Books

Michael Chabon Grows Up with 'Telegraph Avenue'

Photo (partial) by © Ulf Andersen – Getty Images, courtesy of HarperCollins

Michael Chabon writes with empathy, with earnest reflection and self-consciousness, pervaded by sepia-daubed nostalgia.

Michael Chabon, wunderkind of pop-culture-savvy asides and youthful nostalgia, began his first novel while still an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. He completed the manuscript, which he called The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and turned it in as his master’s thesis at the University of California, Irvine, where one of Chabon’s advisors, MacDonald Harris, sent the manuscript (unbeknownst to its author) to a literary agent. It put $155,000 in Chabon’s pocket and thrust him into the blistering heat of the limelight.

Chabon’s colorful endeavors in writing the novel are explored in several of his personal essays (one of which is now published in the P.S. section at the end of Mysteries): in an attic no bigger than a crawlspace in his mother’s house, Chabon balanced on a dangerously feeble chair under the dim glow of a single dangling light bulb and pounded away on a primitive word processor, all of 64 kb of memory at his fingertips, the words scrolling along a screen just five inches wide, with barely enough room to extend his arms. That the novel, a bildungsroman of a recent college grad and his motley crew of friends and acquaintances (bikers, homosexuals, old rich white men, a beautiful but detached young girl named Phlox), has a back-story almost as interesting as the novel itself is the stuff of literary stardom.

It’s this stardom that Chabon has been rebelling against for 25 years.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh came out in 1988 and was an instant critical and commercial hit. Chabon’s rapid literary ascendancy catalyzed at the peak of the Brat Pack, a group of recent college grads (all of whom honed their prose in workshops, like Chabon) who tackled difficult subject matter—drugs, sex, violence, living in Los Angeles—and favored sparse, minimalist prose. The two archetypes of the movement, Brett Easton Ellis and Jay Mclnerney, drew notoriety with their debuts: Easton’s cocaine-laced Less Than Zero, a pseudo-existentialist depiction of L.A. youth driving on freeways and snorting this and that, came out in 1985, when Easton was only 22; Mclnerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, known for its second-person narration, came out one year earlier and similarly portrays high-brow intellectuals with a penchant for the good snuff.

Together, these two novels marked the beginning of the Brat Pack, and collegiate would-be novelists who sought instant success consequently unleashed a deluge of derivative transgressive slop. (Chabon pokes slightly bitter fun at the mess that was ‘80s workshops in his second novel, Wonder Boys.) The Brat Pack didn’t last long, though: Ellis would quickly move away from his sordid Carveresque expositions and delve into postmodern satire with his 1991 opus American Psycho, a gaudy and lacerating dissection of the hedonistic yuppies inhabiting Regan-era Manhattan; Mclnerney’s career, on the other hand, never amounted to much more than snarky postmodern-lite, his debut novel the root note in his 20-years of squalid urban fiction—more akin to Paul Aster’s lesser works than Don DeLillo’s wickedly clever social criticism— to which Mclnerney continues to return but never evolve from.

It must have been tempting for critics to lump Chabon in with the Brat Pack. He was young, a workshop survivor, his fiction steeped in sexual yearning and adolescent experimentation. But Chabon had different aspirations. His writing, sometimes dazzling and sometimes flowery, was (and is) voice-dominant. Every page offered sentence after sentence of wonderfully overwrought descriptions of young lust, ambitions outweighed by apathy, youth enveloped by the sultry allure of lazy afternoons spent drinking, smoking, fucking. And his prose exhibited wit, whereas the Brat Pack preferred gloomy brashness. He wrote with empathy, with earnest reflection and self-consciousness, pervaded by sepia-daubed nostalgia. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a lens through which we can view his career, his rise to stardom and his aversion to that stardom, his similar origins to the Brat Pack and all the ways in which he differs from them—in his prose, his life, his fame, his ongoing legacy.

Along with Ellis and Mclerney and, a few years later, Donna Tartt (whose debut, The Secret History, is unquestionably the most ambitious and gorgeously-written of all the writers associated with the Brat Pack), Chabon was held up as the future of American literature; and only Chabon has grown as a writer, has earned a Pulitzer, had one of his novels included in Time’s 100 Novels of the Century. Ellis may have the most notorious Twitter account in America, but only Chabon is still debated and discussed in journals and magazines, his literary worth fought over by esteemed scholars and casual readers. Only Chabon has a reputation to uphold.

Since The Mysteries of Pittsburgh impelled him into the glare of bookish eminence at the unsullied age of 25 (still in the embryonic phase of writerly development, as far as the literary world is concerned), Chabon, whose difficulty in dealing with criticism is well-documented in various interviews and essays, has been struggling with the claim that he’s a stylist, not a story teller; that his flair for flashy verbosity and his ability to use hyperbolic analogy or simile to turn a phrase (a beer is a “yellow foaming cup of regret”) masques his literary worth; that his writing, like his author pic on the back cover, is simply pretty. (His angular mug and long, slick hair graced the covers of magazines, as one of People’s 50 Most Beautiful People, and the Gap tried to use him for an ad campaign, but Chabon refused.

Chabon’s face—stoic, with piercing blue eyes and just the right kind of stubble on his high cheek bones—suggests the suavity of Cary Grant and the cool, refined, collected aptitude of some young philosopher, a Virgil or Decarters, or perhaps a Voltaire. He was being heralded as the hottest and trendiest new writer, the Tom Cruise of letters, and Chabon has tried to transcend this shallow praise ever since, telling an interviewer “I don’t need that shit.”)

In the final page of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon exhibits all that made his prose endearing and all that would soon become a collective affliction, held against him like a rap sheet:

When I remember that dizzy summer, that dull, stupid, lovely, dire summer, it seems that in those days I ate my lunches, smelled another’s skin, noticed a shade of yellow, even simply sat, with greater lust and hopefulness—and that I lusted with greater faith, hoped with greater abandoned. The people I loved were celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare; the places I sat with them, movie lots and monuments. No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.

His long, digressive sentences and use of listed descriptions reflect the day-dreamy wistfulness of the narrator, Art. (Or does it reflect the day-dreamy wistfulness of Chabon? And is there even a difference?) Chabon’s burden of nostalgia and dexterity with words became both his greatest assets and his greatest self-inflicted tribulations.

Chabon wouldn’t ditch the first-person narrative until 2001, with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which won the Pulitzer Prize. (Not to discredit him, but the competition wasn’t very stiff that year.) More ambitious in scope and subject than his previous efforts, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay tells a sprawling, decades-spanning tale of two Jewish New Yorker boys, one an escapee of Hitler’s Germany, who collaborate on comics during World War Two. It strives for deep-seeded cultural issues, an attempt to capture the fears and anxieties and proclivities and lusts of a time and place, a dissection of Jewishness and sexual identity and nationalism, of art as escapism and as life support.

In Chabon’s hands, comics, “low art”, become more profound than eight square panels on a page. Like his friend and contemporary Jonathan Lethem, Chabon uses pop-culture as a vessel to explore gentrification and racial and generational schisms, with New York acting as a microcosm. His prose is at its most succinct in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay though still long and verbiage-heavy, each and every sentence has a task, illustrates a theme or develops a character or details the time and place. It’s a long but lean novel, moving quickly and captivatingly. Though in comparison to the preceding 500 pages, the ending feels a little—discounted? unearned? light? This was the novel that established Chabon as a “Great” American Author, not just a wordsmith. (Brett Easton Ellis called it one of the two or three best novels of his generation, whatever that means.)

But expectations for a follow-up were high, and Chabon was not quite able to meet them. After using pop-culture and pulp fiction as vessels to self-discovery and societal criticism, Chabon fell into a strange groove for a few years. He released several short novels that didn’t really surpass his influences or use them as stepping stones, but rather leaned on them, tried to imitate them, something a freshmen might do. He wrote an all-but-in-name Sherlock Holmes story that amounted to little more than glorified fan fiction. His Edgar Rice Burroughs homage, Gentlemen of the Road, also failed to do anything new or different; it’s just an imitation of Chabon’s heroes. The edition of McSweeney’s that he edited is the exact same pastiche, but with other like-minded writers joining the fun.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, an amalgamation of Chandler and Dick set in Alaska in an alternate history, finally displayed the Chabon that readers longed for. Not derivative of his influences but a unique with serious aspirations, the science-fiction-mystery novel asks difficult questions. In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani wrote: “Though the ultimate secret behind the murder that kick-starts the story involves a religious-political scheme that tips over clumsily into surreal satire, the remainder of the book is so authoritatively and minutely imagined that the reader, absorbed in the plight of Mr. Chabon’s shambling hero, really doesn’t mind.” ( "Looking for a Home in the Limbo of Alaska", 01 May 2007)

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