A Model World
Michael Chabon has followed his well-received first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), with a collection of finely crafted short stories, most of which appeared in The New Yorker from 1987 to 1990. “More Than Human” was first published in Gentleman’s Quarterly (1989) and “Blumenthal on the Air” in Mademoiselle (1987).
The collection is divided into two parts. The first, entitled “A Model World,” contains six stories on varied subjects. The second, “The Lost World,” is a group of five stories about Nathan Shapiro, a boy growing up and dealing with his parents’ divorce.
What stands out immediately upon reading these stories is Chabon’s command of style. One thinks repeatedly of F. Scott Fitzgerald as the arresting but always appropriate epigrams, the telling comparisons, and the usually lightly sketched motifs draw one to the centers of these stories. The similarities to Fitzgerald extend to subject and to structure as well, but never suggest any sort of slavish imitation. Chabon has his own stories to tell, and he tells them effectively.
The title of “S Angel,” the collection’s opening story, comes from the readable fragment of a folded map of Los Angeles in the purse of a woman in whom Ira Wiseman becomes interested during his distant cousin Sheila’s wedding reception. In his epigraph to the book, Chabon quotes Elizabeth Bishop, “More delicate than the historians’ are the map makers’ colors.” “S Angel,” in a delicate way, is about maps. Ira gets lost trying to find the synagogue, and so he is late. He believes in another kind of map, the indicator of a path through life that includes his college education, nearly finished, and as the next step, romance. Ira dresses and grooms for every occasion in the expectation that he will meet “the woman with whom he had been destined to fall in love.” His experiences at the wedding should show him a world in which his romantic map of predestined love and fulfillment is of little use. At the reception he meets a rich pseudo-Jew to whom every woman is attracted as soon as she becomes aware of his wealth. The woman may be already married, a lesbian, the miserable victim of a terrible previous marriage—even that he is a gentile makes no difference. Furthermore, the man is a misogynist who takes particular pleasure in sleeping with his employees and then firing them. The miserable victim of an abusive marriage becomes Ira’s possible romance for this occasion, and her map hints that she is also looking for a surer way through her life, but Ira’s glance into her purse shows her to be a woman out of control. The story ends with a moment of friendship mixed with romantic passion as Ira comforts the apparently doubtful bride, who has hidden herself away to think about whether she really wants to be married to the man she has just married.
“If you can still see how you could once have loved a person, you still love; an extinct love is always wholly incredible.” This epigram worthy of Jane Austen opens “Ocean Avenue,” the amusing story of a love that seems incredible, though it illustrates the epigram. As in “S Angel,” the theme of the entangling confusion of love and friendship is prominent. Bobby Lazar and Suzette, though bitterly divorced, still love each other. Their marriage fell apart when it failed to combine well with a business venture; their friendship, based in part on the pleasure they take in fighting with each other, was destroyed when the business failed. They went too far in the final fight, and it spilled over into taking each other’s prize possessions, into lawsuits and court battles. An accidental meeting allows the old attraction to assert itself. The story ends with a public fight that leaves both sexually aroused and anxious to be alone together again.
In “A Model World,” Smith, the narrator, illustrates in a complexly ironic episode how he and his roommate and friend, Levine, came through graduate studies in physics to arrive at their rather odd careers. The episode begins when Levine finds an obscure book on cloud movement in the Antarctic that he believes he can plagiarize as his dissertation. As he begins to work on this project, he becomes so interested in it that his flagging devotion to the field is renewed. He arranges an emergency meeting with his supervising professor, which brings Smith and Levine to Professor Baldwin’s house for dinner. Mrs. Baldwin, however, is an aspiring actress with whom Smith has recently begun a love affair. Though Levine wants to find out whether he can get away with the planned plagiarism, he finds himself instead, in a private talk, betraying his friend by revealing that Smith is the unknown interloper about whom Professor Baldwin is worried. After dinner, Baldwin, with the help of a visiting theater guru, manipulates the guests into a game that requires Smith to explain the worst thing he has ever done. He tells what everyone else believes is a magnificent lie about himself that impresses the acting guru, satisfactorily ends the affair with Mrs. Baldwin, and rescues Levine from having to confess his intentions of plagiarism. As a result, Smith, with the guru’s help, becomes successful in theater and film, while Levine completes his at least partly plagiarized dissertation and quickly rises to the top in his field of modeling world...
(The entire section is 2202 words.)