story contest, Chabon wrote The Mysteries of Pittsburgh for his master’s thesis. After Heiney sent the manuscript to the literary agent Mary Evans at the Virginia Barber Agency in New York, William Morrow and Company purchased the hard-cover rights for the manuscript during a private auction for $155,000—one of the highest figures ever paid for a first novel.
A Bildungsroman in the tradition of such works as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1921) and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Chabon’s novel focuses on the emotional and romantic evolution of Art Bechstein, whose recent college graduation ushers in the final summer of his youth. The son of a powerful gangster, Art encounters a dizzying array of people during his summer progress, including his namesake, the charming homosexual Arthur Lecomte; the bewitching Francophile Phlox; and Arthur’s best friend, the self-conscious opportunist and figure of legendary proportion, Cleveland Arning. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh finds its narrative strength in Chabon’s lyrical descriptions of Art’s evolution as he examines his conflicting feelings regarding his father’s iniquitous profession while also attempting to reconcile himself with his sexual attractions to both Arthur and Phlox. Although Art emerges from the summer bereft of the friendships that had brought about his personal transformation, the exuberance of Chabon’s prose reveals the first, precarious moments of Art’s incipient adulthood: “When I remember that dizzy summer, that dull, stupid, lovely, dire summer, it seems that in those days I ate my lunches, smelled another’s skin, noticed a shade of yellow, even simply sat, with greater lust and hopefulness—and that I lusted with greater faith, hoped with greater abandon. The people I loved were celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare; the places I sat with them, movie lots and monuments.”
A national best-seller, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh rewarded Chabon with tremendous critical acclaim, yet the sudden onslaught of fame confronted the introverted Chabon with new, problematic regions of personal exposure in the name of marketing, including a request from The Gap that he model jeans and People magazine’s desire to include him in their annual “50 Most Beautiful People Issue.” During the five years after the publication of his first novel, Chabon divorced his first wife, moved six times, and married Ayelet Waldman. In addition to publishing short stories and essays in such periodicals as The New Yorker, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, and Vogue, Chabon devoted his energies to composing his second novel, tentatively entitled “Fountain City,” which eventually became a sprawling manuscript of more than fifteen hundred pages. “Fountain City” traces the story of a group of Utopian dreamers and environmental activists in the transatlantic locales of Florida and Paris.
Struggling under the burden of his unfinished second novel, Chabon published A Model World, and Other Stories, which collected his fictional periodical publications, including his award-winning story from Mademoiselle, “Blumenthal on the Air.” In addition to such stories as “S ANGEL,” “Ocean Avenue,” and “A Model World,” the volume also features a series of short stories that explore the early years of Nathan Shapiro, a young boy who wrestles with the pressures of his parents’ bitter divorce. The sequence concludes with one of Chabon’s most poignant and moving narratives, “The Lost World,” the story of Nathan’s encounters with the tender memories of his lost childhood and the confusing emergence of his youthful sexuality. Douglas Fowler has remarked about the short fiction that “Chabon’s twenty-something protagonists inhabit that peculiar vocational twilight that passes for a modern American Bohemia: a stint in graduate school, jockeying on FM radio, clerking in a bookstore—the arts and the near-arts are their metier.”
In 1993 Chabon abandoned “Fountain City” in favor of a new novel, Wonder Boys, that focuses on the artistic struggles of Grady Tripp, a college creative-writing instructor who attempts to regain control of his life despite his wife’s extramarital affair and a variety of humorous subplots involving a dead dog, a dead boa constrictor, the satin jacket that Marilyn Monroe wore at her wedding to Joe DiMaggio, and a hefty unfinished manuscript. Once a rising literary star—indeed, a “wonder boy”—Tripp finds himself hopelessly unable to write a new novel because of the remarkable strength and success of his earlier works. Afraid of critical failure and the pressures of growing up, Tripp diverts his artistic pursuits by indulging in inconsequential flirtations with female students and various chemical addictions before the manuscript of his unfinished novel, also entitled Wonder Boys, literally explodes from the entropy of his desolate lifestyle.
Wonder Boys was critically well received following its publication in 1995. Chabon said of it: “To me, the book is about the disappointment of getting older and growing up and not measuring up to what you thought, and the world and the people in it not being what you expected. It’s about disillusionment and acceptance.”
After Wonder Boys, Chabon next published another collection of short stories, Werewolves in Their Youth, all set in the Pacific Northwest, which primarily express the theme of failed relationships. The final story in the collection, in the style of pulp horror stories, is credited to a character from Wonder Boys, August Van Zorn.
In 2000, Chabon published The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Klay, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The story of two Jewish cousins who invent a comic book hero, “The Escapist,” who battles Hitler and fascism, intertwining the heroism of comics and of real life, Kavalier and Klay was almost universally well received despite what some felt to be its excessive length. His venture into young adult fiction, Summerland, was less enthusiastically reviewed, perhaps because he was perceived as one of many “adult” authors who jumped on the children’s fantasy bandwagon in 2002 (others included Clive Barker and Isabel Allende) in the wake of the popularity of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman’s unexpected winning of the Whitbread Prize in 2002 for The Amber Spyglass. Summerland wedded the all-American pastime of baseball with figures from classical mythology to the Native American trickster figure Coyote in a story that many saw as a logical progression from the fondness for comic books and other popular culture elements found in Kavalier and Klay.
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