The Mysteries of Chabon

I’ve never read Michael Chabon, but I used to know someone who wanted to be him. I wish I’d read Chabon. Not sure I wish I still knew the wannabe. Why haven’t I read Chabon? Perhaps this is explained by my uncleared cache of Chabon factoids, which, until this week, were as follows:

  • writer of Wonder Boys, the book that made me briefly like people I didn’t knew I liked and then remembered not to like so much: Michael Douglas, Katie Holmes, Tobey Maguire;
  • writer of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the book with the comic book cover that made not want to read it, despite it winning a Pulitzer, or anything by its author, or anything related to comic books, which everyone suddenly fell in love with all over again;
  • writer of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which I found out about from the Chabon wannabe who wanted to write his own Mysteries but ended up writing his own Adventures, which I never read, which irritated him such that we stopped being friends, if we every truly were.

Add to that list what I learned about Chabon this week: that he has a new book, Telegraph Avenue, which I haven’t read, and I’m not sure I’m going to. Here’s probably why. I heard about the book listening to the New York Times Book Review podcast during which Jennifer Egan, another Pulitzer-winning novelist I haven’t read (but am planning to, probably) said, reviewing Chabon’s book, that he was perhaps the greatest living American prose stylist. Boom. That’s a whopper, considering, if no others, Richard Ford. (And you’re free to consider many others.) As I’m more than fond of stylists—see my posts on Polish writer Andrzej Stasiukhere and here—my interest in reading Chabon instantly spiked. Egan’s declaration cleared my Chabon cache, and I went looking on one of my favorite online book sites, The Millions, for more Telegraph Avenue exultations.

And I found some. Not though about the book’s plot. The reviewer, poet and fiction writer Michael Bourne, whom I haven’t read either, pulled no punches, calling the novel “shopworn,” “oddly dated,” and “a sprawling, ungainly mess.” No second edition back-jacket blurbs for Bourne. But, surprise, Bourne did have great things to say about Chabon’s prose. While he never ventured as near the ledge as Egan, a risk perhaps more easily taken by Pulitzer winners, he does rhapsodize wildly over Chabon’s skills, saying:

As a prose stylist, Chabon possesses two great gifts in abundance: a talent for giving inanimate objects a personal identity and purpose, and an eye for the outlandish but weirdly appropriate simile. He also has a hell of a way with an adjective. These talents, along with an omnivorous intellectual curiosity and a working vocabulary that rivals Shakespeare’s, enable Chabon to create on the page a world that looks and sounds very much like the one we see every day, but is richer and more nuanced, more alive, than anything we mere mortals can see with our own eyes.

Wait, Shakespeare? Scratch that: Bourne mugged Egan at the ledge and jumped off. Here’s where he hit the bottom. In praising Chabon’s “electric” similes, Bourne selects this generous example: Chabon describes a private security guard as having his “head shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.” Electric? Maybe. Arrestingly funny and incisive? Definitely. Does this make me want to read Chabon? Not sure.

I’m not sure I want to read Bourne either after he explains why he thinks this slashing figure of speech is so damn good:

The simile is apt: a private security goon’s head and a porn star’s testicle are both shaved, and both look frankly a little weird. But it’s more than that. The line is funny because it would never occur to anybody but Michael Chabon to compare a security guy’s head to a porn star’s balls, but we should have because, of course, in both cases, the men are shaving away a sign of their masculinity – their natural body hair – to better play their role as a symbol of masculinity. It’s a joke, but it’s also a lightning-quick commentary on the demeaning lengths working-class guys will go to in order to take on the only jobs left to them, that of being professional slabs of man-meat. Chabon tosses all this off in eight words and we’re back to the scene at hand.

Yes, this is insightful and well-written. But isn’t it reductionist to say that working class guys have been so downgraded by years of socioeconomic transformations to nothing more than “professional slabs of meat”? My guess is that to someone who thinks we “should” see a working-class guy’s head as nothing more than a vessel of testosterone rather than a miraculous orb, shaved or not, of potentially untold knowledge and competencies probably thought those guys were meat slabs even before ‘meaningful’ working class jobs were strategically eliminated from our economy. (My guess, though I could be wrong, is that neither Bourne nor Chabon has ever built a car.) I just wonder whether Bourne could’ve found another striking simile with which to exemplify Chabon’s already legendary stylist skills.

Maybe not. Maybe that was just the one. The one to make the review stick, give it its punctum. And herein lies my point in what is ultimately my review of a review: With so much to read, we’re stuck relying heavily on secondhand sources—reviews, (ex)friends, cute girls on the bus—that it’s easy to come to ‘know’ writers in ways that make it impossible to read them at all. (Maybe this is why I haven’t read Proust yet, either. Thanks, Leah!) When we finally get around to someone we should read, the layers between us and the page are so think with (you fill it in) that it’s hard to know what the hell to think about them or their “electric” styles.

Perhaps this is why I buy books I hear are good and put them on my shelves for a few years so I can forget about them and actually try to read them ‘fresh’ at some point before I die. It’s like clearing the cache. And just as it’s probably time for Bourne to clear his cache about how we should see working-class guys, it’s probably time for me to finally clear mine about Chabon. All this effulgence is clouding my previously-skewed judgment.

P.S. I haven’t built a car either.


  1. Am reading Telegraph Avenue now. So far (and I’m not that far into it) it is cool, excellent writing, great characters, looks like it is going to be very enjoyable. Never finished Kavalier and Klay, loved the Yiddish Policemen’s Union (hysterically funny book), liked the Wonder Boys and Mysteries of Pittsburgh books. He’s an excellent writer, you should give him a try, especially the Yiddish Policemen’s Union and so far Telegraph Avenue.


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