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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 best was never as good, his worst never as bad.
A similar air of yearning and other-timeliness pervades this collection [A Model World], especially Part Two, appropriately entitled “The Lost World,” in which five stories chart the growing pains of Nathan Shapiro, aetat 10–16, during the early to middle 1970s. Nathan is obsessed with impermanence, and Chabon dates the stories according to a private calendar of change. “The Little Knife” takes place during “that last, interminable summer before his parents separated and the Washington Senators baseball team was expunged forever from the face of the earth,” “More Than Human” during “the dismal, inadequate spring that preceded [Dr Shapiro's] moving out of the house.” Nathan must confront personal, as well as external, changes. The last two stories show him struggling through adolescence. In “The Halloween Party,” he has a crush on a friend of his mother's; in “The Lost World,” he tries and fails to lose his virginity.
Romantic failure and loss also haunt the stories of Part One. The eponymous narrator of “Blumenthal on the Air,” having married an Iranian refugee to give her US citizenship, falls unrequitedly in love with her. They cohabit uneasily, waiting for one of their hearts to change. “Smoke” finds a washed-up baseball pitcher at the funeral of an All-Star teammate who has been killed in his prime, finds him envying the dead man not for his fame, but because he will never suffer the indignities of decline. By contrast, the protagonist of “S Angel” escapes lightly, his sentimental illusions pricked when an attempted seduction of a divorcee at a wedding reception fizzles out because, although interested she is keener to find a realtor (to move a house she is desperate to sell) than a lover. Even the comic “Ocean Avenue” centres on a failed affair and lost things: the acrimony climaxed when Suzette sold Bobby's collection of William Powelliana (which included “the checkered wingtips Powell wore in The Kennel Club Murder Case ”) and Bobby retaliated by selling “all six of Suzette's 1958 and '59 Barbie Dolls.” The title story alone closes in a rosy glow, with a meteorologist winning academic tenure (on, admittedly, the basis of plagiarized research), “with access to a huge laboratory and a twelve-million-dollar Cray computer,” and a physicist-turned-actor about to sell his screenplay on “the heroic life of...
(This entire section contains 763 words.)
A Model World is narrower emotionally than The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and more restrained artistically: most of its stories are conventional tender-sad études—fairly slight and fairly slick—offering a lot more atmosphere than plot; the verbal dexterity and Fitzgeraldian echoes are present, but have been kept (Chabon's adjective-strewing tendencies, above all) on a tight leash The outcome is a collection that contains no gems, but no turkeys either. The title story suggests that Chabon was probably wise to limit his risks: the most ambitious here and potentially the most interesting, it ultimately proves the least successful.
Contrary to the PR, Chabon has yet to achieve anything of conspicuous merit. Given, however, that he is still in his middle twenties, his books deserve to be treated as promissory notes, which may well be redeemed should he develop his undoubted gifts. After all, only five years after This Side of Paradise (“has almost every fault and deficiency that a novel can possibly have”—Edmund Wilson), Fitzgerald came up with The Great Gatsby.
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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.
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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 of recent fiction. Look what was missing: bliss!
Sheer delight in existence looms similarly large in the 11 stories of this collection [A Model World]. The pleasures of these tales are very much the pleasures offered by Mysteries. Here again is the happiness with the English language, the artful placement of the audacious word, the beautiful days, the taste for incongruities. Like John Cheever, Chabon can wring several eloquent shades from emotions that previously seemed simple: bravado, nostalgia, regret, embarrassment and—especially, surpassingly—infatuation.
“Her face had grown wider, her cheekbones more pronounced, since the last time he had seen her, and with her tawny skin and her thick eyebrows and that big, wild hair Nathan thought she looked beautiful and a little scary.” (“A Lost World.”)
“Roksana is Iranian—or Persian, as she prefers to say—big and black-haired; her lips and lashes are thick and dark; she can beat me up. She is the most beautiful woman I've ever known, but when she's angry or seized by Persian lust, something enters her face and she gets to looking savage, ancient, one-quarter ape.” (“Blumenthal on the Air.”)
“[There was] Kim in a long cable sweater that sagged at the neck and reached down to the tops of her knees. … I wanted her again. Harry was my best friend, but millionaires have squandered their fortunes, and men have lost their minds, and friends have tracked each other down for less than the sight of a lovely woman in nothing but a sweater.” (“Millionaires.”)
A Model World offers an array of disarming, quick-witted male leads; pretty, displaced women; eccentric male friends; and, in the linked stories titled, as a group, “A Lost World,” a crumbling family, the Shapiros, the housewife mother and bearded psychiatrist father as baffled by what is happening to them as are their two sons.
Plots evolve lucidly, with wily twists and a fair incidence of Maguffins, revelatory letters or notes or objects on which the plot turns. Evocation of place is central yet offhand: In “The Little Knife,” the Shapiros visit “a place called the Sandpiper—a ragged, charming oval of motel cottages painted white and green as the Atlantic.”
“Millionaires” and “Smoke,” set in Pittsburgh, revive the intimate ruefulness Chabon directs at that city. “Blumenthal” is set in France; “S Angel,” “Ocean Avenue” and the title story in Southern California.
Southern California is a feast for the lively genius of Michael Chabon's social discernment. When Bobby Lazar in “Ocean Avenue” approaches his ex-lover Suzette in Laguna Beach's Cafe Zinc, “he could have predicted, still, exactly what she would order: a décaf au lait and a wedge of frittata with two little cups of cucumber salsa. … When she saw who it was her dazzling green eyes grew tight little furrows at the corners.”
A vehement and rivalrous materialism characterizes their affair. During their breakup she sells his “collection of William Powelliana, which was then at its peak and contained everything from the checkered wingtips Powell wore in ‘The Kennell Club Murder Case’ to … a 1934 letter from Dashiell Hammett congratulating Powell on his interpretation of Nick Charles,” and he sold her 1958 and '59 Barbie dolls “for not quite four thousand dollars, [so] she brought the first suit against him.” The sly point is not simply that these treasures have been sold: They've been sold for less than they were worth, which is true treachery. Freshened memories of this calculating mutual diminishment don't deter the couple from resuming their affair. The “accident” of truly heedless sexual attraction has happened to them.
As a lightly handled leitmotif, the heartlessness at the heart of heterosexuality figures in several stories. The older woman in “S Angel” has a “fading face, which [Ira] nonetheless … found beautiful, and in which, in the skin at her throat and around her eyes, he thought he could read strife and sad experience and a willingness to try her luck.” S might stand for sadness, central to an experience Ira has never had, being in love. When he does fall, it's for someone even surer than the angel to bring him a full measure of remorse, and before sealing his fate with a kiss Ira swallows some pills identified only as “two little pink teardrops,” stolen from the fading angel's purse.
Occasionally Chabon's whimsical touch subverts potential seriousness. In “More Than Human,” Dr. Shapiro, whose job at a private psychiatric clinic for children exposes him to “various and fairly sinister childhood lunacy,” observes that, “like those of his patients, [his son] Nathan's was an almost heartbreakingly plain face, and in it he thought he could read the same short narrative of rage and confusion. … The boy was cognizant, however dimly, of the fear and shame and failure his father could not bring himself to express, and had already begun—accidentally—to retaliate.”
It is one of the most striking passages in the Shapiro stories, yet the doctor's point of view is shortly traded for Nathan's. Nathan views his father, near the story's end, “as a kind of adored, only occasionally dangerous giant, a dexterous bear with a vast repertoire of tricks.” What happened to the rage and confusion the father saw? Why is his complicated, disillusioned point of view established only to be dropped?
Like Mysteries of Pittsburgh before it, A Model World is a consummately appealing book. For a second time, Chabon leaves his reader grateful for his art, his wry insight, and the oddly hopeful bent of his splendid inventiveness.
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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: 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 Chabon's treatment of a much-mined subject. Even if you suspect there's an abandoned novel here, you'll be won over by the fine resolution of the individual stories. Endings may be the bête noire of other writers, but Chabon's are consistently satisfying without being annoyingly consistent. There's much to savor here, and much to please.
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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.” Newsweek (10 April 1995): 76.
Giles offers a positive assessment of Wonder Boys, and praises the author's lyrical prose.
Gorra, Michael. “Endangered Species.” New York Times Book Review (31 January 1999): 10.
Gorra offers a mixed assessment of Werewolves in Their Youth, praising the prose and the settings of the stories, but faulting Chabon for concluding several of the tales with neat and convenient endings.
Hunter, Stephen. “Possible to Put Down!” Washington Post (25 February 2000): C5.
Hunter offers a negative assessment of the film adaptation of Wonder Boys.
Kakutani, Michiko. “A Novel about a Novelist and His Messy Life.” New York Times (17 March 1995): C28.
Kakutani lauds Chabon's ability to combine the fantastic and the mundane in Wonder Boys, comparing Chabon's works to those of novelist Philip Roth.
———. “Marriage and Other Things That Can Go Wrong.” New York Times (9 February 1999): E8.
Kakutani offers a negative assessment of Werewolves in Their Youth, arguing that the stories are labored, overwritten, and do not measure up to Chabon's previous works.
Kalfus, Ken. “The Golem Knows.” New York Times Book Review (24 September 2000): 8.
In this positive review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Kalfus comments upon the escapist imagery in the novel, discusses the reoccurring themes of transformation, and lauds Chabon for his inventive work.
Maslin, Janet. “A Life and Death Story Set in Comic Book Land.” New York Times (21 September 2000): E10.
Maslin offers a positive assessment of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and applauds the novel's “understated gravity.”
Moody, Rick. “Pitching Michael Chabon.” Voice Literary Supplement (11 April 1995): 9.
Moody examines similarities between Wonder Boys and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, commenting on deeper levels of meaning that lie beneath the farcical elements and improbable coincidences in the stories.
Smith, Jeremy. “Heroes, Superheroes, and Anti-Heroes: Three New Books Display the Power of Pictures in Storytelling.” Chicago Tribune Books (12 November 2000): 1.
Smith offers a positive assessment of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
Streitfeld, David. “The Book Builder.” Washington Post Book World (12 May 1991): 12.
Streitfeld discusses Chabon's upbringing in Columbia, Maryland, his approach to writing, and his related interest in architecture.
———. “Book Report.” Washington Post Book World (28 February 1999): 13.
Streitfeld discusses Chabon's e-mail correspondence with readers of Wonder Boys.
Ward, Robert. “Writing High.” New York Times Book Review (9 April 1995): 7.
Ward offers a positive assessment of Wonder Boys, lauding the novel's lyricism, comedy, witty style, and appealing nature.
Additional coverage of Chabon's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 139; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 57 and 96; and Literature Resource Center.
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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 more accomplished collection of stories, A Model World. In both books Chabon's chief preoccupation was with domestic life and amatory affairs, but he treated these matters with little of the solipsism and self-regard so commonplace among products of the creative-writing assembly line.
Wonder Boys is yet another forward step. More ambitious than either of its predecessors, it attempts to locate and define the place of the writer not merely in a society that regards him as an oddity but also within the murky territory of his own mind and heart. In this sense Wonder Boys is an implacably serious book, but most readers may find themselves losing sight of its serious side because they are laughing so hard.
This, mind you, comes from a reader so inured to humor after three decades of reviewing books that he is the toughest laugh this side of the ghost of Calvin Coolidge. The list of novels of fairly recent vintage that have made me laugh out loud is appallingly short: Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, William Boyd's A Good Man in Africa, Christopher Buckley's Thank You for Smoking and David Lodge's Changing Places. To this very short list must now be added Wonder Boys, which earned its first chuckle in the opening paragraph and escalated to a long and at times painful succession of guffaws a few pages thereafter.
Wonder Boys is set on a campus that just might be that of the University of Pittsburgh, but it is not an academic novel as the genre is commonly understood and it never falls into the trap of mistaking the campus for the universe. What is important about its narrator, Grady Tripp, is not that he is a teacher but that he is a non-functioning writer, an author of three modestly successful novels who is now hopelessly bogged down in “my fourth novel, or what purported to be my fourth novel, Wonder Boys, which I had promised to [my publisher] during the early stages of the previous presidential administration.” His problem is scarcely writer's block, as explained in this glorious passage:
The problem, if anything, was precisely the opposite. I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clocktowers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers whose petals I peeled down to the intricate frail organs within, too many terrible genetic and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury and dig up again, too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trysts to arrange, letters to misdirect into evil hands, innocent children to slay with rheumatic fever, women to leave unfulfilled and hopeless, men to drive to adultery and theft, fires to ignite at the hearts of ancient houses. It was about a single family and it stood, as of that morning, at two thousand six hundred and eleven pages, each of them revised and rewritten a half-dozen times. And yet for all of those years, and all of those words expended in charting the eccentric paths of my characters through the violent blue heavens I had set them to cross, they had not even reached their zeniths. I was nowhere near the end.
This is a matter of considerable urgency because as Tripp thinks these thoughts he is meeting his editor at the airport. This outrageous creature, whose name is Terry Crabtree, ostensibly is in town to participate in WordFest, wherein the Department of English charges “aspiring writers several hundred dollars for the privilege of meeting and receiving the counsel of a staff of more-or-less well-known writers, along with agents, editors and assorted other New Yorkers with an astonishing capacity for alcohol and gossip.” But Crabtree's real aim is to wrench the long overdue manuscript away from Tripp and see if in all that bulk there is actually anything worth publishing.
Thus the basic framework of the comedy is set, although there is room within it for a small explosion of subplots. These have to do with Tripp's estranged wife and her family, which he loves; his mistress, Sara Gaskell, wife of the head of the English Department; the black satin jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe at her marriage to Joe DiMaggio, as well as a number of baseball bats swung by the latter on the field of play; a brittle young writing student, James Leer, “a furtive, lurking soul”; a tuba; a large, dead dog; a large, dead snake.
All of these come together in ways no one except Michael Chabon would want to imagine, but we must be thankful that he did, for the results are uniformly if exhaustingly uproarious. He does humor on the grand scale but also on the small. Readers having an affection for jazz, as Chabon apparently does, are urged to imagine a sublime drummer—Big Sid Catlett, perhaps, or Jo Jones—effortlessly grinding out great rolls of thunder and then punctuating them with perfect little rimshots. Thus “I would not only never want to belong to any club that would have me for a member—if elected I would wear street shoes onto the squash court and set fire to the ballroom curtains.” Or: “Many of the great hairdos of bygone ages … survived to this day in isolated pockets of Pittsburgh.” Or: “All male friendships are essentially quixotic: they last only so long as each man is willing to polish the shaving-bowl helmet, climb on his donkey, and ride off after the other in pursuit of illusive glory and questionable adventure.”
Within the wit of this last is to be found, of course, a kernel of clear-eyed understanding. The mysteries of friendship among men are almost as central to this novel as is the “feeling of apartness” with which, Chabon argues, writers are necessarily blessed and afflicted. It is an important sign of his prodigious maturity that Chabon can write not merely comedy for its own sake but also comedy that draws us into darker places of more ambiguous meaning. When he evokes, at the end, the image toward which the entire book has been working—“wonder boys, their hearts filled with the dread and mystery of the books they believe themselves destined to write”—we know for certain that he is not joking.
One cautionary aside is in order. Chabon is now in his early thirties. He has published a first-person coming-of-age novel, a book of stories many of which are narrated in the first person, and a first-person novel about writing. As has already been said, he is not a narcissistic writer, but there are signs here of a familiar pattern. Though Chabon has demonstrated a keen understanding of other people's minds and lives, thus far his preoccupation has been with fictional explorations of his own. It is time for him to move on, to break away from the first person and explore larger worlds. His apprenticeship is done; it has been brilliant, but the books as yet unwritten are the ones in which we will learn just how far this singular writer can go.
Meantime we have this novel, which by all means and for all reasons we must celebrate. Wonder boys, wonder book.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1287
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 suitcases, a dead dog and a garment bag almost perfectly.”
Grady Tripp's craft is not really small. He is shambling and overweight, and James’ baleful helplessness is only one of the ordeals that take him apart in this comic odyssey until, like Ulysses, he finally gets reassembled and comes to rest.
Ulysses gloried in his guile and, with a stretch, you could say it was just this that unleashed the wrath of Neptune and sent him on his plaguey journey. Grady's hubris is of another kind. Chabon's beguiling and wickedly smart novel invokes the nameless deity—quite as inventive with torments as Neptune—that punishes a writer's ego and pretensions.
Wonder Boys is the title of the endless exfoliating yawp with which Grady has come to grief. On the strength of early work, he won critical praise, a large advance and block—the excess of his academic niche. Now he suffers not from writer's compunction that dams up an excess of pride—but its opposite. His dam is blown. He has no trouble at all writing. He can do 40 pages before breakfast. The mechanism has slipped, it processes only air, it meets none of the resistance of real material, it is nothing but the writer's will; and it is worthless.
Dimly, Grady realizes it. For him, this is lucky and unlucky: the first because it will allow him, after his ordeals, to come to a kind of balance; the second because the ordeals are so painful and humiliating. For us, as readers, it is simply lucky. Chabon's Wonder Boys, so different from Grady's, knows its limits and how to transcend them. Without a quiet germ of doubt, Grady's picaresque adventures would be travels, not with but of a donkey. As it is, the obnoxious Grady keeps stumbling back into our sympathy. There is first-rate satirical farce in Chabon's novel but essentially it is something rarer: satirical comedy.
Grady's life has been floating in a haze of the tenured untenable. If his novel is a mess, no one knows it, and his publishers have been indulgent; so has the English department. He treats his marriage to Emily, a Korean orphan brought up as an American Orthodox Jew—Chabon frequently pulls a chair out from under us; we are perfectly OK on the floor—with convenient miniaturization. He is engaged in a lusty five-year affair with Sara, the chancellor of his college. He plugs up his existential gaps with Baggies of pot, and the reassuring prospect that sooner or later he will succumb to Hannah, his best and prettiest writing student.
His unraveling starts at the beginning and moves steadily forward. The English department is putting on Wordfest, an inflated literary conference that attracts authors, publishers, students and foundation grants. Crabtree, Grady's decadent and sinuous editor, is invited; his acceptance includes the veiled threat that he means to see the novel. (In a panic, Grady writes five different endings.)
Emily, having finally learned of his affair, goes home to her adoptive parents’ farm. Sara announces that she is pregnant and wonders, with fearsome tentativeness, whether it is time for them to make some decisions. Hannah, with Emily gone, presses her availability. And James, whose campy melodramatic writing, based exclusively on Hollywood movies, is viciously mocked by his fellow students, seems about to come apart.
Grady flees briefly to his in-laws for Passover dinner, counting firmly on their warm welcome (which he gets) and vaguely on Emily's forgiveness (which he doesn't). He has James in tow after a series of farcical fireworks that ended in the car-loading scene described at the start. Passover is a disaster; when he returns to the college the disasters multiply. Before they are over, Grady has lost his marriage, his job, his car, his editor (who drops him for James, with whom he foresees a trendy success and achieves a sexual one), his manuscript and his delusions.
It is a happy ending, nevertheless, and only partly because Sara, whom the disasters have stripped of her own job and marriage, is such a sympathetic figure to end up with. It is, in a way, the heart and strength of Chabon's writing that he can treat his characters as farcically as Kingsley Amis—Wonder Boys has some of Lucky Jim's gift for pyramiding horrors and hilarity—while giving some of them emotional stature, and doing it without either sentimentalizing the farce or abridging the stature.
Crabtree is a plain creep. James is something more, a dangerous innocent, half-plaintive for his starved experience of life as a series of Hollywood classics, and half-scary. Chabon treats him with appalled affection, makes him very funny, and dismisses him coolly. At the end, under Crabtree's lecherous sponsorship, he writes one modestly praised book and gets to appear in an Esquire layout of writers modeling sweaters.
The account of Grady's Passover visit to Emily's family is a near-miracle of strain, anger, subtlety and tenderness. Her father and mother winningly fend off details about the ins and outs of the marriage; they only want it to go on. Painfully inhibited, Emily is expressive in her muteness. There is a sister whose own pain and rage precipitate an awful, comical explosion—through all of which James sits, as wackily absent as a space alien. The finest extended scene in the book, it presents a set piece of a fierce and delicate complexity: A family comes apart on the occasion for coming together.
Sara, outwardly frumpish and efficient, is a lovely volcano. With her oatmeal tweeds, odd shoes, many-buttoned blouses and red hair subjugated in a shrapnel of pins, combs and barrettes, “undressing her was always an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism like releasing a zoo full of animals or blowing up a dam.” As for Grady, his blindness and self-indulgence—all of which will be paid for and perhaps redeemed—can be tedious but they never entirely put us off. It's not just that he is aware of his defects, but that his awareness is so well-spoken. Early on, when Sara tries to get him to tell her what he really wants, he is at a loss: “I searched my feelings, an activity never far removed from looking for a dead rat in a spidery crawl space under the house.”
Appearing at the same time as William Gass’ immense and long-worked-over “The Tunnel”—a writer, isolated in his own consciousness, tries to dig out—Chabon's book could almost be a parody. (Certainly, it arouses thoughts of Harold Brodkey and Thomas Pynchon.) It does not go as deep, perhaps, but it is better lighted and—a sovereign virtue in a tunnel—it comes out the other side.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1054
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 mother the editor-in-chief of a magazine for knitting-machine enthusiasts. (“She can make you anything,” he says. “She made me a homosexual.”)
The two men met in a writing workshop at school, when each rewrote the same little-known story by an anonymous, kindly, self-loathing writer called August Van Zorn. This bond, and that of their subsequent mutual substance abuse, becomes strained when Crabtree arrives (wearing an Italian suit the color of the back of a dollar bill) and announces that he is about to be fired from his publishing job. Therefore he needs a winner of a book to salvage his career—and it doesn't look as if Tripp's soggy tome is going to be finished in time.
“What's going to happen to me? What's going to happen to my book?” Tripp wonders, as he goes about further tangling his already entangled life. His third wife, Emily Warshaw, has abandoned him, leaving a farewell note on the fridge; his lover, Sara Gaskell, the provost of the college and a sturdy women whose wardrobe consists of tweed suits running the spectrum from oatmeal to dirt, reveals that, at age 45, she's pregnant; and his favorite writing student, James Leer, is spotted in the garden with a small pistol aimed at his head.
Tripp braces himself with the whole praxis of reckless living: Pot for “the heaviness of heart, vitamin C for the cell structure, sugar for the depleted blood, caffeine to burn off the moral fog.” He makes love to Sara in the greenhouse—where she forces forsythia and pinches chrysanthemums—and searches his feelings (“an activity never far removed from looking for a dead rat in a spidery crawlspace under the house”).
He takes James, in his trademark overcoat that emanates the odor of bus station, to Sara's husband Walter's secret closet to see the jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe when she married Joe DiMaggio, a trip that goes awry when Sara's dog Doctor Dee gnaws at his leg and James feels obliged to shoot it. He joins Emily's family for a Korean Jewish passover, wishing vaguely for a reconciliation and hoping to commemorate once again “the start of a long trip across a small desert by an ill-behaved rabble of former slaves.” He bonds with his erstwhile father-in-law, Irv, a simple man who is sad at funerals, proud of Israel, disappointed in his children and happy on the 4th of July.
As the plot thickens to bean soup with a lovesick female student, a fictional-turned-real car thief and a literary party for the famous Q., the unexpected expectedly happens: Crabtree discovers the knapsack stuffed with James’ manuscript, “The Love Parade.” Set in the mid-1940s, in an anthracite-black town in the barren Pennsylvania landscape of the boy's soul, it is, Crabtree decides at once, the very novel that will save his publishing career.
Tripp turns morose. “I saw,” he says, “that I could write ten thousand more pages of shimmering prose and still be nothing but a blind minotaur stumbling along broken ground: an unsuccessful, overweight, ex-wonder boy with a pot habit and a dead dog in the trunk of my car.” With Crabtree now regarding him as if he were simply a nobody headed nowhere, he decides, “I had become the hero of a story by August Van Zorn.”
But, for old times sake, and to save their protege, Tripp and Crabtree have one last reckless, stupid fling, rescuing James from his movie memorabilia-packed dungeon at his parents’ home and then from the police called out by Sara's husband. Tripp produces the Marilyn Monroe jacket the student is accused of stealing; considers, while looking at the Gaskells, the perpetual gulf between the commendable pessimism of women and the sheer dumb animal optimism of men; thinks of Doctor Dee lying dead in a nylon bag (“He had spent his entire life feverishly trying to communicate some important message that no one had understood and that had now died with him, undelivered”) and starts to cry.
Throughout the book, Tripp has been haunted by the specter of a well-known writer (“Sad Tidings,” “Kind of Blue,” “Eight Solid Light-Years of Lead”) who fell into oblivion after failing to complete his fifth novel. He sees himself headed down that same path, helpless to stop his slide.
At the start of the story, he tells us about the impossibility of ending his novel: “I had too much to write; too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name … too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers … too many terrible genetic and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury … too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trysts to arrange, letters to misdirect into evil hands, innocent children to slay with rheumatic fever … fires to ignite at the hearts of ancient houses.” As Crabtree departs, Tripp resumes his labors.
Chabon's brilliant first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, seemed to suggest that anything is possible. Splendid, solid, sure-footed, wry, Wonder Boys implies that anything is impossible as well.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2027
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 rocket, and then slumped into a waiting game.
Born in 1963 in Washington, D.C., and raised in Columbia, Md., Chabon recalls that he had a love of words from early childhood. “I liked word etymologies,” he says. “I was always a good speller. I guess that my love of language is chiefly a function of having a good memory for words, like having an ear for music. My parents were big readers and my grandmother used to read poetry to me.”
Pittsburgh has also been a major influence in his life. After a year at Carnegie Mellon, he transferred to the University of Pittsburgh, where he graduated with a B.A. in English in 1984. Then he crossed the country to the University of California at Irvine, where he entered the M.F.A. program run by Oakley Hall and Donald Heiney, who wrote under the name MacDonald Harris.
Heartened when he won a Mademoiselle short-story contest in 1987, Chabon wrote The Mysteries of Pittsburgh for his master's thesis. He turned in the final draft on a Friday. The following Monday Chabon found a note in his box from Heiney/Harris, saying that he had sent the manuscript to agent Mary Evens at the Virginia Barber Agency in New York. Two months later, Evans sold the book to editor Doug Stumpf at Morrow.
Published in 1988, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh made a major splash, garnering a spot on the PW bestseller list for seven weeks. Chabon was instantly lumped with other brat packers of the day—Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis. The Gap asked him to model jeans; he turned down the offer.
People magazine wanted to include him in its “50 Most Beautiful People” issue; he turned that down, too.
Looking back, Chabon says he wishes he'd appreciated that time more for the “amazing ride” that it was. “But I was married at that point to a would-be writer. The fact that nothing like this was happening to her made it difficult for me to enjoy what was happening. All the good things were a mixed blessing.” Nor did he particularly care for being identified with the brat pack. “I never thought I had anything in common with ‘the usual suspects; but I suppose that ‘youth’ was the main handle, an inevitable handle. I just didn't pay much attention to it. I was 23. I thought in terms of what did I have in common with Cheever, Nabokov or Flaubert when they were 23? I had high aims.”
Chabon says he strived very hard not to be the flavor-of-the-month or a cool member of the New York literati scene, but instead to refine his craft. He worked on short stories, many of which were published in the New Yorker and GQ. He also wrote travel articles—on Key West, Prague, Las Vegas and Tuscany—for Vogue and the New York Times. By 1991, when his collection of short stories, A Model World, was released, Chabon was already two years into his second novel, a sprawling saga called Fountain City, that was gradually becoming his albatross.
Coming up with a second novel is hard for any writer. For Chabon, there was the intense pressure of having to produce something that would meet and surpass the promise of Mysteries. The plot of Fountain City involved Paris and Florida, utopian dreamers and ecological activists, architecture and baseball, an Israeli spy and a man dying from AIDS, a love affair between a young American and a woman 10 years his senior.
AN INCOMPETENT HANDYMAN
As he struggled for five years to make the Paris half of the book mesh with the Florida half, his personal life was in constant flux. He moved six times. He got divorced from his first wife, took up with another woman, split up, met Ayelet Waldman and married her. All the while, the unfinished book was almost a palpable burden. “You know that scene at the Seder in Wonder Boys when someone asks Grady how his book is going? I can't tell you how many times I was asked that. I always felt like an incompetent handyman. I always thought that I was just about done.” Instead, it was never done. “Doug Stumpf kept saying that it was full of amazing stuff. I'd try to fix it, cut it, restructure it.” Chabon estimates that he wrote 1500 pages of what he tried to turn into a 700-page—and still unpublishable—manuscript.
At the beginning of 1993, Chabon and Waldman, who was clerking for a federal judge, lived in San Francisco. She was due to take the bar exam in July. Instead, she decided to tackle it earlier, in February, which meant that she would be studying nonstop for the following six weeks. After her announcement, Chabon went downstairs to his basement office, turned on the computer and fantasized longingly—as he had done every day for years—about the book he would rather be writing. He imagined a scene: a troubled young man standing in a backyard, holding a derringer to his temple, while, on a nearby porch, a shaggy, pot-smoking, older man tries to decide if what he's seeing is real or not. Chabon elected to pursue the idea. He wrote 15 pages in the first four hours, producing what eventually became a pivotal scene in Wonder Boys. “It was flowing out in a way that I remembered from Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” he recalls. By the end of the first day, he also knew that the story would take place in Pittsburgh.
“After Mysteries, I never intended to use that city again in my writing,” he says. “I don't really have an explanation for my fascination with the place, except perhaps that my father moved there when I was 12. I spent my summers and holidays there. And, of course, I attended college there. Pittsburgh is where I became who I am now. College formed my ideas on art, literature, friends, sex. It's where I started to write in earnest.” Just as in Mysteries, the new project—which Chabon stored in his computer simply as X—was written in the first person. “I like to read books that are in the first person. I like the intimate confessional tone, as though the person has pulled up a chair and is telling you about his life.”
Revising a Life: Chabon kept X a secret. Within a matter of days, he'd written 50 pages of what became an intricate plot. In addition to his endlessly revised manuscript, Grady Tripp is—in ways that he cannot control—revising his life. He loves his wife and everyone in her family, but he's having an affair with the wife of the chairman of the English department. His dissolute editor is trying to wrest the manuscript from Tripp to salvage his own career. But what drives this wacky, almost slapstick, tale are the subplots. They involve a tuba, a dead dog, a dead boa constrictor, the fur-trimmed satin jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe at her wedding to Joe DiMaggio and that hefty manuscript.
Six weeks later, after his wife took the bar exam, he gave her the first 117 pages to read and was amazed at her reaction. Incredibly, he hadn't thought of the book as humorous. “I'm not at all an intentional writer,” Chabon concedes. “I don't plan. I don't think about how my writing will strike the reader. To me, Grady has a wry tone, but I felt sad writing about him. In a lot of ways, he is a projection of my worst fears of what I was going to become if I kept working on Fountain City. So it wasn't until Ayelet read the manuscript that I realized it was funny.”
Having completed the first draft in seven months, he called Mary Evans with the good news that he'd finally finished his second novel, but that it wasn't Fountain City. Fortunately, his contract with Villard was simply for a novel.
Novertheless, the road to publication was bumpy. Over an eight-month span, Chabon's agent and editor played musical chairs. Mary Evans left the Virginia Barber agency and went out on her own. Doug Stumpf, who edited the book, then exited Villard for Vanity Fair, leaving publisher David Rosenthal to shepherd the novel. At the same time, Villard's publicity department was undergoing an upheaval. Mary Evans persuaded Villard to hire independent publicist Susan Ostrov to give the book the special attention it deserved. On a personal level, Chabon moved once again when Waldman took a job in Los Angeles as a federal public defender. And Sophie was born.
A letter from Stumpf accompanies the galleys of Wonder Boys. Stumpf writes that the theme of the book is “the terrible emotional and spiritual cost of not growing up.” Chabon, who does not know about the letter until PW mentions it, is somewhat bemused. He's never really understood the idea of themes in novels, he says, and continues: “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.”
Chabon has drawn two lessons from his failure to complete Fountain City and the ease and joy of writing Wonder Boys. “Don't take advances on books, because they put too much pressure on you,” he advises. “And don't be afraid to abandon something you don't like.” Another lesson might be that when the words start to sing, follow them.
So far, Wonder Boys seems to be singing a happy tune. Villard is sending Chabon on a nine-city tour; audio rights have been sold to Brilliance; and Avon has a substantial floor for the paperback. Steve Rubin (producer of The Firm) has optioned the book for Paramount. Rubin also optioned The Gentleman Host, an original screenplay that Chabon wrote for fast cash when Waldman announced she was pregnant. The story concerns the so-called gentlemen hosts who, in exchange for free trips, agree to dance and play cards with women on cruise ships. “In retrospect, it wasn't the most commercial idea,” says Chabon. “But I feel close to the older generation of Jews, people in their 70s and 80s. I was very close to my grandfather, who died about six years ago. I have felt his absence and have looked for ways to fill the gap.” Chabon may be the only successful writer who also does volunteer work in an old-age home.
The publishing world is littered with former wonder boys, but every once in a while a young writer comes along who goes on to fulfill his early promise. Wonder Boys may indeed be the means by which Chabon becomes one of the few wunderkinds of his generation who makes the transition to a mature writer with a solid future. Maybe now he'll be able to enjoy his amazing ride.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 845
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 ironic parallels between Tripp's work and Chabon's novel of the same title; indeed, the dust-jacket photograph (of Chabon's manuscript) and the blurb positively encourage such thoughts. Since his first novel, the much-hyped The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was published in 1987, Chabon has produced only one book of short stories, while his more prolific contemporaries, Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, have seen their celebrity turned against them. But he has managed to make out of the stuff of novelist's nightmares a winningly cynical comedy of literary fame. Pittsburgh was praised for its transformation of the rite-of-passage genre; here, Chabon opts for a mixture of campus novel, Sunset Boulevard and picaresque Gonzo-monologue.
Tripp's third wife, “the only Jewish girl in Squirrel Hill with an epicanthic fold,” leaves him on the opening day of a symposium on the novel organized by his faculty, while Crabtree, his disreputable agent, arrives to inspect the non-existent final draft of Wonder Boys. Thus Chabon sets in motion that reliable pair, Life and Art, with Grady Tripp providing the druggy haze through which the two are seen imitating each other. The wild, episodic plot of the novel is difficult to summarize: the weekend takes in a dead dog, a dead snake, a Capra-obsessed student, a tuba, Marilyn Monroe's wedding jacket and a fraught Jewish-Korean Passover.
And if this all sounds like a psychedelic cartoon, that's how it reads, too. But this need be no bad thing; after all, Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover are often at their best when they most resemble Tex Avery. The loose plot also gives Chabon a structure on which to hang the satirical vignettes which are the book's most enjoyable feature. There is nothing terribly original going on here, but the skill with which Chabon composes Tripp's comic despair, and the delight he takes in his grotesque characters hold the reader's attention.
Wonder Boys is funniest when lampooning other people's writing, whether it be the semiotics of Marilyn Monroe's marriage to Joe DiMaggio (“the American tendency to view every marriage as a cross between tabooed exogamy and corporate merger”) or sub-Lovecraft horror (“she was transformed, somewhat inexplicably I recall, into an incarnation of Yshtaxta, a succubus from a distant galaxy”). And at the centre of it all lies the exquisitely doomed Wonder Boys itself:
I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers whose petals I peeled down to the intricate frail organs within … men to drive to adultery and theft, fires to ignite at the hearts of ancient houses.
The sentence-structure is typical of the novel: as the best cartoons revel in their ability to pile absurdity on absurdity, so Chabon rejoices in his capacity to compound Tripp's clauses and excesses beyond conventional spans. This humour of poise and cadence is welcome at a time when American comedy, be it Quentin Tarantino's films or American Psycho, has come to rely on postmodern name-dropping as a substitute for jokes.
Perhaps inevitably, Tripp's story runs out of steam; and the novel ends up too much like Fear and Loathing in the Creative Writing Faculty. Nevertheless Wonder Boys has been worth the wait, although it may well prove a disappointment to devotees of Chabon's earlier work. The book provides a great deal of fun, partly because it stubbornly refuses to be the Great American Novel that Tripp's Wonder Boys fails to be. Chabon offers us a sobering suggestion, that writers are destined to become the losers they love to portray; and an ounce of self-parody is worth several volumes of portentousness. Even so, one can't help feeling that he is gnawing a little too gleefully at the hand that feeds him.
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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.
Turning the pages of most first novels, says Douglas Stumpf, an editor who worked with Chabon on both Mysteries and his new Wonder Boys (Villard), is like “turning lead.” But Mysteries has a “rare magic quality that really pulls you in.”
Despite the praise accorded his first novel, “I wasn't confident about it.” Chabon, 31, said recently over lunch near his Los Angeles home. “I never really had a chance with it to even think that I was writing this book to be read by the public.”
With his second novel, Chabon thought, he would really slay 'em; he would move beyond the snotty-young-author ghetto that sheltered the Bretts and Jays and Tamas, and never look back.
He also wanted to write a book that was more personal.
So with a big fat advance from Villard in his pocket, Chabon embarked on his second novel a long, frustrating and ultimately fruitless journey to a place called “Fountain City,” which he says, “was sort of a map of my brain.”
It covered lots of ground, perhaps too much. Chabon attempted to incorporate several of his passions into one novel: Paris, Florida, architecture and baseball. But after 4 1/2 years, four drafts and more than 600 pages, he was no closer to finishing than when he began.
Without telling anyone, he finally gave up in early 1993, while living in San Francisco. Using his wife's decision to take an early bar exam as incentive, he began anew. But the prospect of starting from scratch terrified him.
“When I dropped ‘Fountain City’ and started to write Wonder Boys, that was really the scariest thing I've ever done. I was so afraid of [messing] up again.”
Using his frustration—and fear—as inspiration, Chabon cranked out his first draft of Wonder Boys in seven months; by March, 1994, the great second novel was at last a fait accompli.
The story, in part, concerns a faded, pot-addicted wonder boy named Grady Tripp, a writer who clings to what could have been as he watches hopelessly—a detached observer in his own downward spiral—as his never-finished masterpiece Wonder Boys and his entire life crumble and flit away like fall leaves caught in a breeze.
On many levels, Chabon could relate. During the “Fountain City” experience, he says, “I started to think, ‘Oh, my God, I'm going to become one of those writers that I have heard about who are working on the same book for 10 years.’
“Then I started thinking, ‘Well, what would that be like? Who does it happen to and why does it happen?’”
Although Wonder Boys isn't the autobiographical brain map that Chabon had initially hoped, it's probably just as well, if only for the preservation of his sanity.
When Chabon ditched Fountain City for Wonder Boys, he returned to the familiar terrain of Pittsburgh. While the city retains a warm spot in his heart (he attended college there and his father still lives there), Chabon, after time spent in Key West, Seattle, San Francisco, the mid Houston Valley and Laguna Beach recently moved to Los Angeles with his wife, Ayelet, a federal public defender. Their daughter, Sophie, was born shortly after they arrived.
But Chabon hasn't been spotted carousing around Hollywood. He digs his work, his family and baseball, and that's enough for him.
Actually, an extra mouth to feed gave Chabon an additional impetus to work. He's just completed a screenplay, a comedy called Gentleman Host, that's been optioned by Scott Rudin at Paramount Studios, who has also purchased the rights to Wonder Boys.
Screenplays may be just a paycheck to Chabon, but his fiction remains sacrosanct. “I would never consider writing fiction for money, he says.
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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 which Zorn dealt. Writing for Grady has become both a sickness and its own therapy; Chabon makes a poetry out of weak openings, botched endings and the episodes that lounge untidily between. They remind us both of Grady's real gifts and his inability to finish Wonder Boys.
The title of Grady's book is the title of Chabon's. Grady's doomed magic-realist brothers are redeemed by his failure to finish their endless saga, and his subsequent loss of the manuscript. Chabon's wonder boys—Grady, his rapacious publisher Crabtree, James Leer, Grady's brilliant pupil and Crabtree's potential lover and redemption—are pulled back from potential disasters, but not by writing, which by itself solves nothing.
Chabon is the sort of male writer who has more to say about men than women, but mostly because he does not think women need his attention to be told how to behave. This is a slightly moralising book in the way that farce has to be. Running round with increasing burdens of embarrassment is only funny if thoroughly deserved. And none of the women in Grady's life has done anything to deserve the chaos he brings like a bad smell, save love or admire him.
Unlike Grady's endlessly proliferating and self-glossing novel, Chabon's moves quickly with no extra luggage. It is a virtuoso performance with a sequence of comprehensively visualised backdrops and enough well-rounded walk-ons to people a novel twice its length. To the mordant luxurious prose of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he has added a memorable sequence of phrases that glitter without ever diverting our attention from the solid structure. This is a great book about personal disaster because it constantly reassures us that we are in safe and knowledgeable hands.
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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 author's name. Chabon was only 24 when his novel was published, not much older than his narrator, and his publishers did well by playing up his youth; the book was a great commercial success, and his stories became a feature of The New Yorker of the late '80s.
What made Chabon so attractive was the way his writing ran counter to the dominant trends of the decade. He didn't offer the plotless strip-mall desperation of American minimalism, the affectless present-tense prose of the school of Carver. Nor was the book set in the McInerney-Ellis world of clubs and Quaaludes, in which moral distinctions call for too much energy. It was refreshing to find a young writer who didn't seem afraid of style, whose work was strongly voiced and vigorously plotted. And it didn't hurt that The Mysteries of Pittsburgh provided a variation on a very familiar form: the novel of maturation, in which a nice young man has to declare his independence of an imposing father who happened, in this case, to be a gangster.
Chabon's new novel covers much of the same terrain. It, too, is written in the first person and set around a university in Pittsburgh, and though its narrator is the fortysomething Grady Tripp, a teacher of creative writing, the novel maintains its predecessor's wide-eyed fascination with the rituals of undergraduate life. (This is the only published novel I know that describes the drinking games of my own college fraternity.) Wonder Boys, too, has been extravagantly praised, its author hailed as “the brightly shining hope” of American letters. And there is much to admire here. Chabon can write a good scene, deftly setting his characters in collision with one another. He is good on a world gone out of fashion, old cars and older music and the kind of “classic Pittsburgh establishments … that deal in rendering vats, piroshki presses, artificial wigs, and that regardless of the hour or day of the week always look as if they have been closed since the death of Guy Lombardo.”
Those opening sentences about August Van Zorn lead not only to a memorable account of the lost paradise of the pulps, but also to an evocation of what Grady calls “the midnight disease” that so marks a writer's life, a sickness whose symptoms are the rocking chair and the whiskey bottle and “the staring eye, lucid with insomnia even in the daytime.” Grady himself caught the disease as a Kerouac-bitten teenager in the late '60s
and had conceived the usual picture of myself as an outlaw-poet-pathfinder, a kind of Zen-masterly John C. Fremont on amphetamines with a marbled dime-store pad of lined paper in the back pocket of my denim pants. I still see myself that way, I suppose, and I'm probably none the better for it. Dutifully I thumbed the rides, hopped the B & Os and the Great Northerns, balled the lithe small-town girls in the band shells of their hometown parks, held the jobs and field hand and day laborer and soda jerk, saw the crude spectacles of American landscape slide past me as I lay in an open boxcar and drank cheap red wine; and if I didn't, I might as well have.
Balled. That's the proper word, the '60s word that nobody really uses anymore. Grady's sense of himself here as a cliché, the irony with which he sees his own romanticism, is just right.
What feels off is the way the richness of his style cushions that irony, and turns it soft. For finally Chabon's hero believes in those clichés. Wonder Boys aspires to a cynicism about the literary life that it can't quite sustain, as if inside a writer like Martin Amis somebody like Thomas Wolfe were struggling to get out, “filled with the dread and mystery of the books” that he believes himself “destined to write.” The novel is a picaresque account of Grady's lost weekend: the one on which he seems to throw his life away, only to find it again (of course) in the book's closing pages. For years he's been struggling with a manuscript called, no surprise, Wonder Boys, 2,600 pages of life in a Pennsylvania town, a book he can't finish for two reasons. First, because its world contains “too many terrible genetic and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury and dig up again, too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trysts to arrange.” And second, because he blows too much weed.
Now his editor and old friend Terry Crabtree is coming to town for a literary festival, and Grady has to have something to show him. He tries to slap on a last chapter; or five of them. When Crabtree gets off the plane, he's accompanied by a woman in five-inch heels who turns out to be a man. (Why the straight Grady recognizes a drag queen, and the bisexual Crabtree does not, remains one of these mysteries of Pittsburgh.) Incidents follow: the shooting of a large dog, the theft of the black satin jacket in which Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio, several seductions, encounters with the police, an accident with a snake. Marijuana is smoked and bourbon is drunk and Grady's lover announces that she is pregnant. Oh, and his wife leaves him. (the transvestite disappears on page 98 and plays no further role in this novel.)
All this reminds me of the rollicking pace sustained by Michael Malone, author of Handling Sin and Foolscap and a seriously underrated comic novelist; and while the book never seems quite as funny as it should be, you do turn the pages. One by one its scenes are vivid and concrete; and its combination of laughter and heartbreak, the way in which, as Grady's marriage cracks, everybody around him just tries to go on about their business, is admirable. But Wonder Boys suffers from precisely the kind of problem that Grady is having with his own Wonder Boys. What about that transvestite? Given how quickly she's abandoned, why is he here in the first place? Wonder Boys is a kitchen sink, full of bits and pieces of plot that flicker for a few pages and then gutter out. Its events seem bound only by chronology, and yet Chabon doesn't claim any kind of logic for either the sheer linearity or the contingency of his characters’ lives.
About halfway I began to wonder if there might be a shapely 200-pager buried inside this loose and baggy monster; but the real problem with Wonder Boys lies with Grady himself. Do we really want another novel about a writer messing up his life, especially a novel written in the kind of ingratiating “I-know-I'm-an-asshole” voice that begs our indulgence because the narrator is, after all, a novelist? This is the kind of delight in immaturity that has so often marked the male American writer in the past.
What compensation the novel offers for that banality lies in the fact that both Grady and Chabon—in this they are indistinguishable—seem to have the gift of precise and knowing observation. Certainly that was the attraction of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Still, when I looked once again at that memorable page about the “terrible consequences” of studying French, not on an office door but within the novel itself, it seemed like, well, something you'd stick on an office door. And the more I thought about it, the less Chabon's description seemed to bear any relation whatsoever to any French major I've known.
Reading Wonder Boys, I found myself measuring Grady's observations against my own experience. He describes the face of his lover as “freckled and pale and alive with the look of disappointment that often haunts the difficult faces of redheaded women.” Do redheaded women have especially difficult faces? Do they look any more disappointed than women who don't have red hair? One of Grady's Jewish Korean in-laws has an “insincere” voice, for “like many people who have lost all but the ghost of their original foreign accents, nothing she said ever sounded quite true.” What? The least one can ask of a knowing voice is that it know what it is talking about. Chabon's book does not quite deserve the trust it demands. In this novel Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak happened in 1947.
Maybe that wouldn't matter so much if Grady were an unreliable narrator, but he isn't. The novel posits a distinction between Grady the self-destructive character and Grady the storyteller, spinning his narrative from the vantage point of a few years on: subdued but sober, married again and with a son to take care of, Wonder Boys abandoned, his literary ambitions held firmly in check. But the distinction is never believably shown. The romanticism and the purple patches are as much a part of the narrator as they are of the character, and so the narrator never quite sees the character with the irony that the latter deserves. Grady's voice seems finally false, overwritten and yet not fully inhabited, as if Chabon were striving for a resonant maturity he cannot quite maintain.
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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.
Chabon's picaresque narrative—like Grady's novel—threatens at every step to avoid closure. Finally, however, the pages of Grady's manuscript blow out of Crabtree's car, and the two abandon the novel in a parking lot. One experiences a déjà vu sense of being on the road with an academic version of Neal Cassady or the equally befuddled protagonist of John Gardner's Mickelsson's Ghosts. While the resolution ties things up in an impossibly romantic manner, Grady's growing sense of vulnerability enriches the novel, providing it with nuances that Chabon's previous work lacked.
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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 of living—we are a long way here from Thomas Mann's Aschenbach, Saul Bellow's Charlie Citrine, or even Don DeLillo's Bill Gray. The high-mindedness and dignity of the vocation are almost entirely sacrificed in these novels; there is a shared will on the part of the authors to inflict humiliation, to exact punishment, perhaps for dreams dreamed too naively. …
Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys is likewise about literary promise gone awry, though in this case the cause is rooted less in the culture at large and more in the failure of the character's character. Chabon's protagonist, Grady Tripp, is a one-time literary star who has landed himself a teaching post at a small Pennsylvania college:
My third novel, The Land Downstairs, had won a PEN award and, at twelve thousand copies, sold twice as well as both its predecessors combined, and in its aftermath Crabtree and his bosses at Bartizan had felt sanguine enough about my imminent attainment to the status of, at the least, cult favorite to advance me a ridiculous sum of money in exchange for nothing more than a fatuous smile from the thunderstruck author and a title invented out of air and brain-sparkle while pissing into the aluminum trough of a men's room at Three Rivers Stadium. Luckily for me an absolutely superb idea for a novel soon followed—three brothers in a haunted Pennsylvania small town are born, grow up, and die—and I'd started to work on it at once, and had been diligently hacking away at the thing ever since.
His problem is not writer's block: “The problem, if anything, was precisely the opposite. I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers. … It was about a single family and it stood, as of that morning, at two thousand six hundred and eleven pages, each of them revised and rewritten a half dozen times.”
Another name for Grady's problem might be cannabis—he has become a pot-smoker of considerable appetite. That and his penchant for ending up in odd situations with deviant individuals leads to a weekend rout when his manic editor, Terry Crabtree, comes to visit for a literary festival hosted by the college. Grady's progress, from one disaster to the next, is determined at every turn by his concealments: from Crabtree he must hide that his novel is nowhere near to being done; from his wife he would hide his mistress (to no avail); from his mistress he must keep the accidental shooting of her beloved dog (the body of which is secreted in Grady's car for most of the novel). … But when the last of his stoned subterfuges has failed, what Grady cannot conceal is that he has failed himself, his dream. He has used up the exhaustible capital of his youth, and whatever else may happen to him as a writer, he can no longer think of himself as a “wonder boy.”
The novel ends with a sudden leap forward in time. Grady has married his mistress, Sara, fathered a son, quit pot. He still writes, but there is undeniable resignation in his attitude:
On a day when my work hasn't gone well, I like to spend a couple of hours at the Alibi's dented steel bar, and you will find me there on Tuesday nights after the advanced workshop lets out. You can look for the half-blind minotaur with the corduroy sport coat and the battered horsehide briefcase, at the far end of the bar by the jukebox, holding on to a mug of Iron City cut, for the sake of his health, with thin, sweet lemonade. If you sit long enough on the neighboring stool he will probably mention that he is working hard on a novel about baseball and the Civil War. … Usually he sits with one or two much younger men, students of his, wonder boys whose hearts are filled with the dread and mystery of the books they believe themselves destined to write.
Of the three novels considered here, all of them about failure and the loss of the dream, Chabon's is the most hopeful. Not because of its conclusion, however, but because the writing itself somehow transfigures—and thus somehow belies—its melancholy conclusion. We read about the dying of the imagination, but the prose itself is alert and imaginative. We can believe that Grady's stream is running dry, but not the larger stream—the feeding aquifer—and this is what finally matters.
But what about the larger question? Are these three novels telling us something we ought to be heeding? Is there a truth about literary life—its current state and future prospects—to be extracted? My sense is that all three writers are, to different degrees, working out a particular recognition. That each is saying goodbye to the romanticized image of the writer and the writer's life. They have recognized that these are dreams the world no longer honors much, and they have turned their frustration—their rage—to creative ends. In the humiliations visited upon Sam Holland, Richard Tull, and Grady Tripp, we see—do we not?—an original vision and desire gone sour. We mock our adolescent selves because we were too vulnerable, too exposed. Authors mock their writer-characters for similar reasons. Is it because they have themselves grown up, or has the world in fact become a less hospitable place to the creative imagination? Both, I'd say.
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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 professionals dragging after them like Marley's Ghost the unintended consequences of hasty decisions (“Mrs. Box”). When the stories are put alongside his treatment of these themes in his earlier books. Chabon seems to be writing, after Balzac, his own, good-humored American Comedie Humaine, a series of works about the often simultaneous folly and heartbreak of the American middle class. He's Updike without the condescension, Cheever without the self-pity, a young American Nabokov who writes with a rueful joie de vivre from within his own culture instead of writing bemusedly about it from the outside.
Much of his success lies in the fact that Chabon does not write fashionable fiction. Written under the trinity of Chekhov, Joyce and Carver, many contemporary stories read as if “narrative” were a dirty word, coasting on attitude, voice and, too often, a jerry-built epiphany. For all his evident knowledge of, and love for, pop culture, Chabon is no postmodernist; he writes old-fashioned stories with beginnings, middles and ends, each as expertly carpentered and fun to partake of as a Cole Porter song. In the wryly heartbreaking “Son of the Wolfman,” Cara and Richard, a struggling L.A. couple who work on the lower echelons of show business, fail in their attempts to have a child, only to have Cara become pregnant by a notorious rapist. Cara decides to have the child, Richard abandons her, and from this point on the reader can clearly see where Chabon is going with the story. But this predictability works as a splendid mimetic effect, as the reader, as wary as Richard of finding any good in the situation, comes to accept a sort of miracle.
Chabon's gift, in fact, is to find not only grace but humor in otherwise unpleasant circumstances. In “Green's Book,” a young divorced dad, Green, and his weekending young daughter attend a birthday party where Green runs into Ruby, a young woman whom he babysat when he was 13 and she was 4. Now a family therapist and the author of a book on fatherhood, Green is haunted by a brief moment with Ruby years ago, when, out of mostly innocent adolescent confusion, he nearly committed an act of borderline abuse. Needless to say, this is a red-hot topic, but Chabon writes charmingly of the lifelong confusion of a good man—putatively an expert in human relations—over his own unruly emotions.
One of Chabon's other gifts is his ability to depict writers and the writing life without seeming precious or self-indulgent. The final story in the book, “In the Black Mill,” is presented as the work of August van Zorn, a minor character in Wonder Boys, a lonely small-time academic who wrote pulp horror stories in the '40s and '50s. You don't need to have read the novel to appreciate the story, but knowing that van Zorn wrote for the pulps to pay for his wife's care in a mental asylum adds a layer of poignancy to what is otherwise a scary, funny and affectionate pastiche of H. P. Lovecraft, complete with faux literary prose, a gloomy first-person narrator, and unnameable creatures from beyond.
There is a good deal of loss, failure and despair in Chabon—see the stories “That Was Me” and “Spikes,” set among the defeated permanent residents of a resort island in the Pacific Northwest—but he never wallows in pain or romanticizes it. He is, dare I say it, a fundamentally hopeful writer, capable of compassion without sentiment, skilled at depicting stupidities and even crimes without diminishing the human worth of the perpetrators. An unearned despair and adolescent nihilism are too often taken as the hallmarks of literary writing; to be called hopeful, clever and charming is in some quarters the kiss of death to a serious writer's reputation. But Chabon more than redeems these underrated virtues with a mature understanding of life's disappointments, never selling those disappointments short but always celebrating the profoundly humane comedy they bring out in all of us.
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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 of boyhood and the valiant attempts to stave off disaster that growing up so often entails. A structural marvel, “Werewolves in Their Youth” slowly opens out from a spotlight focus on 11-year-old Paul to gradually illuminate the complexities of his parents’ floundering marriage and the predicament of their neighbors, whose son, the out-of-control Timothy, is on the brink of being sent off to the dreaded special school.
It's recess, and Paul, alone and intent, is constructing an elaborate city for a terrorized ant population, explaining the layout to them in the same tone of voice he has heard his real-estate-agent mother use with dazed first-time home-buyers. Suddenly, screams erupt from the playground, and Paul jumps up just in time to see Timothy snap into full, make-believe werewolf mode. Paul stands rigid with reluctance, knowing he's the only one who can talk Timothy out of his monster trance and resenting his connection to the class freak.
As this many-faceted story unfurls, Chabon keeps the definition of “freak” in play and shifts the balance of power back and forth between his young, unhappy protagonists. When he describes Timothy on the rampage, Chabon subtly raises the question of who is tormenting whom? And, more importantly, who is crazy and who is sane? He reminds us, almost subliminally, that every situation can be interpreted in at least two ways, and then broaches his primary theme: the incessant inner battle that rages between out instincts—our werewolf selves—and the precepts of civilization. Timothy, it turns out, is the first in a line of evocative characters personifying this tug-of-war between nature and nurture, intuition and reason, survival and ambition.
This fundamental conflict drives the highly suspenseful and slashingly funny “House Hunting.” Here Chabon ponders the violence inherent in sex, and the precariousness of marriage, which he sees as “at once a container for the madness between men and women and a fragile hedge against it, as religion was to death, and the laws of physics to the immense quantity of utter emptiness of which the universe was made.” This vision hovers along the periphery of each subsequent story as the monstrous and the random take on ever-more-troubling forms.
In the masterful “Son of the Wolfman,” a tale that secures Chabon a place alongside Raymond Carver and E. L. Doctorow, he portrays a faithful wife who has always longed for children but who only gets pregnant when she is raped by a stranger. Overcoming her anger and revulsion, she decides to have the baby, and her tormented husband must figure out if he has what it takes to stay and be a father to this child of violence. As Chabon dramatizes this excruciating situation with breath-catching intensity and flashes of humor, his readers will hope that compassion and love win out over lunacy and ferociousness.
Chabon's consummate and surprising stories relate significantly to each other, and their sequencing creates a resonant progression. The riveting “Son of the Wolfman” is followed by “Green's Book,” a superb display of Chabon's deservedly famous humor and a welcome entry into the world of the absurd after the mythic dimensions of the previous tale. Fatherhood is again the topic. Marty Green, recently divorced, is traveling with his young daughter, with whom he spends little time. He stops to visit a family he baby-sat for in his youth and is unnerved by the presence of his former charge, once a trusting toddler he nearly abused while in an erotic fugue state, now a provocative and disturbingly frank (make that hilarious) young woman. Green panics and promptly forgets everything he has written in his rather smug book about the rules of fatherly conduct. So much for expertise. But like all of Chabon's fumbling male characters, Green is acutely aware of his shortcomings, and open to, indeed, hungry for, enlightenment, a willingness to change that infuses Chabon's tales with a wry and stirring optimism.
Further variations on the theme of fatherhood are found in “Spikes,” a radiant story about a man and a surrogate son, and the comic “The Harris Fetko Story,” in which a football player reluctantly attends the ritual circumcision of his half-Jewish half-brother at his father's car dealership. In the final tale, “In the Black Mill,” Chabon zaps us into an entirely different time and place, indulging his fascination with terror in a full-blown Gothic horror story that would have made Shirley Jackson proud. The author, too, of two fine novels, Chabon is a luminous and thrilling writer: funny, imaginative, insightful and madly in love with our wild and timid species.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1690
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 perhaps into a heroic doctor, or developing, through practice and sheer force of will, the mental powers that would give him a preternatural control over the hearts and minds of men. In his desk drawer lay—and had lain, for some time—the first eleven pages of a massive autobiographical novel to be entitled either (in the Perelmanian mode) Through Abe Glass Darkly or (in the Dreiserian) American Disillusionment (a subject of which he was still by and large ignorant). He had devoted an embarrassing number of hours of mute concentration—brow furrowed, breath held—to the development of his brain's latent powers of telepathy and mind control. And he had thrilled to that Iliad of medical heroics, The Microbe Hunters, ten times at least. But like most natives of Brooklyn, Sammy considered himself a realist and in general his escape plans centered around the attainment of fabulous sums of money.
From the age of six, he had sold seeds, candy bars, house-plants, cleaning fluids, metal polish, magazine subscriptions, unbreakable combs, and shoelaces door-to-door. In a Zharkov's laboratory on the kitchen table, he had invented almost functional button-reattachers, tandem bottle openers, and heatless clothes irons. In more recent years, Sammy's commercial attention had been arrested by the field of professional illustration …
Zharkov, those of a certain age will remember, was the scientist sidekick in the comic strips about Flash Gordon. What! You don't remember? Not to worry: In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay Michael Chabon (wunderkind author of Wonder Boys and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) recreates—in stippled detail, with warmth and pizzazz and prose like silk—the very texture of life from 1939 to 1955, the heyday of whoopee cushions, big-band music, Hitler, radio drama, Greenwich village bohemians, carnival strong men, Joe DiMaggio, pinup girls, Jewish emigres, Old Gold cigarettes, B-B guns and, not least, by any means, comic books. Surely, during those exuberant, heartbreaking years just living in America must have seemed the most amazing adventure of all.
Especially for a couple of boy geniuses. Having smuggled himself across half the world to New York, former art student Joe Kavalier teams up with his hot-shot cousin Sam Clay (no longer Klayman) in a scheme to create a comic-book rival to Superman. The Escapist doesn't just fight crime, he “frees the world of it. He frees people, see? He comes in the darkest hour. He watches from the shadows. Guided only by the light from—the light from—his Golden Key!” Chabon is clearly so informed a student of the caped crusader genre (“I want to acknowledge the deep debt I owe in this and everything else I've ever written to the work of the late Jack Kirby, the King of Comics”). and he describes Luna Moth and the Swift and a half dozen other superheroes so convincingly that not a few readers will soon be on the lookout, in attics and thrift shops, for Amazing Midget Radio Comics No. 1. That's the issue with cover art showing the Escapist as he delivers a tremendous haymaker to Hitler smack on the nose. Of course, the last No. 1 to come up for auction at Sotheby's went, “after lively bidding,” for ＄42,200. And it wasn't even in mint condition.
Though returning persistently to his heroes’ ups and downs in comics (a largely Jewish enterprise: “Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself”), Chabon arranges his novel as a suite of tableaux depicting life in the 1940s, that “moment unsurpassed in this century for verve, romanticism, polish and a droll, tidy variety of soul.” At a party given by a Surrealist art dealer, Joe saves the life of Salvador Dali when the breathing mechanism jams on the diving suit in which the painter has immured himself. Sam visits the remnants of the 1939 World's Fair. The partners attend the premiere of Citizen Kane, and Joe dances with Dolores Del Rio. Sam becomes a wartime plane spotter at the top of the Empire State Building, his cousin performs as a conjuror at New York bar mitzvahs.
Chabon takes us everywhere: to the back streets of Prague, the headquarters of the Aryan-American League, a gay party, an Alaskan military outpost during the war, Louis Tannen's celebrated magic shop, the fictional Long Island suburb of Bloomtown. We meet fretful bigwigs, mournful artistes, two-bit fanatics: There's snazzy radio star Tracy Bacon, venal Sheldon Anapol, head of Empire Comics, and his cousin Jack Ashkenazy, president of Racy Publications, Inc., the Mighty Molecule (aka “the world's strongest Jew”), one-time presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith, a crazed Yossarian-like pilot named Shannenhouse, and, best of all, Rosa Luxemburg Saks, whom Joe first glimpses naked in another man's bed and whom he, not surprisingly, never forgets. When the two meet again, unexpectedly one evening, Joe quite naturally starts to feel “feverish and a little dizzy,” but, fortunately, “the cool talcum smell of Shalimar she gave off was like a guardrail he could lean against” The subsequent pages in which Rosa takes the young comic-book artist to her studio, where they shyly talk about painting dreams and each other, is a masterpiece of tenderness, one of the best depictions in contemporary fiction of two people slowly, hesitantly falling in love.
Ah, but there are so many good things in this novel, it's hard to limit oneself. Heed the street wisdom of George Deasey, cynical pulp novelist and sometime editor of Racy Police Stories: “There is only one sure means in life.’ Deasey said, ‘of ensuring that you are not ground into paste by disappointment, futility, and disillusion. And that is always to ensure, to the utmost of your ability, that you are doing it solely for the money.’” Deasey ends up, you will be pleased to learn, working in Washington.
Or take a peek at Longman Harkoo, surrealist: “At a time when an honorable place in the taxonomy of male elegance was still reserved for the genus Fat Man, Harkoo was a classic instance of the Mystic Potentate species, managing to look at once commanding, stylish, and ultramundane in a vast purple and brown caftan, heavily embroidered, that hung down almost to the tops of his Mexican sandals. The little toe of his horny right foot … was adorned with a garnet ring. A venerable Kodak Brownie hung from an Indian-beaded strap around his neck.” After being introduced to Joe, Harkoo admits that over the years he's already asked 7,118 people to take his photograph, solemnly adding, when told of his guest's European origins, “I have a marked deficit of Czech impressions.”
Or consider the great escape artist Bernard Kornblum, who in retirement settles in Prague, his adopted home, “to await the inescapable.” Or Joe's adored younger brother Thomas, or his witty doctor parents and his opera-loving grandfather. All these people, one sickeningly knows, must be doomed, even as Joe works desperately to earn big money, to cajole German officials, to do whatever it takes to help his family get out of Hitler's Europe. To escape.
As A. S. Byatt teased out all the implications of the word “possession” in her Booker Prize-winning novel of that name, so Chabon returns, again and again, to the notion of escape. Joe, fearful of any pleasures, believes that he can “justify his own liberty only to the degree that he employed it to earn the freedom of the family he had left behind.” After many years Sam eventually releases his true inner self. Rosa flees marital emptiness for fulfilling work at Kiss Comics. Several characters break away from the emotional bondage of the past. That comics themselves are derided as merely an escape from reality” is also, according to Chabon, nothing less than a “powerful argument on their behalf.” For high among art's virtues stands its power to fashion a waking dream, a secondary world in which we can, if we're lucky, find a refuge from the hubbub and heartaches of this one.
Some readers could complain that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay feels structurally ramshackle; others may want to warn Chabon about over-indulging his penchant for lists (brilliant lists, I should add, veritable catalogue arias in prose, but still). The last 100 pages, set in 1955, almost too dramatically modernize the tone of the book, though finally bringing the novel to a more than satisfying conclusion—and not the one expected. To me, even the symbolic names Kavalier and Klayman sound a tad overemphatic, and I quickly grew suspicious of certain parenthetical tidbits, obvious sleights of narrative misdirection. Etc. Etc. But none of this really matters, does it? Michael Chabon has written a long, lovely novel about the American Dream and about comic books (the two, it turns out, may be much the same thing). It's absolutely gosh-wow, super-colossal—smart, funny, and a continual pleasure to read. In a just world—not the world of Sheldon Anapol, I might add—it should win prizes. That wouldn't be at all amazing.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1419
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 narrated, for the most part, from the point of view of its two main characters. When this commentary appears, it has the professorial tone of a chronicler or antiquarian expounding a true history, complete with the occasional, only mildly ludic, footnote.
The subject matter which Chabon addresses in such a scholarly manner can be taken as another identifying feature of his work. Josef Kavalier and Sam Clay are comic-book-writing cousins in what Chabon calls the “Golden Age,” before the domination of television in the 1940s and 50s, a time when the costumed super-hero was part of every American boy's pantheon. Chabon's devotion to the classic comic book is evidence of a general interest in the trashier, pulpy end of American letters. In Wonder Boys, this manifested itself in the protagonist, Grady Tripp's interest in a pulp horror writer, August Van Zorn; there was also a Gothic-horror pastiche, ostensibly by Van Zorn, in his most recent collection of stories. The preoccupation is taken even further on Chabon's website, where he claims to have “piggybacked” an academic's site devoted to Van Zorn—who one had hitherto assumed (and surely still should) to be a creature of Chabon's imagination—on to his own. Of course, Chabon's own prose, with its carefully chosen similes and extended, elegant disquisitions, couldn't be further from the pulp and fantasy fiction he so admires. But a tension emerges in this novel between the seriousness of literary fiction—Sam Clay, like Grady Tripp, has an unfinished great American novel on the go—and the satisfaction of pure, abundant creation. Clay writes pulp novels on the side, and there is a hint of professional jealousy of the speed with which his character can produce to order in Chabon's description of it:
“First of all,” Deasey said, “Mr Clay, where is Strange Frigate?”
“Halfway done,” Sammy said. This was a fourth Goblin novel that Racy Publications … had commissioned from Sam Clay. Like all seventy-two of its predecessors in the series, it would be published, of course, under the house name of Harvey Slayton. Actually, as far as Joe knew, Sammy had not even started it yet. The title was one of two hundred and forty-five that George Deasey had dreamed up during a two-day bender in Key West in 1936 and had been working his way through ever since. Strange Frigate was number seventy-three on the list.
“I'll have it for you by Monday.”
And he does. To a writer with a more sedate rate of production, such facility might seem enviable.
But Chabon's own creations are worth waiting for, and the ambitious, confident sweep of Kavalier & Clay is no exception. Chabon's novel moves, like a comic book—but one inked in by an accomplished miniaturist—in a series of tableaux: Jewish Prague after the Nazi invasion, a cross-section of the layers of Brooklyn and Manhattan society, a war-time interlude in the Antarctic, post-war American suburbia and the period of witch-hunting senatorial investigations into the nation's morals and political rectitude. Chabon thinks nothing of taking on the most emblematic aspects of his subjects. In Prague, Josef Kavalier, an amateur magician, helps his illusionist teacher to execute a plan to find and smuggle out the Prague golem (created, according to legend, by the sixteenth-century Rabbi Loew to protect the Jews of the city), which has been holed up in an apartment block out of harm's way. There is a bitter irony in Josef and his master's initial search for the golem. Their careful itemization of the Jewish population, dutifully agreed to, horribly foreshadows the fate of Josef's family and their fellow Jews in the years ahead.
When Josef escapes to New York, Chabon plunges him once more into the middle of history. Sam's and Joe's comic-book publishers move to the Empire State Building, placing the immigrant Josef at the heart of the American dream. When the young men go to an arty shindig up-town, all the guests have had to move to another room in order to hear themselves speak; Salvador Dali is in the ballroom wearing a deep-sea diver's suit connected to noisily wheezing breathing apparatus.
Chabon is even willing to mock the tendency of his characters to be in the right place at the right time. When Josef, angered by the grim news from Prague, starts picking fights at random with New York Germans, he is given a beating by someone who bears an uncanny similarity to the former heavyweight boxing world champion Max Schmeling: “With pugilistic quickness, he crowded Joe against a pillar, crooked an arm around Joe's neck, and gave him a swift punch in the stomach.” In an authorial aside at the end of the chapter, however, we learn that “there is good reason to believe that Schmeling was not in New York at all, but in Poland, having been drafted into the Wehrmacht and sent to the front as punishment for his defeat by Joe Louis in 1938.”
At the centre of the novel is Joe's and Sam's own comic-book hero, the Escapist, a super-hero Houdini, who wriggles out of every tight spot his enemies put him in, and is employed by his creators to take on the Nazis single-handed. For Josef, the Escapist's Nazi-bashing is, of course, a displacement activity, and when America enters the war, he joins up. His posting to Antarctica (“this waste for which the adjective ‘godforsaken’ appeared to have been coined”) means that his direct influence on the course of the war is, if anything, even smaller after he has taken an active part in it. But the war is only part of the cousins’ world, an altered reality where the comic strip had been a fantasy. When the war is over, the central concern of the novel, indicated by the very name of the Escapist, is returned to. The Escapist is more accurately, of course, an escapologist, and the shorter term is not just convenient abbreviation. Sam and Joe's character is a means to escape their own realities. As Joe discovers, “The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they … might never have existed in the first place.”
When reality is so painful, Chabon seems to suggest, escapism is not self-deluding; it is self-preserving. At various moments, his characters defend the beneficial effects of entertainment. Chabon is prepared to make a case for the comic book as more than trash, describing the influence of Citizen Kane on the strips as resulting in a “sudden small efflorescence of art, minor but genuine, in the tawdry product line.” But Sam, for all his frustrated literary ambition, sees that there can be no more “noble or necessary service in life” than “satisfying the desire to escape.” An exclusive diet of escapism can infantilize its consumers, but it seems uncivil to blame Chabon for that. At any rate, his own novel is so accomplished, handling with humour and a light touch a multiplicity of emotion and experience, that it becomes in itself a perfect illustration of his theme. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is proof of the abiding power of complex, serious, engaged, but above all entertaining story-telling.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 949
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 books.
His partner in art is his American cousin, Sammy Clay (né Klayman), a teenager afflicted with an overbearing mother and an imagination one step ahead of its time. Together Kavalier and Clay convince Sammy's employer—a purveyor of novelties and trinkets—to dip into the brave new world of comic books. In one caffeine-fueled weekend of invention, the pair create a hero to rival the recently born Superman. And little wonder that the fruit of their pens is a character they call The Escapist. “To all those who toil in the bonds of slavery and, uh, the, the shackles of oppression,” Sammy stammers, “he offers the hope of liberation and the promise of freedom!”
The rest is all ripping calendar pages and whirling headlines. From comic books to radio, The Escapist (and a host of companion titles) leads Kavalier and Clay to a life of comfort and the love of beautiful people. But life is hardly a brimming bowl of cherries for our heroes. In the midst of their success they do battle with the Aryan League and the vice squad. And of course Joe has a family back in Prague to avenge. No sooner has one war ended then Kavalier and Clay find themselves in the thick of another, a battle against comic books waged by the All-American guardians of decency in a not-so-distant age when Tipper Gore and Joe Lieberman were too young to read much but, well, comic books. And if that weren't enough, there is a specter that, from the first days of their relationship, threatens to come between them, The Golem.
The Golem—like Joe Kavalier, our readers may recall—is a native of Prague, the legendary creation of Rabbi Loew from the mud of the Danube, an Incredible Yiddische Hunk, born to save the Jews from their enemies. Dormant for a number of years, the Golem is having something of a literary comeback in the United States. In recent years, writers as varied as Cynthia Ozick and Pete Hamill have invoked the friendly monster, the latter in the mean streets of Brooklyn and the former in the bathtub of a municipal employee. For Joe, in the Old World and the New, the Golem is as much Houdini as Superman, an escape artist of the first order, perfect for a persecuted Jewish people who need flight as much as fight.
For Chabon, who revels in the magic of language, the Golem is creation itself. “Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation,” he writes. “Every Golem in the history of the world, from Rabbi Hanina's delectable goat to the river-clay Frankenstein of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, was summoned into existence through language, through murmuring, recital, and cabalistic chitchat; was, literally, talked into life.”
Words are certainly the creative mud that runs through the veins of Chabon. A wonderfully lyrical writer, Chabon rattles off one elegiac list after another, paeans to the comic books that sustained Joe during his lean years after the war. “Joe loved his comic books: for their inferior color separation, their poorly trimmed paper stock, their ads for air rifles and dance courses and acne creams, for the basement smell that clung to the older ones. … Most of all, he loved them for the pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lucubrations of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could … transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art.”
And yet, for all the words in Chabon's 600-plus pages, there is remarkably little blood. Change the names Kavalier & Clay to Hardy & Hardy and there would be little difference in the level of derring-do. The shaping of a Golem may be, as it is to Joe at the end, “a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation … the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something—one poor, dumb, powerful thing—exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation.” But shaping without fire, yearning without passion, leave The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay three colors short of amazement.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1747
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 spent most of his adult life making and selling them—viewed them as trash, Joe loved his comic books: for their inferior color separation, their poorly trimmed paper stock, their ads for air rifles and dance courses and acne creams, for the basement smell that clung to the older ones, the ones that had been in storage during Joe's travels. Most of all, he loved them for the pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lucubrations of 500 aging boys dreaming as hard as they could for 15 years, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art.
So when a visitor to his writing cottage behind his large shingle home with a redwood tree in the front yard innocently suggests that Chabon might be a comic book fan, the author seems somewhat taken aback and quickly points out that he sold off most of his treasures in high school. “I don't read comics,” he says at first. Sometime in high school, his love of the genre gave way to enthusiasm for literary writers like Henry Miller and John Cheever.
He does, however, frame original drawings by Kirby by his desk and, when prompted, draws open a file cabinet in which a couple of hundred comics are lovingly preserved, the amber of his youth. “I had several thousand comics,” he says, warming to the topic. “I wish I still had them. My son also wishes I still had them, but I don't have a collector's mentality.”
Chabon certainly seems to have a creator's mentality, and the act of breathing life into dust (or trash) is central to his new book, which has been drawing mostly excellent reviews.
The story starts when Sam Clay is roused from sleep one night in New York in 1939 to meet his cousin Joe Kavalier, who has escaped (with the aid of the mythic Golem of Prague) from the encroaching terrors of a Nazified Czechoslovakia. The next day, the two begin collaborating on a comic book character called the Escapist, who can pick any lock, slip any shackle. The Escapist battles barely disguised Nazis, while Kavalier pines to rescue the rest of his family and Clay discovers (and decides to hide) the fact that he is gay. When the U.S. enters the war, Kavalier runs off to fight real Nazis and finds himself stuck in Antarctica.
The book concludes with Kavalier standing on the precipice of the Empire State Building in the Escapist's long underwear, trying to right the wrongs of his own life. Each time and place is lovingly and precisely evoked in Chabon's looping and trilling sentences (although some plot points and actions are glossed over). “A novel of towering achievement,” concluded the New York Times.
“Fighting Hitler was what comics were all about,” Chabon says. “I just wanted the opportunity to travel in time and go back to this place and live there if only in my head.” At 37, he still resembles a grad student, with wavy brown hair that falls to his shoulders, bright eyes and fine features that make him look like a Hollywood version of what a writer should look like. He wears glasses, shorts and a Giants T-shirt, and slips on clogs to walk from his house through his backyard to his writing cottage, where he reverts to bare feet.
He's accommodating but seems to tolerate interviews more than open up to them. Not long after sitting down to talk about his work, he says he has to pick up one of his children from school. His wife insists that she can manage.
LEARNING BY IMITATION
Chabon, with his usual precision, says he wanted to be a writer since he was 11. As a child he drew his own comic books. Later he typed up a 12-page story about Captain Nemo and Sherlock Holmes told in the voice of Doctor Watson.—“Slavishly imitate the writers you love,” he suggests. “You'll learn a lot about how to write.”
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984, he enrolled in the MFA writing program at UC Irvine. His roommate was novelist Louis B. Jones, whose work habits made a strong impression on Chabon, who now writes Sunday to Thursday, 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. “I don't believe in waiting for ideas to come up,” he says. “What's important is sitting down in the chair at the same time every day and staying there.”
In his second year, Chabon had to write a thesis. He had just re-read The Great Gatsby and Goodbye, Columbus, and decided to set a story over the course of a single summer in Pittsburgh: Art Bechstein is the son of a gangster, and after he finishes college, he falls in love with a woman and then a man and has a falling out with his father.
When he finished, Chabon dropped the manuscript off with his faculty advisor, MacDonald Harris. That was on a Friday. On Monday, Chabon found a note in his own mailbox: Harris had read the manuscript and shipped it off to his own agent in New York. Thus Chabon soon had his first book contract even before he bothered to type up the thesis on the requisite bond paper and submit it for his degree. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was published in 1988, and reviews were soon lauding Chabon as a hot new talent.
It took Chabon seven years to publish a second novel. Although he quickly went to work on another book, he struggled with a manuscript called Fountain City for 62 months, by his reckoning, before tossing it aside. He later admitted to being bewildered and depressed, spooked by the “bathyspheric pressures that weigh on a second novel.”
One day during this period, his wife, Ayelet Waldman, a Harvard Law graduate whom he met on a blind date, told him that she was going to spend the next six weeks cramming for the California bar exam. He went down to his writing room and imagined a scene of an older man watching a younger man put a gun to his head. By the time she had taken the exam, Chabon was 117 pages into a novel he would call Wonder Boys (1995), the story of a pot-smoking novelist trapped in an endless draft of a book. The recent movie version with Michael Douglas garnered good reviews and sank, but the studio is re-releasing the film for Academy Award consideration. He has also put out two short-story collections, but critics chided him for not writing a novel equal to his large talent.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is Chabon's rejoinder. He found himself inspired by the story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman and sold the idea for ＄100. “I started with a vague idea about comic books,” he says, “and then I came up with the characters, and as I wrote about them and bounced them off one another, the story emerged, and finally the theme developed.”
He spent months reading up on the comic craft, wandering the streets of New York, visiting Prague, interviewing giants of the genre such as Will Eisner, Stan Lee and Gil Kane and immersing himself in the minutiae of mid-century America (no pair of pajamas goes un-detailed). “That's a time period that's always had a grip on me,” he says. “The literature, pop music, film. Part of the appeal was to listen to Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman records and call it research. I wanted to know the cultural weather, and it was an excuse to have fun.”
Or, mostly, fun. “On any given day writing is pleasurable,” he says, “but over four years, four months and four days, it's hard going a long haul. It's like fighting a war when everyone is thinking the war will be over by Christmas, and five years later they're still in the trenches!”
These days he is working on a new novel, which he won't talk about, and finishing a pilot for TNT called “Telegraph Avenue” about two families, one black, one white, who live in Berkeley. Chabon and Waldman moved here four years ago after living three years in L.A., where she was a federal public defender. They have two children, Sophie, 6, and Zeke, 3. In June, Waldman published Nursery Crimes, a mystery about a woman who gives up a career as a public defender to stay home with her daughter and winds up solving crimes during nap times. “We talk all the time and bounce ideas off one another,” he says, “We're each other's first readers.”
He's written a couple of screenplays, a TV script and a treatment (rejected) for the X-Men movie that came out earlier in the year. None of his efforts has been produced yet, though most are posted on his Web site (http://home.earthlink.netl mchabon/).
“The Web site is very fun, but it's time-consuming,” he says. “If I didn't put this stuff on my site, it would probably disappear. It's stuff that was important to me and that I put some feeling into. And it's nice that it can go on living.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506
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. “They were feeling a little confused or scared about their sexuality and responded to the book's message that no matter which way they went or what person they became, it was going to be all right. Even if the Newsweek article was wrong, it ended up being good for me and, hopefully, for others.”
Following The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon included gay characters in his next two novels, Wonder Boys—made this year into a film starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, and Robert Downey Jr.—and now The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, about two Jewish cousins, one gay and one straight, working as comic book creators during World War II, the golden age of comics. The story includes an unforgettably touching gay kiss atop the Empire State Building as well as several scenes in New York's queer demimonde. To capture the era's gay vibe, Chabon read Charles Kaiser's book The Gay Metropolis: 1940–1996 and then followed his instincts. The result is one of the best books of the year, a broad yet heartfelt depiction of America as a place of personal reinvention and sometimes imprisoning identity politics. And while the media may keep wondering about the connection between Chabon and his novel's gay characters, for the 37-year-old writer, it's no mystery at all.
“I've always been drawn to stories that blur the categories of male relationships,” he says. “To me there is just something powerful and juicy about that as the source of a story and character. Another, more obvious, explanation is that I have a lot of gay and lesbian friends. They make up a very important fabric of my emotional and social life, and it would be hard and unnatural not to reflect that.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737
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 tracks an array of characters through dizzyingly diverse environments. Chabon moves from a melting pot, bohemian apartment in Manhattan to the North Pole to 1950s suburbia. It would be easy to call the new book merely an evolution, if the changes were not so very drastic.
It would also be easy to say that Chabon, at 37, has finally realized his potential. Many critics have already said just this. But that sells his two earlier novels short. One thing links all three novels—prominent gay characters. This is not unusual in and of itself. But many readers are surprised to learn that Chabon lives in California with his novelist wife, Ayelet Waldman, and their children.
When The Mysteries of Pittsburgh went on to become a best-seller, not a few critics hailed Chabon as a talented new gay novelist. That's because the book chronicles the sexual awakening of Art Bechstein, recent college graduate and son of a Pittsburgh gangster. Though he tries to distance himself from his father, Art will ultimately be drawn into a tragedy involving his ruthless dad, a potential gay lover, and a Falstaffian biker looking to climb up the organized crime ladder.
Chabon followed Mysteries with A Model World and Other Stories, before he published Wonder Boys—very much a “writer's book,” in the best and worst senses of the term. The protagonist, Grady Tripp, is on a third bad marriage, and—though a likable guy—is pretty much a walking argument that no one should be paid simply to produce words.
Why? Because so many of Grady's troubles are petty (or self-induced) that it's hard to take any of them seriously.
The cast of characters includes a screwed-up young writing prodigy, a sexy young student who worships Grady (to his credit, he resists her advances), and Grady's close pal, a flamboyant gay editor, just flown in for (groan) a literary festival.
To be fair, Chabon also seems skeptical of this small literary world. He's playfully named the literary gathering “WordFest” and takes quite a few shots at participating faculty. Nevertheless, for a seemingly smart, decent guy, Grady makes some dumb (perhaps ill-conceived) decisions. Which only makes it harder to admit that there is indeed excellence and wisdom in Wonder Boys. The writing is wonderful.
“I suppose she was exhibiting what people nowadays refer to, with crushing disapproval, as denial,” Grady says at one point. “It's always been hard for me to tell the difference between denial and what used to be known as hope.” Perhaps one of the most daring lines comes from the sexy female student: “I love the way you write,” she tells Grady. “It's so natural. It's so plain. I was thinking it's like all your sentences seem as if they've always existed, waiting around up there, in Style heaven, or whatever, for you to fetch them down.”
In interviews, Chabon comes across as quite a humble writer. So, with a line like this, he'd probably say he's mocking the fawning student and displaying Grady's inability to contend with her advances, while at the same time wishing he could take the compliment seriously.
But the truth is the description fits Chabon as a stylist. He's that good.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3191
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 them.
Don't try any of this on best-selling author Michael Chabon. Captain America, Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman—all those literally cartoonist figures who've been devoured by generations of American boys are doing just fine, he says, when it comes to challenging the youthful intellect and imparting wisdom.
“He's truly the Shakespeare or Cervantes of comic books,” Chabon told the New York Times Book Review recently, referring to Marvel comics legend Jack Kirby, who created the Incredible Hulk and many others. If there's any doubt regarding the sincerity of Chabon's comparisons, pick up his new novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. At nearly seven hundred pages, it is an epic treatment of the “golden age” of American comics—and America itself, from the 1930s to the 1950s. The novel has many aspirations: historical, political, sexual. One aim is to show that precisely because the best comics appeal to kids, they are on par with great literature in several ways.
As the very elusive third-person narrator in Amazing Adventures puts it, comic books are to be appreciated
for their pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lubrications of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could for fifteen years, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art.
HIGH AND LOW
The book (Chabon's fifth, after two novels and two story collections) is the latest skirmish in the ongoing battle between “high” and “low” culture. To some, Chabon may seem particularly baby boomerish (though he's only 37) in his need to intellectualize comic books, a topic laden with nostalgia.
Maybe there's some merit to this killjoy view of things. But The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is still a slam-bang accomplishment, dazzling and profound, cerebral and yet wonderfully touching. Always a stunning stylist, Chabon has come up with some of his most impressive prose yet in this book. But first, a minor question—is this novel, at least in some respects, roughly a decade too late?
The Brooklyn-born Sammy Clay, one of the two Jewish male protagonists, wonders at one point: “What if … they tried to do stories about costumed heroes who were more complicated, less childish, as fallible as angels.” Who can't help but think of Tim Burton's fantastic Batman movie from 1989—or even the blockbuster X-Men, released just a few months after Chabon's novel. Both departed from the Superman comic book movie of the 1970s, which played up the special effects and damsels in distress and played down the dark psychology evident in Burton's film. Meanwhile, these days, so-called graphic novels like Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and Daniel Clowes’ David Boring literally combine comic book art with literary narratives.
One reason this is more than a quibble is Chabon's mysterious narrator, who—in scattered footnotes or the main text—discusses present-day events, from a 1990s, ultra-omniscient perspective. Since the novel presents a brief but learned history of the American comic book as both art and commerce, one would expect some commentary on how the comic book hero, at the mass level, has attained the semiserious stature that Chabon's characters seem to covet.
Again, taking such things so seriously may be just another sign of the “devolution of American culture,” as one jaded, self-loathing comic book executive puts it. Either way, the narrator problem could be the only off-key note in this otherwise brilliant symphony of a novel.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay begins with Hitler's ascendancy in Europe. It concludes with America's postwar era, when unprecedented comfort and wealth combined with a latent paranoia that surfaced in bizarre Senate hearings on the potentially harmful effects of comic books on America's youth.
All these global doings—as well as parental neglect, corporate ruthlessness, cinema, sex (gay and straight), memory, magic, and suicide—find their way, in suffused form, into the technicolor pages churned out by Empire Comics. This fictional company rises (and falls) thanks to the diligent work of the novel's title characters.
“Houdini was a hero to little men, city boys, and Jews,” Chabon writes. “Sammy Louis Klayman was all three.” (“My professional name is Clay,” he later explains.) A talented, ambitious teen fond of Houdini (and Jack London), Sammy Clay “dreamed the usual Brooklyn dreams of flight and transformation and escape.” Which is to say, Sammy's problems are those of many American boys, especially of modest backgrounds—distant parents, a limited worldview, a certain claustrophobia.
But Sammy also has a fierce, highly American optimism, one that makes the reader inevitably think of him as an undersized Augie March. Sammy “dreamed with fierce contrivance, transmuting himself into a major American novelist, or a famous smart person … or perhaps into a heroic doctor,” Chabon writes.
All this is in stark contrast to Josef Kavalier, Sammy's cousin from Prague, who has made a long, dark journey from a Europe slowly yielding to fascism. Josef's dreams of escape are haunted by persecution and death. Though he fled Europe, his family is not so lucky. The specter of the Holocaust will haunt him his entire life.
But Joe is in America now. And he and Sammy can draw. And when spilled onto the comic book pages, the traumas and contrasting personalities of this dreaming American and brooding exile will captivate a generation of American youth.
MAGIC AND ESCAPE
“Forget about [what] you are escaping from. … Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to.” Josef recalls this nugget of wisdom from his Czech mentor in magic, Bernard Kornblum—an “Ausbrecher, a performing illusionist who specialized in tricks with straitjackets and handcuffs—the sort of act made famous by Harry Houdini.”
Needless to say, escape and imprisonment are crucial themes in this book. In Prague, Kornblum, Joe, and the rest of the middle-class, educated Kavalier family are profoundly aware of the Nazi threat. Yet they must also go about the daily business of work—and play. “Josef had become interested in stage magic right around the time his hands had grown large enough to handle a deck of playing cards,” Chabon writes. Yet even the seemingly innocent business of cultivating magic skills exposes vulnerability. To Kornblum, “Josef was one of those unfortunate boys who become escape artists not to prove the superior machinery of their bodies against outlandish contrivances and the laws of physics, but for dangerously metaphorical reasons.”
Joe nearly kills himself trying to impress Kornblum with a perilous escape. Later, both pupil and teacher must combine their talents to pull off two tricks: relocating the legendary Golem of Prague (a protective giant out of Jewish lore) and making Josef disappear to America. That they accomplish the former feat by posing as undertakers and the latter by stowing Josef in a coffin suggests the grim brutality hovering over these scenes.
The Czech scenes are impressive but wordy. There are informative but lengthy digressions on how Josef met Kornblaum and Prague's rich tradition of illusionists and sleight-of-hand artists. Generally, though, Chabon bails himself out with shrewd plot twists, such as when Josef, concealed in his escape coffin, is nearly discovered by Nazis.
THE BIG MONEY
When Sammy discovers that Josef is a brilliant artist who spent two years at Prague's Academy of Fine Arts, he does what any enterprising American boy would do: “Josef, I tell you what. I'm going to do better than just get you a job. … I'm going to get us into the big money.” Josef has just one question: “What is a comic book?”
It's a multilayered question, though, not just a joke about Josef's ignorance of American culture. The narrator gives a historical answer of sorts, in a discursive essay. At one point, we read: “Then, in June 1938, Superman appeared. He had been mailed to the offices of National Periodical publications from Cleveland, by a couple of Jewish boys.” Fittingly, that's what Sammy's bosses want when he pitches them a comic book idea—another wildly popular superhero to help sell their novelty trinkets to kids.
But the bosses are ultimately skeptical of Josef's ideas. “To me, this Superman is … maybe … only an American Golem,” Josef says. Even Sammy comments: “Joe, the Golem is … well … Jewish.” It's the classic story of ethnic assimilation—the fear that (in this case) you'll appear too Jewish. So imagine how the bosses feel when Sammy and Joe come up with their first cover, on which their hero—the Escapist—is punching Adolf Hitler in the face. (Also consider Sammy's last name, and that he, like the Golem, is a “clay man.”)
As The Escapist evolves—enriching Sammy and Joe but their bosses much more so—each creator dumps his emotional baggage into the storyline. With Josef, of course, it's his family's doom in Europe. With Sammy, it's his dead father, who spent long stretches of time on the road as a performer. For Chabon, however, the true magic happens when these ingredients are savored by thousands of frightened, lonely, and passionate young readers. Josef is more skeptical. Hell-bent on using the comics as propaganda to ultimately crush Hitler, he at times wonders if “all they were doing … was indulging their own worst impulses and assuring the creation of another generation of men who revered only strength and domination.”
BUT LATER, LOOKING BACK, JOE CONCLUDES:
“Having lost his mother, father and brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history—his home—the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf. … The escape from reality was, he felt—especially right after the war—a worthy challenge.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
Somewhere in the middle of Amazing Adventures—the 1940s, basically, recorded in parts 4 and 5—the focus drifts. To be fair, tackling this decade would have required an additional 150 pages. Important things do happen: Josef leaves his lover Rosa and joins the military to fight the Nazis; Sammy has a love affair with a man. But at 200 pages, these sections feel baggy. Only when a child appears (who may either be Sammy's or Josef's) does Chabon recapture the intimacy and intensity that mark the book's most impressive sections.
Comfortable in suburbia, with Josef seemingly lost to the world, Rosa and Sammy have gotten married. They are also raising a son—one who loves comics and skips school too often, despite his guardians’ best efforts. “Another escape artist,” quips a detective, aware that the once-famous, now vanished Josef Kavalier is a relative.
Quite a few people are interested when Josef—or at least his most famous creation, the Escapist—is ready to leap back into the public consciousness. Literally. From the Empire State Building perhaps, according to a letter that appears in a 1954 edition of the Herald-Tribune. The letter also notes that Sammy and Josef were vastly underpaid by their bosses.
It's still a best-seller, but Kavalier and Clay have ceased their affiliation with The Escapist. The quality of the product has declined. So when fans and family alike gather at the Empire State Building for a supposed Escapist appearance, it touches a nostalgic chord. For Sammy, though, it could mean that his troubled cousin has finally lost it.
First Chabon spirals back in time (by page 500 we're used to this) and outlines how Josef came to know the young boy who is his nephew … or son. All the principal characters and their dilemmas are drawn into this slightly absurd hoax, which, as it turns out, must be taken seriously. And yet, when the episode is resolved, the troubles have only begun for Sammy, Josef, and Rosa, now under the same roof.
Chabon is a deft chronicler of love and other domestic troubles who manages to explore politics and the nature of art. Familial problems hold the later sections of Amazing Adventures together as the rise of Sammy and Josef does the earlier parts. With neither sentimentality nor cynicism, Chabon allows his characters to confront their past, present, and future.
SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT
And what prose! Here's Josef exploring his regrets, as he stays under the same roof as his onetime lover Rosa, now married to Sammy.
After their initial conversation in the kitchen, he and Rosa seemed to find it hard to get a second one started … he attributed her silence to animosity. For days, he stood in the cold shower of her imagined anger, which he felt entirely deserved. Not only for having left her pregnant and in the lurch, so that he might go off in a failed pursuit of an impossible revenge; but for having never returned, never telephoned or dropped a line, never once thought of her—so he imagined that she imagined—in all those years away. The expanding gas of silence between them only excited his shame and lust the more. In the absence of verbal intercourse, he became hyperaware of other signs of her—the jumble of her makeups and creams and lotions in the bathroom, the Spanish moss of her lingerie dangling from the shower curtain rod, the irritable tinkle of her spoon against her teacup.
Before this knot of regret and sex can be untangled, politics will intervene. Sammy Clay is called before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, prompted by Dr. Frederic Wertham's classic anticomic study The Seduction of the Innocent.
In Chabon's fictional re-creation, a reactionary senator goes for Sammy's secret.
“Isn't it true,” an unnerved Sammy is asked during televised hearings, “that you have a reputation in the comic book field for being particularly partial to boy sidekicks.” And that, “[T]he relationship between Batman and [Robin] is actually a thinly veiled allegory of pedophilic inversion?”
But to Sammy—humiliated, now determined to make a fresh start (out in the new world of California, of course)—his comic book work was indeed worthy of psychoanalysis. Just not on a predatory level. “Dr. Wertham was an idiot; it was obvious that Batman was not intended, consciously or unconsciously, to play Robin's corrupter: he was meant to stand in for his father, and by extension for the absent, indifferent, vanishing fathers of the comic-book-reading boys of America.”
This is fitting, of course, given Sammy's troubles with his own dad. In exploring the comic book hearings, however, the novel is on more sensitive turf, as it's far too easy to critique the concerned senators. After all (like Chabon), they knew there was something deep going on with comics, didn't they? In one insightful scene, Josef is offered money to draw a nude—indicating that whatever “escapist” wonders comics are capable of, they can also be used to indulge baser fantasies of sex, violence, or whatever. It's not that the senators should have pursued the comic book “threat” with more vigor. But as Chabon makes clear, comic books, in a lot of ways, are playing with kiddie dynamite, in the psychological sense. Unfortunately, we can't all expect to see the ignition here as a strictly positive one. Anyway, Chabon doesn't linger very long on the senators. The episode is mainly used to prod Sammy to an epiphany—an “escapist” one at that.
What finally remains is the book's narrator question. Who's telling this story in (roughly) the year 2001? “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention” are the novel's first words. Off the bat, we know this is a narrator who can see it all. Knowledgeable factoids pretty much rule out an aged Sammy or Josef, since we learn things they do not know. Perhaps the narrator is the boy who, at different times, was their son. Why Chabon has chosen to sprinkle the text with contemporary insight is ultimately unclear. It's entertaining and enlightening but also distracting. It sets off alarms, given the many narrative experiments we've seen in recent novels.
Is the storyteller simply Michael Chabon, comic book lover? Maybe—but the narrator is hardly authoritative. (Recall that the recent Batman movies are never mentioned, nor for that matter are the many 1930s and '40s artifacts of antifascist pop culture that Sammy and Joe could have used to defend their leanings.) Readers can be forgiven for questioning why things are handled this way.
One other minor flaw here: Though it's intriguing to consider Citizen Kane's influence on all forms of popular art, a cameo by Orson Welles (as well as Salvador Dali) feels unnecessary. But on the whole Chabon has produced a great and very American novel, which feels both intimate and worldly. It is funny and dramatic, deeply researched yet freewheeling. Some could even say that Amazing Adventures is downright patriotic, despite its jabs at comic-burning senators. It defends polyglot American pop culture on both an aesthetic and political level. Comic books, with all their crudities, also seem to be symbols of freedom.
When Josef Kavalier, the Holocaust-haunted immigrant, realizes he is about to be paid handsomely to draw comics, he thinks:
All this has conformed so closely to Joe's movie-derived notions of life in America that if an airplane were now to land on Twenty-fifth Street and disgorge a dozen bathing suit clad Fairies of Democracy come to award him the presidency of General Motors, a contract with Warner Bros., and a penthouse on Fifth Avenue with a swimming pool in the living room, he would have greeted this, too, with the same dreamlike unsurprise.
This is, of course, just a moment of euphoria. But not for nothing does one character later say: “I wasn't aware that Nazis read comic books.”
That's just it—they don't.