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Michael Chabon is a highly accomplished novelist, short-story writer, children’s fantasy novelist, and screenwriter. Chabon, who consistently exalts the imagination in creating worlds that nourish the spiritual lives of human beings, explores a diversity of recurring themes, including coming of age, nostalgia and memory, family conflicts, love, the growth of the artist, friendship, Edenic happiness, and wasteland desolation.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Stellar Start
Chabon was born in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 1963. His father, Robert, is a physician, lawyer, and hospital administrator; his mother, Sharon, is a retired lawyer. Chabon graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a B.A. in English in 1984 and earned an M.F.A. at the University of California, Irvine, in 1987, where he worked with novelist and critic Donald Heiney (who wrote fiction under the name MacDonald Harris). He also married poet Lollie Groth in 1987.
After he won a short-story contest with Mademoiselle in that same year, he wrote his master’s thesis, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988); his advisor, Heiney, was so impressed that he sent the manuscript to Mary Evans, a literary agent at the Virginia Barber Agency in New York City. Evans sold the book to William Morrow Publishers for $155,000 at a private auction—one of the highest figures ever paid for a first novel by a virtually unknown author.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh made Chabon instantly famous in the highly competitive world of New York publishing. It became a commercial best-seller praised by most members of the critical and academic establishments. Chabon followed his debut novel with a collection of short stories, A Model World and Other Stories (1991). These stories were written and published between 1987 and 1990, mostly in The New Yorker but also in Gentle man’s Quarterly and Mademoiselle. Because of the phenomenal success of both his novel and the new collection, Chabon received a substantial advance from his publisher to work on his next novel, tentatively titled Fountain City.” By the time he received the advance, he had been working on Fountain City” for two years, but the project seemed to be going nowhere. His domestic life was in upheaval; he was divorced in 1991, lived with another woman, and met and married Ayelet Waldman, a lawyer, in 1993. He also moved six times. After five years and an endlessly elaborating plot, he began to see that his book had no center and no direction. His editor at Morrow kept encouraging him, until Chabon had written 1500 pages yet still did not have a publishable manuscript.
Turning Things Around
Chabon threw away ”Fountain City” and drew on his experiences to write his second novel, Wonder Boys, a story about a writer’s inability to come up with a worthy successor to his early hit, which many consider a thinly veiled autobiography. With the publication of Wonder Boys, Chabon was able to settle into writing again. He has since written several more novels, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, along with several collections of short stories. He now lives with his second wife and their four children in Berkeley, California.
Works in Literary Context
Few contemporary American fiction writers begin their literary careers with such public notoriety as Michael Chabon gained with his best-selling first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which made him wildly successful at the age of twenty-four. Though he has been grouped with other popular young authors in their twenties, such as Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, and Jay McInerney, Cha-bon’s work could never be mistaken for their consciously minimalistic style, dark subject matter, and social criticism, or their pessimistic view of the materialistic downside of the American Dream. Chabon himself feels he shares little with the so-called literary Brat Pack: ”I never thought I had any connection with ‘the usual suspects’ . . . . I was 23. I thought in terms of what I had in common with Cheever, Nabokov or Flaubert when they were 23. I had high aims.”
Tackling Serious Themes
Even as early as his first novel, written in his early twenties, Chabon examined some of the most serious themes of contemporary American literature: how people, consciously or unconsciously, assume fictive roles they then live in; the importance of sexual identity in discovering the heart’s true desire; that genuine spiritual transformation always involves pain and suffering; and that an honest life consists of a continuous process of identifying and exposing one’s most confounding mysteries. In his next two novels, Chabon explored other serious themes, such as the power of the imagination to produce art and to create ways of escape from both physical and spiritual death, and the fall from innocence to experience.
Mythologizing the Commonplace
All of Chabon’s novels can be viewed as psychological, spiritual, and mythic journeys that seek to create meaning and significance in an existentially empty world. What unites all of them is that Chabon frequently uses Cheever’s favorite fictional technique, ”mythologizing the commonplace.” His ability to mythologize the activities of seemingly ordinary people is most apparent in his young adult novel, Summerland (2002), which has many of the characteristics of what mythologist Joseph Campbell calls the mythological journey of the hero: the call to adventure, the road of trials and dangers, the search for the father, and the hero’s attempt to save the world from imminent collapse into a wasteland condition.
Works in Critical Context
Before the publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), Chabon had won over critics and the reading public with his well-paced plots, charming characters, and inventive prose, but it was with Kavalier and Clay that Chabon was hailed as a major voice in contemporary American fiction. Commentary reviewer John Podhoretz termed Chabon ”an uncommonly good writer, perhaps the best prose stylist of his generation.” Many critics have characterized Chabon’s writing as elegant, vividly descriptive, polished, and sophisticatedly fluid, likening his work to that of writers such as John Updike, John Cheever, or even F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
Chabon had come to the attention of critics with the publication of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. This debut garnered approving reviews for Chabon, and the book remained on the Publisher’s Weekly best-seller list for many weeks. Chabon was particularly praised for the book’s humor and breezy style. A Time magazine review calls it a ”bright, funny, mannered first novel,” a book whose ”pages bounce along amusingly,” while the Pittsburgh Press review calls it a ”very funny and very eloquent book—a book that both earns and wears easily such adjectives as ‘brilliant’.” A Cosmopolitan magazine reviewer writes, ”A very daring, vivid and exciting book.”
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The publication of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Chabon’s third novel, elevated his literary reputation into the most prestigious ranks of contemporary American novelists primarily because it won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Critics were, for the most part, ecstatic in their praise of its thematic range and depth. James Sullivan declares in Book, ”Once again Chabon proves himself a master stylist, capable of capturing an entire epoch in a few microscopic observations,” while Troy Patterson of Entertainment Weekly writes, ”Chabon’s got an eye for the spine-tingling image and a near-perfect ear.” Sarah Cole-man of the San Francisco Chronicle sums up critical opinion when she writes that ”every risk Chabon takes pays off.” Chabon was particularly praised for his ability to capture the detail of 1940s New York. Ken Kalfus of the New York Times writes, ”In Chabon’s telling, pre-war New York, freeing itself from the shackles of the Depression, abounds with raw, confident energy.”
- Coleman, Sarah. ”More Powerful Than a Locomotive, Michael Chabon’s Ambitious New Novel Is Inspired by the True Story of Two Teenagers Who Created Superman.” San Francisco Chronicle (October 1, 2000): RV1.
- Fowler, Douglas. ”The Short Fiction of Michael Chabon: Nostalgia in the Very Young.” Studies in Short Fiction (Winter 1995): 75-83.
- Gorra, Michael. ”Youth and Consequences.” New Republic (June 26, 1995): 40-41.
- Hearon, Shelby. ”Novel Complications: Michael
- Chabon’s ‘Wildly Funny’ Tale of a Problem-Plagued Writer’s Final Fling.” Chicago Tribune Books (April 2, 1995): 5.
- Levi, Jonathan. ”Hope Against Hope.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (October 8, 2000): 2.
- See, Lisa. ”Michael Chabon: Wonder Boy in Transition.” Publishers Weekly (April 10, 1995): 44-45.
- Tallent, Elizabeth. ”The Pleasure of His Company.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (June 9, 1991): 3, 8.
- Ybarra, Michael. ”The Novelist as Wonder Boy.” Los Angeles Times (October 9, 2000): E1, E4.
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