Michael Chabon Chabon, Michael (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Chabon 1963-

American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Chabon's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 55.

With the publication of his debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), Chabon was recognized as one of the most promising young writers of his generation. Regarded as a skilled storyteller, Chabon's prose evokes the intense longing and emotional scarring that accompanies adolescence, broken families, sexual initiation, and unrequited love. Chabon's protagonists—typically confused teenagers and disillusioned men—are often tragicomic figures who fall victim to their own earnestness, infatuations, and obsessive need to make sense of their lives. Chabon is best known for Wonder Boys (1995), a novel that was adapted into a critically acclaimed film in 1999, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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David Montrose (review date 26 April 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Elizabeth Tallent (review date 9 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kathryn Herold (review date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Yardley (review date 19 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Eder (review date 26 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Shelby Hearon (review date 2 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Chabon with Lisa See (interview date 10 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bharat Tandon (review date 21 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Erik Himmelsbach (essay date 27 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Roz Kaveney (review date 9 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Gorra (review date 26 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Suzann Bick (review date Fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Sven Birkerts (review date January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Hynes (review date 4 April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Donna Seaman (review date 16 May 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Dirda (review date 17 September 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Horspool (review date 6 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Levi (review date 8 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Chabon with Michael J. Ybarra (interview date 9 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Bahr (essay date 19 December 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tom Deignan (review date February 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tom Deignan (essay date February 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 583 words.)