Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Jews with swords

At the Telegraph, Michael Chabon on his new swashbuckling epic and his movement away from naturalism:
I know it still seems incongruous, first of all, for me or a writer of my literary training, generation and pretensions to be writing stories featuring anybody with swords. As recently as 10 years ago, I had published two novels, and perhaps as many as 20 short stories, and not one of them featured weaponry more antique than a (lone) Glock 9mm. None was set any earlier than about 1972 or in any locale more far-flung or exotic than a radio studio in Paris, France.

Most of those stories appeared in sedate, respectable and generally sword-free places like The New Yorker and Harper's, and featured unarmed Americans undergoing the eternal fates of contemporary short story characters — disappointment, misfortune, loss, hard enlightenment, moments of bleak grace. Divorce; death; illness; violence, random and domestic; divorce; bad faith; deception and self-deception; love and hate among fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire; divorce — I guess that about covers it. Story, more or less, of my life.

As for the two novels, they didn't stray in time or space any farther than the stories — or for that matter, any deeper into the realm of Jewishness: both set in Pittsburgh, liberally furnished with Pontiacs and Fords, scented with marijuana, Shalimar and kielbasa, featuring Smokey Robinson hits and Star Trek references, and starring gentiles or assimilated Jews, many of whom were self-consciously inspired, instructed and laid low by the teachings of rock and roll and Hollywood but not, for example, by the lost writings of the tzaddik of Regensburg whose commentaries are so important to one of the heroes of Gentlemen of the Road.
Goodness, I love that fellow's writing, I must get Gentlemen of the Road immediately--in fact, there, I've shopping-carted it...


  1. See, now, I love his writing too, especially this kind of incidental stuff (lots of weird meditations on his website--at least there were when I looked at it a few years ago), but when that book was serialized in the NY Times this year, I found it unbearable. Then again, it may be in--what's the part of the interlocking sets that don't interlock? there must be a name for it. Anyway, in the interlocking set of you and me (is interlocking even what I mean?), it may very well be in the you section that is not the you-and-me section. In fact, I'm quite sure it will be.

  2. OK, I'm thinking about this some more, and now I'm thinking that the passage you cite, much as I love it, is kind of horrendously condescending, in a nasty McSweeneyish kind of way--as opposed to the funny McSweeneyish kind of way, though then again, I think the difference between nasty and funny McSweeneyish may have to do with where you stand vis-a-vis the commentary, and he's dissing a corner of fiction I'm fairly partial to, when it's done well, though badly done, I'll agree that it's horrendous and useless, and perhaps more useless than bad genre fiction, due to its pretensions, but what's so great about the lost writings of some rebbe, or rather, why is that necessarily better?

  3. To be honest, I have yet to read anything by Chabon that I find quite as brilliant as everyone says, and the passage you've quoted illustrates exactly the sort of thing I distrust in his writing: facile flash (though admittedly not easy to write). But I can see his appeal, since overheated quirkiness seems to have become the default for many readers lately.