March 20, 2007



No super-heroes in this one, right? 'Cause if there are, you know, I'm out.

Seriously, I have been a fan -- fairly, fan; not connoisseur or scholar or anything so sophisticated -- of Chabon's since I by chance picked up the first paperback edition of "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" back in 1902, or whenever it was. It is heartening to read that he retains his gift for near-corporeal simile and metaphor; it is frightening to read that he is now putting them all in one paragraph.

I'm going to go out on a limb: I say, in advance of reading no more than just this one paragraph, he's yellow-dogged this one. Mind you, I don't want him to, I'm not after any hero-takes-a-fall sensationalism. I merely, as they say, got a feeling. Tell me I'm wrong, I'll be happy.


Michael Chabon can do no wrong. Even when he's bad he's better than me, which might mean nothing to you but I assure you I have a very high regard for myself.



I think he's of late become sort of a caricature of himself. Occupational hazard maybe, for a successful, prize-winning novelist who sort of got genre-slammed. I mean, his work started as quite a bit more stable, less big-idea-centric and has sort of swiftly bogged down in the consistently fantastical. I don't think it's irredeemable, but it's notable. I mean his screenwriting career alone is starting to sound like the pitch for a Charlie Kaufman script. That said, he's a supremely talented writer. One of the best American writers currently publishing. That doesn't mean he can do no wrong, yet a lot of people seem to have that feeling about him -- which is, you know, bad for him as a writer. I don't know him, but in what I've read of his memoir-ish essays, I think he would be if not first then at least quick to admit he *can* do wrong.

denise hamilton

I'm getting that Isaac Bashevis Singer feeling from reading this. Which is good, if MC can pull it off. As for the fantastical, why not? It's a fantastical world out there and we could use a few good golems (golem? golemi?).



But MoP and Wonder Boys sort of celebrated the often elegant perversity of the mundane, whereas since K&C -- which, golem excepted, was more about the mundane world behind the creation of fantastical unreality than it was about fantastical unreality -- he's been rolling hard in one direction. Even many, if not most, of his earlier, more striking short stories are to rather good effect mere pedestrians dressed up with fanciful titles. All I'm saying is that if I were him -- which I'm not, of course -- after K&C, after adoption by the comic book community as a sort of cult comic book pseudo-aficionado, after the graphic novels based on The Escapist character of K&C, after the contemporary Summerland fairy tale, after the Sherlock Holmes digression, I would have come back this time with maybe something about the manufacture of tailpipe flanges -- if only to avoid being placed into a bucket in which I did not belong. So it's not the book or the context that bothers me, but the timing.

p.s. Golem or golems, not sure which, probably both are acceptable in English. But not golemi. It's from the Yiddish, derived from Hebrew, not Latin.

denise hamilton

IMHO K&C hit a pinnacle and was a much more accomplished, sweeping, multi-faceted and profound work than his earlier books, both in scope and subject, an intimate tale set against the backdrop of not one historical time but two - Golden Era of Comix and WW II Holocaust, both of which he rendered very well. The image of the cartoonists helpless to save their doomed relatives in Europe and pouring all their anguish and wish fulfillment into the superhero comics they were drawing is a haunting one that still resonates for me today, years after I read it. Re: "bucket into which he did not belong," I wouldn't presume to know where an author 'belongs,' it seems that this is a constantly evolving process (and should be in order for an author to grow) and I know many writers who chafe at being boxed in both by reader and publisher expectations to be one thing or another. You go with what enchants you, what moves you. If MC plays with genre, he does it very well, which is more than can be said about most literary authors. I didn't care for Summerland by the way, that was a made-up world that never came alive for me and lacked the narrative tension/drama/suspense that I think a good novel needs, it had a gauzy sentimental haze that annoyed me. (which illustrates that writing a good YA is not as easy as it seems). Re: comix and superheroes, Lethem is also enchanted with that world. For me the barriers between genre and lit fiction are artificially created and a bit snobby (full disclosure, I write crime novels) and when I read (which I do widely in all fields) my main concern is that the story be compelling and have a unique voice, which MC does, to me he is an old fashioned storyteller of the sitting around the fire variety. He spins yarns and you can't help but be drawn in to listen. I also think that as world affairs grow ever more grim and anxious with global warming, Iraq, terrorism, apocalypse etc there is a retreat back into fairy tale and myth and the supernatural, we are in one of those cycles right now, and that writers, as dowsing rods of the culture, are expressing that in their work. You can probably cite me 100 examples of how this isn't true, and there's tons of realistic fiction out there, but it's something I sense happening throughout the culture, both high and low, and maybe Chabon's latest playful directions are a manifestation of that.



I have no genre bias. Also, I write as I wish, too, about what I wish. As for your writing crime novels, though it's out of her normal character, one of my favorite novels is PD James's "The Children of Men", so I'm certainly not bigoted against crime writers or speculative fiction.

As for "Summerland", children's stories are hard like short stories are hard, because they are entirely different beasts from other forms of prose -- something a lot of writers who attempt children's stories just don't get.

I don't think it's likely we disagree about books in general; I think it's we disagree about Chabon. With K&C I felt he was on the verge of becoming the most important American novelist of his generation. Especially with K&C, as he was in essence saying, See what I can do, yet it's still meaningful, still significant; I can do anything. Yet since then it's like he can't do anything else. Now I feel he's on his way to marginalization as a writer of obtuse speculative fiction who happens to have a gift for literary metaphor. K&C managed to be an enchantment and a serious novel, yet he's not managed another serious book since then, and I don't think "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is going to turn up a serious book.

I do not take away that he is a supremely talented writer, but I've started to wonder about his significance in the pantheon of great writers of significant works. That's his business, not mine. It's just my observation. I'd be content to have one tenth his reputation.

By the way, you tick off that list of fearful things we face today. Mankind has always faced fearful things; there's never been a perfect day; we're just stuck on the fear a bit much these days. And with this you justify retreat into fantasy to cope with the fear, and of course that's a natural human behavior, but I believe writers of lasting significance face these things head on rather than vanish into the entirely fantastical.

All I'm saying is that used to think I knew where Chabon was going to stand among the ranks, and now I wonder. It's not that I wouldn't read him anymore, or not enjoy reading him. I just wonder.


Sorry for the nonsubstantive comment, but that has to be the ugliest book cover I have ever seen.


I am definitely looking forward to this book. I read Kavalier & Clay and although I didn't think it was perfect (I actually think that everytime the plot took a widely unexpected turn I liked the new path less than the previous one) it was as well- written, imaginative, and thought provoking as contemporary fiction gets.

I am a big fan of surreal and magic realism fiction (we're constantly inondated with reality, the surreal is a nice change).

As far as the subject matter of this new book I'm more intrigued by the Jewish/Yiddish element and the alternative history than by the pulp fiction/detective story part which threatens to be a dull cliche in my book.

Also, "golemim" is a Hebrew plural of golem

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