On the few occasions that I have been asked what my dissertation is about, I have answered, hesitatingly, “an author. . . He’s Jewish-American. . . He’s actually still alive. . . But you’ve probably never heard of him.” If that response has not already sufficiently bored my interlocutor with the conversation, they might ask, cautiously, for the name of the author. “Michael Chabon?” “You’re right, I have never heard of him”, the reply usually goes.
But you (and by that, I mean the royal “you”) should have heard of Michael Chabon. I mean, he is not some obscure author writing dense political tracts in the depths of sixteenth century Prussia. The guy has won a Pulitzer Prize, for goodness sake. If that isn’t enough to make him mainstream (and given the status of literature these days, it probably isn’t), then it might also be worth mentioning that he wrote the screenplay for that classic Marvel movie Spider-Man 2.
An eclectic storyteller, Chabon’s oeuvre, which spans three decades, is impressive. A lover of genre fiction, he has mixed and matched different genres like a child choosing which sweets to load up a beach-hut-patterned paper bag in an old-fashioned sweetshop.
He wrote his hugely popular debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, at the age of twenty-five while he was still slumming it at university. Ostensibly a bildungsroman, there is so much gay sex in the novel that it led some critics to mistakenly label Chabon as a gay writer.
His second novel, Wonder Boys, a comedy-of-errors turned campus novel, was at least semi-autobiographical in its tale of a perpetually stoned middle-aged man attempting – and failing – to complete his magnus opum.
It was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, however, which has cemented Chabon’s status as one of the greats in contemporary American literature. A historical novel set in 1930s New York City, Kavalier & Clay follows the exploits of the Jewish cousins, Josef Kavalier and Sammy Clay, who create their own hugely successful comic, ‘the Escapist’, in the golden era of comic books. From a disastrous US Navy mission in Antarctica during World War Two to a Harry Houdini-inspired escape from Nazi-occupied Prague with a Jewish golem, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel is of epic proportions.
The Final Solution, a novella set in the idyllic South Downs during the Second World War, follows an eighty-nine-year-old Sherlock Holmes in his quest to find the missing parrot of a mute Jewish refugee.
His fourth novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is a mixture of a “hard-boiled” detective novel and an old-fashioned noir thriller set in an alternate reality in which Jewish refugees from the Second World War have emigrated to the Alaskan archipelago of Sitka, Marilyn Monroe has married John F. Kennedy, and Orson Welles has directed the film version of Heart of Darkness.
His fifth novel, Gentlemen of the Road, an Alexandre Dumas-inspired picaresque set in ancient Khazaria, follows the wild and whacky adventures of two Jewish bandits in their attempts to restore a cross-dressing Khazar prince to the throne.
His sixth novel, Telegraph Avenue, a multi-racial Middlemarch set in a second-hand record store in Oakland in 2004, features a twelve-page long sentence and a cameo appearance of the then Illinois Senator Barack Obama.
His seventh and most recent novel, Moonglow, a faux memoir based on the life of Chabon’s “grandfather”, tells of his marriage to a mentally ill French immigrant haunted by a “Skinless Horse” and his hunt for the Nazi-turned-NASA engineer Wernher von Braun across a war-torn Germany.
Chabon is an author whose novels are worth reading. Part of a generation of authors frustrated by the corrosive irony and self-referentiality of postmodern fiction, his novels embrace good old-fashioned storytelling. Exploring relevant themes such as religion, race, sex, gender, and so on, his novels are also very much of the moment. Chabon is one of the greatest living writers, and you only need to pick up one of his novels to see why.
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