Exploring Larger Worlds: The Exuberant Realism of Michael Chabon

Black Hills State University hosts Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, essayist & screenwriter, Michael Chabon on Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 7pm in Meier Recital Hall as part of the Madeline Young Distinguished Speakers Series. Chabon's visit to South Dakota coincides with the commemoration of the centennial year of the Pulitzer Prize and a year-long series of events led by the South Dakota Humanities Council. 

by Vincent King

In fall 1995, Michael Chabon was sitting pretty.

He had three books to his credit, each more warmly received than the last. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, published when he was just 24, was one of the most celebrated first novels in recent memory. Reviewers compared it to The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, and The Great Gatsby. Chabon’s second book, A Model World and Other Stories, was seen as a critical step in the author’s development.

In her review for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani observed that “With this volume of stories … Mr. Chabon goes beyond the promise of his last book. Indeed, he establishes himself as one of his generation's most eloquent new voices.”

The praise for his novel Wonder Boys was even more extravagant. Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post exclaimed, “Chabon leaves no doubt that he is the young star of American letters, ‘star’ not in the current sense of cheap celebrity but in the old one of brightly shining hope.”

Near the end of the review, however, Yardley issued an oft-cited challenge that made Chabon squirm:

“One cautionary aside is in order. Chabon is now in his early thirties. He has published a first-person coming-of-age novel, a book of stories many of which are narrated in the first person, and a first-person novel about writing … It is time for him to move on, to break away from the first person and explore larger worlds. His apprenticeship is done; it has been brilliant, but the books as yet unwritten are the ones in which we will learn just how far this singular writer can go.”

Yardley’s aside is harsher than it first appears.

In addition to challenging Chabon to move beyond his first person navel-gazing, Yardley subtly qualifies his assessment of both Wonder Boys and Chabon. Thus, despite his effusive praise of the novel, Yardley classifies it as an apprentice work – or, at best, a transitional work – rather than a masterwork. Yardley worries Chabon is a case of arrested development. His fear isn’t that Chabon will rest on his laurels but lacks the audacity to pursue them.

Chabon’s next collection of short stories, Werewolves in Their Youth, seemed to validate Yardley’s concern. Although the volume was generally well-received, a number of critics faulted Chabon for playing it safe.

Kakutani, who praised the stories in A Model World, now complained that Chabon “is constantly pushing his narratives into neatly packaged, O. Henry-esque shapes.” Michael Gorra argued that the volume is characterized by a slavish devotion to “the mainstream American short story, with its small moments of epiphany and emotional resolution.” In 2003, Chabon seemed to concede the point, describing the stories as boring, “plotless,” and, worst of all, “sparkling with epiphanic dew”  (via ‘A Confidential Chat with the Editor,’ published in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales).

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) as seen as Chabon’s long-awaited breakthrough novel. Described by The New York Timesas a “towering achievement,” the novel was both a critical and popular success. In 2001, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, officially marking Chabon’s transformation from promising apprentice to laurel-adorned master.

He further solidified his position as a major American writer – one whose name could be mentioned in the same breath as Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy – with the publication of two other acclaimed novels: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007) and Telegraph Avenue (2012). 

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Chabon’s development from a minor to a major writer raises an intriguing question: if, as the consensus narrative insists, Kavalier & ClayThe Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and Telegraph Avenue are examples of Chabon’s mature style, then what exactly distinguishes these masterworks from his apprentice work?

The answer to this question lies in Chabon’s attitude toward genre.

From the beginning of his career, Chabon has been riven by what he initially regarded as incompatible impulses. On the one hand, he was drawn to genre fiction, the staple of his childhood reading and the source of his “greatest pleasure,” he writes in Maps & Legends.

“[M]y passion and my ambition as a reader and a writer,” Chabon declares, “were forged in the smithy of genre fiction.” This deep-rooted allegiance to genre fiction is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that – as told in Understanding Michael Chabon – at the age of 10 Chabon wrote a short story entitled “The Revenge of Captain Nemo,” which “centered on a dialogue between … Jules Verne’s mysterious recluse Captain Nemo and Conan Doyle’s master detective Sherlock Holmes.”

The pull of genre fiction persisted into adulthood. Indeed, in the period just before he began working on The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon decided that he wanted to harness its power. As he explains, “I wanted to instill—or rather I didn’t want to lose—the quality inherent in the best of science fiction.” This quality, he continues, is “the sense of wonder,” which he describes as “my animating principle, my motto and manual and standard MO.”

Chabon was equally drawn to literary fiction: “I wanted to tell stories, the kind with set pieces and long descriptive passages, and ‘round’ characters, and beginnings and middles and ends.” As a reader, Chabon consumed stories for the sense of wonder that they provided. But as a writer, as someone who constructed stories, he longed to use the tools of “traditional, bourgeois narrative form:” “unified point of view, coherent causal sequence of events, linear structure,” and “naturalistic pretension.”

Furthermore, Chabon suggests that his “deep, passionate, physical and intellectual love” for the English language could only be fully expressed within the friendly confines of literary fiction. With more than a twinge of regret, Chabon laments, “when it came to the use of language, somehow, my verbal ambition and my ability felt hard to frame or fulfill within the context of traditional genre fiction.”       

Believing that his passion for genre fiction was inimical to his literary aspirations, in the period before the publication of Kavalier & Clay he repeatedly dropped genre projects in order to burnish his literary fiction credentials. For example, while in the MFA program at the University of California-Irvine, Chabon gave up the idea of writing a novel “about a Holmesian detective investigating, on Earth and along the canals of the planet Mars, the disappearance of the great and greatly mistaken astronomer Percival Lowell.”

This world-spanning project suggests that Chabon’s affection for genre fiction has less to do with any particular genre and more to do with the critical feature shared by his preferred genres: a penchant for exuberant world-making. Chabon, deterred by a notion he shared in Maps & Legends “that science fiction was not serious fiction,” decided to drop his “epic novel” in favor of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which he characterizes as “a straightforward realistic narrative, equally influenced by Proust, Fitzgerald, and Philip Roth.”

Chabon’s first idea for his second novel wasn’t the realistic Wonder Boys but the fantastic Fountain City. Like his aborted Percival Lowell opus, Fountain City was wildly ambitious.

Chabon describes it as “a novel about utopian dreamers, ecological activists, an Israeli spy, a gargantuan Florida real estate deal, the education of an architect, the perfect baseball park, Paris, French cooking, and the crazy and ongoing dream of rebuilding the Great Temple in Jerusalem.” Although he dedicated five years and “some fifteen hundred pages” to this sprawling work, he was unable to finish it.

The action of this third person novel, Chabon explains, “was divided between Paris and the fictitious town of Fountain City. But I could never get those two halves to stick together convincingly.” Unable to reconcile his passion for realism on the one hand and his passion for genre fiction world-making on the other, he once again abandoned a project laden with a sense of wonder for a standard literary fiction.

Indeed, Wonder Boys, like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, isa first-person novel that focuses on a relatively small group of characters and is set in Pittsburgh. What’s more, while The Mysteries of Pittsburgh limits its attention to the events of a single summer, Wonder Boys has an even a narrower scope: a single weekend.

Although the turn from Fountain City to Wonder Boys could be seen as yet another triumph of literary fiction over genre fiction, Chabon’s divided allegiance is evident throughout the work.

In the very first sentence of the novel, we meet August Van Zorn, a horror writer who commits suicide. The novel’s central character, Grady Tripp, is also a writer. Unlike Zorn, he publishes literary fictions, the kind that appear on college syllabi and win prestigious prizes. His problem, however, is that he cannot bring himself to finish his most recent work, which, at over 2,000 single-spaced pages, is an example of realism run amuck.

While Grady’s novel is DOA, he isn’t in much better shape. As a result of self-neglect and drug use, he nearly ends up on a mortuary slab. Interestingly, Grady only begins to put his life back together after fate has relieved him of the crushing weight of his decidedly un-wonderful novel. Grady’s situation suggests that an exclusive commitment to literary fiction may be as fatal as an exclusive commitment to genre fiction.

What distinguishes Chabon’s masterpieces from Wonder Boys and the works that preceded it is that in these latter novels he finally manages to reconcile literary and genre fiction. While he continues to use traditional bourgeois narrative form, he now infuses it with the animating spirit of exuberant world-making he associates with genre fiction.

The most obvious way Chabon does this is by breaking away from the narrow world of the biographical self. One sign of this escape is, whereas the first two novels are first person narratives, Kavalier & ClayThe Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Telegraph Avenue are all third person narratives.

Another sign of Chabon’s new found expansiveness is his willingness to set his novels in a location other than Pittsburgh, where he spent a number of summers as a young man and went to college. Chabon describes Pittsburg as his “true fountain city, the mysterious source of so many of his ideas.”

While it was the source and setting of his first two novels, after Wonder Boys Chabon finally began to explore larger worlds. Kavalier & Clay is set in Prague, New York, and the Antarctic; The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is set in an alternate history Alaska; and Telegraph Avenue is set in Oakland and Berkley. Although changing the location of his novels might seem like a small matter, it appears that in order to construct rich imaginary homelands he first had to leave home.

Another way that Chabon gives his fictions the wondrous sheen of genre fiction world making is by broadening their scope.

As Joseph Dewey points out in Understanding Michael Chabon, Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay covers a span of nearly 30 years, takes place on three continents, and features dozens of characters, including a number of historical figures. While Kavalier & Clay examines European and American life from 1935 to 1954, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union takes place in an alternate reality where the Sitka District of Alaska has become a “provisional Jewish state” and Israel doesn’t exist. Like its predecessor, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a quietly political work concerned both with America’s morally fraught role in the world and with the world’s abysmal treatment of the Jewish people.

Although Telegraph Avenue isn’t as wide-ranging as the other novels, it, too, is preoccupied with history.

Set mainly in 2004, just eight years before its publication, the novelplumbs daily life in the Bay Area. It examines both the current state of race relations and the economic realities that shape the lives of its characters. Thus, we get a behind-the-scenes look at a number of local businesses, including Archy and Nate’s Brokeland Records, Gwen and Aviva’s Berkley Birth Partners, Chan Flowers’ funeral home chain, and Gibson Goode’s media empire.

While the novel is mainly interested in local politics, Senator Obama of Illinois appears at a John Kerry fundraiser, and the novel even jets back 40 years into the past to explore Chan Flowers’ involvement with Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party.

Another way that these novels capture the wonder of world-making is by deliberately engaging with genre fiction or, more broadly, popular culture.

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For instance, in Kavalier & Clay the genre is comic books. Not only are many of the characters writers or illustrators of comic books, but three of the novel’s chapters are written in the manner of a comic book and follow the exploits of a comic book character. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, on the other hand, plays with the conventions of detective fiction and film noir.

While Telegraph Avenue doesn’t mimic a specific type of genre fiction, it abounds with references to popular entertainments. These references include Sanford and SonSesame Street, the films of Quentin Tarantino, Jesus Christ SuperstarStar WarsThe Wizard of Oz, kung-fu films, Star Trek, and blaxploitation films. The novel is equally loaded with nods to American music, particularly jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, and funk.

These constant references to popular entertainments – and, in the case of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, popular genres – serve two main functions: they give readers the sense that a world is being constructed brick by brick before their eyes and, simultaneously, they remind them that this marvelous edifice is an illusion, that it is made out of nothing more substantial than air. Both sensations infuse the reader with a sense of exuberance.  

When Chabon decided to drop his plans to write the Percival Lowell science fiction novel in favor of the Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to give his readers the sense of wonder he believed was the special province of genre fiction. Then he thought, “If my subject matter couldn’t do it – if I wasn’t writing about people who sailed through neutron stars or harnessed suns together – then it was going to fall to my sentences themselves to open up the heads of my readers and decant into them enough crackling plasma to light up the eye sockets for a week.”

As it turns out, even Chabon’s stylistic pyrotechnics weren’t sufficient to give his early fictions the sense of gee-whiz astonishment that he so admired. That singular achievement would only come when he summoned the courage to break away from the biographical self and to embrace the essential elements of his idiosyncratic world-making: genre and history.

Ironically, despite Chabon’s suggestion that literary fiction was the form most agreeable to his verbal facility, the evidence simply doesn’t bear this out.

A quick look at both his conventional literary fictions (The Mysteries of PittsburgA Model WorldWerewolves) and his post-Pulitzer genre fictions (SummerlandThe Final SolutionGentleman of the Road) leave little doubt that Chabon’s best writing is prompted by the herculean effort to reconcile these two modes.

It seems that to be a true wonder boy, he must construct his own genre, one capacious enough to accommodate his conflicting artistic impulses. Chabon’s literary and genre fictions are certainly noteworthy – especially the underappreciated Wonder Boys – but his exuberant realism is the true hallmark of his genius

What distinguishes Chabon’s masterpieces from Wonder Boys and the works that preceded it is that in these latter novels he finally manages to reconcile literary and genre fiction. While he continues to use traditional bourgeois narrative form, he now infuses it with the animating spirit of exuberant world-making he associates with genre fiction.

The most obvious way Chabon does this is by breaking away from the narrow world of the biographical self. One sign of this escape is, whereas the first two novels are first person narratives, Kavalier & ClayThe Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Telegraph Avenue are all third person narratives.

Another sign of Chabon’s new found expansiveness is his willingness to set his novels in a location other than Pittsburgh, where he spent a number of summers as a young man and went to college. Chabon describes Pittsburg as his “true fountain city, the mysterious source of so many of his ideas.”

While it was the source and setting of his first two novels, after Wonder Boys Chabon finally began to explore larger worlds. Kavalier & Clay is set in Prague, New York, and the Antarctic; The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is set in an alternate history Alaska; and Telegraph Avenue is set in Oakland and Berkley. Although changing the location of his novels might seem like a small matter, it appears that in order to construct rich imaginary homelands he first had to leave home.

Another way that Chabon gives his fictions the wondrous sheen of genre fiction world making is by broadening their scope.

As Joseph Dewey points out in Understanding Michael Chabon, Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay covers a span of nearly 30 years, takes place on three continents, and features dozens of characters, including a number of historical figures. While Kavalier & Clay examines European and American life from 1935 to 1954, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union takes place in an alternate reality where the Sitka District of Alaska has become a “provisional Jewish state” and Israel doesn’t exist. Like its predecessor, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a quietly political work concerned both with America’s morally fraught role in the world and with the world’s abysmal treatment of the Jewish people.

Although Telegraph Avenue isn’t as wide-ranging as the other novels, it, too, is preoccupied with history.

Set mainly in 2004, just eight years before its publication, the novelplumbs daily life in the Bay Area. It examines both the current state of race relations and the economic realities that shape the lives of its characters. Thus, we get a behind-the-scenes look at a number of local businesses, including Archy and Nate’s Brokeland Records, Gwen and Aviva’s Berkley Birth Partners, Chan Flowers’ funeral home chain, and Gibson Goode’s media empire.

While the novel is mainly interested in local politics, Senator Obama of Illinois appears at a John Kerry fundraiser, and the novel even jets back 40 years into the past to explore Chan Flowers’ involvement with Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party.

Another way that these novels capture the wonder of world-making is by deliberately engaging with genre fiction or, more broadly, popular culture.


Vincent King is a professor of English at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota.