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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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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