Until his latest novel—his fifth in 24 years—Michael Chabon’s career had separated neatly into two stages. His first two novels, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) and Wonder Boys (1995), were ambling, warm-hearted tales of a large and loosely associated cast of characters (old college friends, attendees at a writers’ conference) who get in and out of trouble and fall in and out of love within a few days and a few square miles. If there was nothing much at stake, there was also nothing to excite protest or assent. The tone was fond. Chabon obviously liked his characters, and his reader could not help but like them, too. They talked incessantly, worked little, drank and smoked too much (marijuana, mostly), confused sexual experimentation with the search for meaning. But they were no danger to themselves or anyone else, although pets and memorabilia might be put at risk. The real menace was in the prose. Chabon wrote beautifully, even lusciously, bestowing distinctive epithets and vivid similes, colors and flavors and odors and quirks, on every-thing he described. And, boy, did he like to describe things!
In a photograph, a girl “has adopted a disheveled, Thursday-night-at-home-with-my-boyfriend pose, ripped sweatshirt collar dipped over one round olive shoulder, face uncharacteristically Levantine (her father was related to the great Pittsburgh Tambellinis), saintly.” A kitchen remodeled in the 1970s is a “veritable fiesta of goldenrod and avocado and burnt orange accents, [its] cabinets clad in walnut Formica, adorned with elaborate gilt handles,” the air smelling of “scorched butter and caramelized onions.” A weeks-old embryo is a “tiny zygote rolling like a satellite through the starry dome of [a] womb.” Occasionally the prose would stop to admire itself, but for better or worse it was a continuous surprise. If they were nothing else, the books were great fun to read. That seemed indeed to be the spirit in which they were conceived. Their author liked to think of himself as “the host of a party,” he told USA Today. “If someone isn’t having a good time, of course it concerns you.”
About the Author
D.G. Myers, literary historian at the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at Ohio State University, writes our fiction chronicle and is the author of the Literary Commentary blog.