Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Story He Knows

A synopsis: a pair of comic-book artists—Jewish, Brooklyn-born—rise to postwar success, only to deal, decades later, with the strain an exploitative contract places on their relationship, a strain partially eased by an enigmatic gift from beyond the grave. A liberal dose of Jewish lore bejewels the story, and the writer's ease with obscure corners of the dictionary ("emulsified", "emolument", "picayune") makes the language both vivifying and trying.

Sound familiar?

If you have even a slight acquaintance with contemporary American literature, there's a good chance you've identified the author of this story as Michael Chabon—and you'd be correct. But the crude outline offered above does not refer to his incredible 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Rather, it describes a short story in the current New Yorker entitled "Citizen Conn." I was excited to see Chabon's name in the magazine's table of contents—he's been fairly silent in recent years—but a few paragraphs made me skeptical at the familiarity of it all. The sweeping, discursive paragraphs that bring neophytes up to speed on the Golden Age of American comics; the tandem of misfits who transcend their awkwardness and whose names, when combined, ring as heroically as that of their creations (in this case, Feather and Conn, responsible for series like The New Frontiersmen and Mister Arcane); the thematic linkage of the worship of God with the worship of fictional heroes: All that again? I thought.

All that again, answered the story. And against my English-major instincts, I found these elements as improbably engrossing in short form as they had been across the nearly-700 pages of Kavalier & Clay, one of the finest novels I've read in the last five years. Still, suspicion lingered on my reader's palate; it all seemed too easy. Doesn't Chabon have any other tricks up his sleeve?

I thought about that question in the hours after finishing the story. What eventually came to mind was a distantly-remembered quotation, its author forgotten: "Every writer only has one story to tell." It's an axiom that sits uncomfortably alongside the revered notion of the artist-as-genius, but think about it: Wharton and Fitzgerald made careers out of Americans' pursuit of wealth; Bellow never strayed far from the beleaguered modern intellect; Franzen examines upper-middle-class families feeling the tug between heartland conservatism and coastal cosmopolitanism. Even giants like Melville and Tolstoy wove one tapestry; theirs just happened to depict the whole of life. One might say of Borges: "Couldn't he write about anything other than infinity?"

The notion that an author might be penalized for revisiting a favored subject seems laughable when applied to such giants of the past (Franzen excluded), yet it nags us where contemporary literature is concerned. I know as little about whaling as I do about comic books, but the latter raises more doubts about its renewability as a literary resource. True, the ocean brings to the fore issues of man's loneliness and death's imminence and God's distance, and it's proved a fruitful symbol since the author of Exodus parted the Red Sea. Comic books do not boast such a history.

But it's not simply a matter of venerability. A bigger obstacle is that comic books are inherently hermetic, a fixture of the distinctly postwar phenomenon of geek culture. Like a religion, comics are governed by a self-contained system of shibboleths and arcana, breathtaking to the initiate but often off-putting to those on the outside. In Melville's day, whaling was a rarefied pursuit because few people had the mettle necessary to endure two-year voyages in pursuit of leviathans. Comic books, on the other hand, are available to anyone who can read, but it's a certain type of person who takes a deep interest in crime-fighting underwear models. One can be nerdy about an interest in whaling, but an interest in comic books, in this day and age, is nerdy by definition. It's the old high art/low art debate, with a wrinkle: rather than an object of mass attention vying for serious critical consideration, it's an object of narrow and fervent adoration. It's not the rabble that wants to be let in to the canon; it's a whole new set of high priests. Naturally, the old guard are uncomfortable about such things, so that even after Kavalier & Clay won a Pulitzer and near-universal acclaim, Chabon and Jonathan Lethem have each published essay collections that are largely apologies for aestheticizing low culture.

One has to admit that their central defense is fairly commonsensical: who are we to say that there's a considerable difference in the tasks facing Melville and Chabon? Don't they share the task of making the esoteric universal? This is not a question of finding an audience; it's a question of creating works of art rather than encyclopedia entries. From this angle, the teller matters more than the subject, and it's for this reason that I found more to love in a paragraph of "Citizen Conn" than in the entirety of Chad Harbach's Art of Fielding. In that book, baseball, the Great American Pastime, becomes a wooden metaphor for...well, for something, whereas Chabon makes comic books into a repository of national longing; the narrator's husband, we are told, "viewed his life as a perpetual struggle to retain some starry residue of the sense of wonder with which the drawings of Mort Feather had imbued his early adolescence."

Chabon successfully sustained this project throughout Kavalier & Clay, offering not only an infectiously passionate account of the glory days of the American comic book but also a tale of Jewish identity, of mythmaking, of violence in the name of patriotism, and of repressed desire. He once again triumphs in "Citizen Conn," a fact that became more evident as I worked through the story, my early resistance crumbling in the wake of Chabon's indisputable talent. Though similarities to Kavalier & Clay abounded, Chabon was not merely coloring by numbers. Gone was the novel's omniscient third-person narrator, replaced by Rabbi Rebecca Teplitz, whose decency doesn't eclipse her humanity, and whose hinted-at doubts about her marriage demonstrate an almost unnatural degree of authorial control. The glitz of 1940s Manhattan has been erased from the backdrop, painted over with the bleakness of the modern-day Los Angeles nursing home where Teplitz is stationed. While we glimpse Kavalier and Clay in their senescence, we know them mostly as youths. Feather and Conn, by contrast, only gain reprieve from their old age in one tender flashback near the story's end.

To cite more differences would be to disclose the plot; suffice it to say that "Citizen Conn" is worthy on its own terms, for the same reason that made Kavalier & Clay so stunning: because Chabon fulfills the storyteller's first responsibility, which is to tell a story, a fact forgotten with woeful frequency in The New Yorker's fiction pages these days. The comic books and Judaism are rich and powerful symbols, and they will probably serve Chabon well for years to come. But his fluency in these subjects would matter little if it weren't for his skill at telling the story that lies beneath them, the truly important story, the one that gave rise to fiction in the first place. It's the story of human beings learning to live with—and without—one another.


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