Wednesday, February 15, 2012

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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.

Friday, February 10, 2012

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Nobody's Perfect

A job application recently asked me to discuss how I've grown since high school. This raises interesting and unsettling questions, particularly here in the good ol' U.S. of A, where the assumption is that things just keep on growing and improving and generating ever-higher returns on investment, an assumption seriously challenged (and made slightly ridiculous) by any decent meditation on the extent to which human life is the product of factors like chance, greed, and well-intentioned idiocy. One simultaneously assumes that these factors are not the stuff of a good job application essay, and so one writes about his self as if it were a positive-correlation curve, stretching off towards a perfectible infinity.

One definition of adulthood might be coming to terms with the understanding that the blissful terminus implied by such a graph—the personal apotheosis, the singularly un-flawed self—is a fiction. Theoretically, everyone accepts this fact at a different point; for my part, I grapple with it daily, for I have a particularly staunch opponent in the part of me that still thinks an idealized ur-Jim will someday emerge from a tempering goo of acquired knowledge, instilled morality, and perfected will. This part of me thinks that one fine day I will be able to sit at my computer and write excellent prose for eight hours straight; that I will read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and F.P. Lock's two-volume, 1,700 page biography of Edmund Burke in blissful rapture; that I will stop slouching and cursing; that I will train myself to be infinitely patient; that no one will ever find cause to dislike me; that I will become good at golf; that I will understand calculus. This part of me assumes a B.C. and A.D. of selfhood; all it needs is its Year Zero, and we're off to the races, he and I.

I have to force this part of me to consider my habit of checking Facebook multiple times a day, despite vows to the contrary; my tendency to set an alarm for 7:30 and then wake up at nine; the half-finished short stories that litter my hard drive; and on and on. And then I haul to the witness stand the old versions of my self that vowed that tomorrow would mark the final day of Facebook, the first day of getting up early to write, the beginning of less sleep and more living. How many of them there are, and how often they keep appearing with their chorus of Tomorrow, tomorrow. And the optimistic part of me is forced to slink off to its corner.

These things are on my mind because that job I spoke of at the beginning of this musing is a one-year post teaching English at my old high school. Now, you have to understand that to the sixteen- and seventeen- and eighteen-year-old version of myself, there was no greater proof of human perfectibility than my English teachers. I saw the guys holding the post that I've just applied for, guys fresh out of college, and thought: surely they've figured it all out. Surely they have left behind vice and laziness, and are on their way to achieving their wildest dreams. I'd get there too, in good time.

Well, I'm happy to report that I was offered aforementioned teaching post, and while on the one hand this made me very happy, on the other hand it delivered a very pointed realization: here I am, on the verge of inhabiting a position I've long admired and respected, and I'm still a schmuck. A polished schmuck with nice glasses, perhaps, but a schmuck nevertheless. I thought of a passage from my favorite essay, the one that made me a writer in the first place, Jonathan Franzen's "Caught" (republished as "Centrally Located" in The Discomfort Zone):

"At forty-five, I feel grateful almost daily to be the adult I wished I could be when I was seventeen. I work on my arm strength at the gym; I've become pretty good with tools. At the same time, almost daily, I lose battles with the seventeen-year-old who's still inside me. I eat half a box of Oreos for lunch, I binge on TV, I make sweeping moral judgments, I run around town in torn jeans, I drink martinis on a Tuesday night, I stare at beer-commercial cleavage, I define as uncool any group to which I can't belong, I feel the urge to key Range Rovers and slash their tires; I pretend I'm never going to die."

I take courage from this passage, because it tells me that even the writer I admire above all others, the most important contemporary American author (face the facts, people), is a schmuck, too. To be human is to be a schmuck: there's liberation in that thought. I want to go around to the haughty girls I know, so self-important, and say, "Hey, you're a schmuck, and so am I." I want to go up to the frat boys who might see me as particularly eligible for a beating and say, "Hey, you're a schmuck and so am I." I want to go to my old friend who has no clue what he's doing next year and say, "Hey, it's okay, we're all schmucks." Don't get me wrong; this is not to say that human beings are not capable of genius or compassion or beauty or any number of other incredible things. But it is to say that we are not perfectible, and our rough edges will never be filed down entirely, no matter how impressive a file we devise. 

One reason I cherish writing is that when done properly, it gives that meliorist part of me a victory. It can point to a finished essay, or the sixty pages of novel I've managed to write since Christmas despite my much-lamented affection for the Internet, or even a blog post like this, and say, "See? You're not a schmuck."

Thursday, February 2, 2012

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Mea Culpa

Yes, Traction has been slacking as of late, but hey, we're trying to write a thesis about Saul Bellow. Until I get things back in order, read my profile of Christopher Germain, a very talented Philadelphia violinmaker.