Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Michael Chabon Reading: Recap

Michael Chabon is many things. A 45 year old male. A Pulitzer Prize-winner. A Jewish-American author. A true geek. The author, best known for 2000’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, doesn’t like to be referred to by a single, restrictive label. Multiple labels he can tolerate, however.

If you keep up with this blog or watch the televisions in Gelman Library, you already know that Chabon held a public reading last night at the Jack Morton Auditorium, thanks to the generosity of the Wang Family and alumnus David Bruce Smith. If you were not lucky enough to attend the reading, hear his interview with Professor Faye Moskowitz, or get a book signed and picture taken, here are the highlights of the event.

Chabon was introduced by Edward P. Jones, GW’s first Wang Visiting Professor of Contemporary Literature. Chabon read two stories, both drawn from his own life. “First Father” was a somber reflection on the nature of fatherhood, inspired by Barack Obama’s Grant Park appearance after being elected President of the United States. “First First Father” was a comedic take on the purpose of circumcision.

After his reading, Faye Moskowitz, professor of the new Jewish Literature Live course, conducted a live interview of Chabon. He got his literary start in seventh grade, when he was assigned to write a short story. Taking inspiration from Nicholas Meyer, who adapted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Chabon wrote a new story for Holmes. Chabon’s tale featured a rendezvous with Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo and ended with a giant explosion––his teacher had expected only four pages of story, and Chabon, having written fifteen, was out of time.

Until college, Chabon did not write much in his free time; only for class assignments. Then, while working on The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he was motivated by the writer down the hall. His competition had a loud typewriter, a smoking problem, and an enviable work habit.

When asked about the important of fatherhood in his novels, Chabon revealed that his parents’ divorce left him with a real sense of absence, although his father diligently supported him from a distance. This was some of the inspiration for Clay’s proclivity for making superheroes into father-figures by giving them boy sidekicks. Chabon also found adoptive father-figures throughout his life. He said, “There are lots of fathers out there who aren’t being used to their full potential… it’s kind of like you get them wholesale.”

Other aspects of Chabon’s adolescence have influenced his writing. By his own estimation, he lived in twenty-seven different houses over fourteen years. “I envy writers whose writing comes from a place, because I didn’t have that.” But moving around did have its benefits: “At least it gave me a wide range of backgrounds [to write about].”

Chabon was fascinated by the portrayal of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany in American comic books. The depiction of comic book heroes fighting the Nazis was “so poignant, yet so futile,” because their victories were only ever imagined. In writing The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon looked for “cracks in history where maybe something somehow might have mitigated the Holocaust.” Since he had no first- or second-hand experience of the Holocaust (his family was hardly affected by it), Chabon’s novels help him feel connected to it.

Chabon related some difficulties he encountered while writing historical fiction and alternate history novels. At first, he felt constrained by the facts of history, such as the precise dismantling date of the 1939 Worlds Fair. Then, he realized, “That’s insane… If I say it was still there, then it was still there.” His justification is that he is not trying to trick his audience, but to “tell a story that will reveal a larger truth even if it is entirely made up.”

Moskowitz asked Chabon to respond to the claim that Kavalier and Clay seems to read like a comic book. He said, “That’s something I don’t see as much.” Undoubtedly, his appreciation for comic books had influenced him, but “What that influence is I’m not really sure.” With Kavalier and Clay, Chabon was “Trying to write something like Love in the Time of Comic Books.” He also appreciates a strong, momentous plot, because “I love movies, comics, television.” He believes, “It’s part of my duty to provide part of that push for the reader.”

On Monday, Chabon visited Moskowitz’s class because he is a “Jewish-American author.” He doesn’t resent the label, so long as it isn’t confining. “I’m proud to be labeled a Jewish-American author… as long as its not the only label.” To describe this desire, he invoked a metaphor of tags on a blog; many tags can be applied to a single blog post, but no tag describes the blog post in full. In contrast to tags, labels are “so vague and so general that they don’t apply to any single specific author.” Labels often limit a book to a particular section of a bookstore, of academe, or of a reader’s mind. It is too easy for readers to ignore books with unfamiliar labels. In particular, he lamented the mitigation of the science fiction genre. The science fiction sections of libraries are “ghettos where books have little atoms or rocketships on their spines.”

Chabon took three questions from the audience at the end of the interview.

“Your first draft of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was written in first person, but the published novel is in third person. What were your reasons for this change?”

Chabon responded that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, from draft to publication, shifted from first to third person and from past to present tense. Writing the novel in first person was an effort to emulate Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled detective fiction. This perspective didn’t work because “the plot was lousy” and because the narrator was “too garrulous.” He decided to switch to third person, in the style of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The shift to present tense made the book feel current, not historical, and it allowed him to dip into the past tense when he wished, instead of relying on the more confusing past perfect tense (“had had”).

“Is the perceived parallel between Kavalier’s escape from Europe and the escape of Superman from planet Krypton intentional?”

Chabon did not write the escape specifically as a Superman or immigrant parable. However, Kavalier’s journey to the Antarctic is partly intended as an allusion to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (though, as Chabon noted, Superman’s hideaway is traditionally in the Arctic, not the Antarctic). It was natural for Kavalier to want to fight the Germans, so Chabon frustrated this desire by sending Kavalier to the “Antarctic Theatre” of WWII.
A possible subconscious inspiration for Kavalier’s escape was the Edgar Allen Poe novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which Chabon read as a child and then forgot. In it, Pym stows away on a vessel and, near death, is resuscitated by his dog.

“Your novels have been the subject of book-to-film adaptations, and you have proposed adaptations of comic books in the past. What is your view on these adaptations?”

Chabon replied, “I feel bad in a way.” Novels are novels and films are films; he dislikes when his literary audience anticipates a cinematic version of his work. When a reader asks, “When is the movie coming out?” it indicates a “level of satisfaction yet to be reached.” Chabon feels as though he has failed to satisfy with the novel.
He is wary of film adaptations. They often fail for one of two reasons: “either deviating in crucial way [from the book], or by being too true to the original texts.” However, he mentioned the The Cider House Rules as an example of both a good book and a good movie, but only because the author, John Irving, made necessary changes to the structure of the story to make it work on film.
Regarding his own proposed screen adaptations of comics series such as X-Men, he said that adapting comics is different from adapting novels. When adapting comics, one can pick and choose from the best parts of the whole series.


Don't forget to attend the April 2nd reading by Art Spiegelman, next Thursday at 7pm in the Jack Morton Auditorium.

1 comment:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks for this thorough recap, Calder -- excellent. Is there anything bad to say about Chabon??!