From the archives: Michael Chabon

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Dotting the eyes, crossing the tease

Wednesday, 9 March 2011 — 4:06am | Animation, Film, Insights, Literature, Michael Chabon

When I was very young, I heard a legend about a Chinese muralist who painted the most vivid and lifelike dragons but refused to fill in their eyes, lest the dragons come alive and fly away. I tried to track it down four or five years ago for a fragment I was writing at the time, but on that occasion I never found it. Today it occurred to me to make another attempt, and for reasons of n-grammatic potentia that shall remain mysterious, Google was far more helpful this time around.

As with any old story, mutations abound, but the preponderance of them involve the painter Zhang Seng-You (張僧繇) from the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 AD). Depending on who’s telling the story, Zhang Seng-You is asked to fill in the eyes by a bystander, the abbot who commissioned the monastery mural, or the Emperor himself (who, in this case, must have been Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty). The ending is always the same: the painter finishes the eyes and the dragons bolt away from the mural in a flash of lightning and thunder.

The wonderful thing about fables is the discordance of what they say—typically a blunt moral lesson, delivered as the payload of a cruise-missile punch line like a Feghoot minus the funny—versus what they do, which is leave innumerable gaps for diverse interpretations to take root and flourish. Stories are not reducible to definite lessons. Fiction is a space for debate, and a fable is an open meadow for all and sundry to frolic. (“I don’t believe in stories with morals,” says the man with the childish fantasy of teaching Lolita in schools.)

So what can we make of the tale of the painted dragons?

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Wednesday Book Club: Wonder Boys

Wednesday, 26 November 2008 — 11:08pm | Book Club, Literature, Michael Chabon

This week’s selection: Wonder Boys (1995) by Michael Chabon.

In brief: Chabon’s sophomore novel is the literary equivalent of a warm bath. A comic contemporary adventure about the existential crises of novelists, it fits snugly in the naturalistic mould of modern literature about the here and now, albeit with a few extra helpings of wackiness. It meanders here and there, and its lightheartedness assures you that none of the characters are ever in much danger; however, Chabon’s lucid style keeps the story at least as fluid as his recent dips into genre, if not more so. It’s not high-concept, but it’s fun.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Wonder Boys, keep reading below.)

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The Amazing Adventures of Pullman and Conan Doyle

Tuesday, 13 May 2008 — 8:13am | Literature, Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon enthusiasts have had plenty to be excited about of late. Not long ago, Chabon became the rarest of authors to be nominated for a Nebula, a Hugo and an Edgar for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union—a book that I didn’t find as sweeping as his magnum opus, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but stands nonetheless as the apotheosis of his recent efforts to tear down the walls of Genre like it’s ’89 in Berlin (as well as a thumping good detective thriller sprinkled with a healthy metaphoric dose of chess). Then it was announced that the film adaptation is in the hands of none other than the Brothers Coen, a dream pairing of filmmakers and source material if I ever saw one. And then the the draft screenplay that Chabon wrote for Spider-Man 2 hit the Web, finally revealing the extent of his contributions to the film, which were largely what I thought they were (Peter Parker the struggling pizza delivery boy—that sort of thing).

As I write this, I’m leafing through the newly released Maps and Legends, the first collection of Chabon’s literary essays in book form. (The bookshop stocked it in a shrinkwrap to protect Jordan Crane’s ornate three-piece jacket design—a boon for people like me who prefer to keep their books in impeccable condition, but perhaps unsuitable for browsing purposes.) Some of it is familiar to me: among the selections are his Eisner Awards keynote about the decline of children’s comics, his reflections on writing The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and my favourite, an expanded version of his 1997 essay on a bafflingly anachronistic Yiddish phrasebook that not only provided the inspiration for the contemporary Jewish Sitka of TYPU‘s alternate universe, but (hitherto unbeknownst to me) generated a stir of controversy on a Yiddish-language mailing list.

The other selections are quite refreshing; thankfully, they offer a lot more variety than a simple retread of Chabon’s position that serious fiction has dug itself into a hole as a consequence of relegating “entertaining” genres into other holes—though that, too, gets plenty of attention in the opening essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights”. There is an excursion into one of the iconic moments of Chabon’s personal mythos (the abandonment of his would-be second novel, Fountain City), a piece that exalts Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for his mastery of nesting lies within lies along Holmes’ pursuit of the truth, and many a word about the storyteller as both Golem-maker and trickster figure (or Coyote, if you will). The connections to Chabon’s fiction should be obvious to those familiar with his works (respectively, in the preceding sentence: Wonder Boys, The Final Solution, Kavalier & Clay, Summerland), though I imagine the essays stand alone quite admirably. I haven’t read the whole collection, mind you: I deliberately skipped the piece on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, as McCarthy’s jaunt into the well-travelled post-apocalypse resides high on my reading list untouched.

I was immediately drawn, as I would be, to Chabon’s essay on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Before I proceed, I should say that the very thought of Chabon writing about Pullman is almost as exciting to me as Watterson writing about Schulz, which, if you’ll remember, I favourably compared to Beethoven writing about Bach. That said, I come not to praise Chabon (I swear!), though I’m not exactly going to bury him, either.

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Rabbi Quixote

Tuesday, 18 December 2007 — 5:17am | Literature, Michael Chabon

The hardcover edition of Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon’s serial novel for The New York Times (working title: Jews With Swords), closes with a provocative afterword in which Chabon reflects on his turn from the paradigm of “late-century naturalism”—contemporary stories about “divorce; death; illness; violence, random and domestic; divorce; bad faith; deception and self-deception; love and hate between fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire; divorce”—to a tale about, well, Jews… with swords.

To longtime Chabon readers such as myself, his position on genre literature is well known, and in large part responsible for his appeal; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is as seminal a defence of escapism as one is likely to find anywhere. I have long been suspicious of the privilege the literary establishment confers on “serious” literature; in the dominant paradigm, there’s a critical undercurrent that believes literature can’t serve its socially transgressive purpose (a broad assertion of a mission statement in its own right) if you are having fun, or if you dare to edge closer to the mythic than the workaday. Oh, sure, they don’t mind the odd sparkle of magic realism, but if swashes and buckles are involved? That’s second-class.

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V.F.D. For Vendetta

Thursday, 17 March 2005 — 7:21pm | Adaptations, Comics, Film, Literature, Michael Chabon

One of the films I will mention in my forthcoming mega-post on the films to watch out for in 2005 – when it comes – is the adaptation of the graphic novel V For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. If you have never read the original work, I highly recommend that you do so. While it’s no Watchmen – and let’s be honest, what comic book is? – it’s definitely a cut above the norm, and deviates enough from the typical Orwellian future-fascist clichés to be interesting. It has, with good reason, inspired many a serious academic study of its aesthetic and literary content – here, for instance, or here.

As much of a neat little gimmick as it is to target the release of the film for the weekend of Guy Fawkes Day (“Remember, remember the Fifth of November”), I do wonder if it is really that wise an idea to rush the production schedule to meet it. It has a lineup to dream of, with Natalie Portman as Evey Hammond and James McTeigue in the director’s chair. McTeigue is untried, but given his background as an Assistant Director under both the Wachowskis in The Matrix and George Lucas in the Prequels, I have faith in the guy, so long as he doesn’t let too many Wachowski fingerprints get all over his work. That is appropriate for some dystopian movies about post-apocalyptic fascists that rule over a complacent populace, but it would not necessarily be a good fit here.

My big concern – and the major question mark that hovers over the otherwise perfect casting of Natalie Portman – is that the film may lose some of the Britishness of the original source, which I think needs to be retained. Alan Moore is arguably the best living scriptwriter in the comics business, and his work is long overdue for some cinematic respect, especially after the disaster that was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Hopefully the film captures some of the more ingenious motifs, both visual and poetic, that lie in Moore’s book. The commodification of Fate and Justice as artificial feminine personifications that cheat on society and the powers that be is of particular note, as is the marvelous sequence in the third act when V, the anarchistic Guy Fawkes figure around whom the story revolves, conducts the destruction of the fascist regime’s power structures to the cannon-fire of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. As Robert Rodriguez will hopefully demonstrate with Sin City, which looks incredible, why reinvent the wheel when the original comic has already provided so much in the way of aesthetic guidance?

On the other side of the literary world lies Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is an almost entirely linguistic experience aside from the great Helquist illustrations and the tag that follows every book offering clues as to the next one. I have now finished all eleven published books, and the series is due to conclude in the thirteenth volume. My original impression after reading the first three, if you will recollect, was that this was a series that dropped plot and story in favour of being very clever about the telling thereof. Well, that changes quite significantly as one progresses, and from about the fifth or sixth volume onwards, it becomes masterful episodic fiction in the serial tradition, with each successive adventure posing riddles that are answered with even more baffling oddities in the next one, capitalizing on everything that has come before. Even given how the author continues to unify each book with a set of idioms or literary devices that he deconstructs with scalpel precision, the series has shifted to the point where the unanswered mysteries in the plot are what generate anticipation for the next entry to come.

I must also admit a total agreement with the axis of good and evil that emerges as the series progresses. Every book has a library motif, and one of the characters in The Slippery Slope (whose identity I will not reveal) comes right out and says that well-read individuals are bound to be the good guys. All the decent people in the books respect knowledge, and amidst all the sobering melancholy in the series, one that explicitly deals with terrible things happening to undeserving innocent children, we see the promotion of what I think is a critical, yet oft-ignored value.

The antithesis of the printed page, and the mark of the enemy, is fire. When the villains employ fire, the tragic loss is always not so much material as it is a loss of knowledge. It’s an axis of conflict you don’t see every day, and certainly not in something promoted as children’s fiction.

Fiction is created, marketed and sold in a way that is completely different from the movie business. Book launches, Harry Potter aside, don’t have anything approaching the opening-weekend culture of movies that saw a revival after The Phantom Menace and reached its peak in the summer of 2001. It should really come as no surprise, then, that my most anticipated works of fiction to be published this calendar year are almost entirely sequels. Couple that with the fact that I have enough classic literature from years past to discover, and this list pales in comparison to what I can say about movies.

With that said, I want to make special mention of the four books coming out in 2005 that I intend to buy the moment they hit stores. Book the Twelfth of the Lemony Snicket series is one. Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception, which arrives 3 May, is another; I much enjoyed the first three, and this one promises to build on the dangling threads of the second whilst balancing them with the bittersweet ending of the third. Then there’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and its inclusion here should be obvious.

Not so obvious is the one non-sequel I already have marked down on my calendar, even considering that it does not have a hard release date beyond a vague promise of delivery in October (though its entry now indicates a delay until 6 March, 2006). This would be Michael Chabon’s next novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, his first big piece since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay after having taken a break with the children’s baseball fantasy Summerland and the Sherlock Holmes tribute The Final Solution.

Chabon, as longtime devotees of this journal should be aware, is a literary wunderkind and one of my favourite novelists of all time. Not only does he write prose that can only be described as beautiful, he somehow never manages to let it overpower the stories underneath; and oh, what amazing stories he tells. All I know about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is that it is apparently an alternate-history novel about a Jewish state established in what we know as Alaska, and I’m already dying to see where he goes with this.

I will finish this post with yet another empty promise of a detailed, extended orgasmic reaction to the new footage of Revenge of the Sith, and pop in an unrelated link or two. The first is an excellent Jim Hill feature article on Eric Idle’s new Broadway production, Spamalot. The second is an obscure, but surreal recording that fittingly, you can only order on the Internet; you know the sort. Or do you? I speak, after all, of The Rap Canterbury Tales. Its inclusion in one of my classes today made that particular course (English 300, “Social and Cultural History of the English Language”) all the more fun in a strange, delightful way. It is, after all, the same course where a recommended reading for an upcoming paper is Going Nucular, a book by Geoff Nunberg of Language Log fame.

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