Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Michael Chabon

The lantern battery and the golem

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Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.

—Paul Valéry

Yesterday morning, my wife asked me: “Have you seen the illustration for Michael Chabon’s new essay?” She thrust the latest issue of The New Yorker in my direction, and when I looked down, I saw a drawing by Greg Clarke of a little boy reading what was unmistakably a copy of Astounding Science Fiction. The kid is evidently meant to be Chabon himself, and his article, “The Recipe for Life,” is about nothing less than how his inner life was shaped by his father’s memories of an earlier era. Chabon writes:

He talked about comic books, radio dramas, Astounding magazine, and the stories they’d all told: of rocket-powered heroes, bug-eyed monsters, mad scientists bent on ruling the world. He described to me how he had saved box tops from cold cereals like Post Toasties, and redeemed them by mail for Junior G-Man badges or cardboard Flying Fortresses that carried payloads of black marbles. He told me about playing games like potsy, stickball, handball, and ringolevio, and, for the first time but by no means the last, about an enchanted pastry called a charlotte russe, a rosette of whipped cream on a disk of sponge cake served in a scalloped paper cup, topped with a Maraschino cherry. He described having spent weeks in the cellar of his Flatbush apartment building as a young teen-ager, with some mail-order chemicals, five pounds of kosher salt, and a lantern battery, trying to re-create “the original recipe for life on earth,” as detailed in the pages of Astounding.

The younger Chabon listened to his father intently, and all the while, he was “riding the solitary rails of my imagination into our mutual story, into the future we envisioned and the history we actually accumulated; into the vanished world that he once inhabited.”

Chabon’s father seems to have been born around 1938, or right around the time that John W. Campbell took over Astounding, positioning him to barely catch the tail end of the golden age. He would have been about twelve when the article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” appeared in the May 1950 issue, which means that he snuck in right under the wire. (As the fan Peter Graham once said: “The golden age of science fiction is twelve.”) In fact, when you account for a gap in age of about eighteen years, the fragments of his childhood that we glimpse here are intriguingly reminiscent of Isaac Asimov. Both were bright Jewish boys growing up in Brooklyn—otherwise known as the center of the universe—and they shared the same vocabulary of nostalgia. Robert Chabon reminisced about stickball and the charlotte russe; Asimov lamented the disappearance of the egg cream and wrote in his memoirs:

We used to play “punchball,” for instance. This was a variant of baseball, played without a lot and without a bat. All you needed was a street (we called it a “gutter”) and a rubber ball. You hit the ball with your clenched fist and from then on it was pretty much like baseball.

I don’t know if kids these days still play punchball, but it survived for long enough to be fondly remembered by Stephen Jay Gould, who was born in 1941 in Queens. For Gould, punchball was nothing less than “the canonical ‘recess’ game…It was the game we would play unless kids specifically called for another form.”

Like many polymaths who thrived at the intersection between science and the arts, Gould and Asimov were raised in secular Jewish households, and Chabon’s essay unfolds against a similar, largely unstated cultural background. He notes that his father knew “the birth names of all five Marx Brothers,” as well as the rather startling fact that Underdog’s archenemy was named Simon Bar Sinister. Recalling his father’s “expression of calm intensity,” Chabon links it to another Jewish icon: “A few years later, I will watch Leonard Nimoy, as Mr. Spock, look up from his scanner on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, and catch an echo of my father’s face.” As he silently watches Fritz Lang’s science fiction epic Metropolis in his ailing father’s bedroom, he imagines the conversation that might have unfolded between them under happier circumstances: “Lang’s mother was Jewish. His wife was a member of the Nazi Party.” “Hey, that would make a great sitcom.” Chabon doesn’t emphasize these connections, perhaps because he’s explored them endlessly elsewhere. In his earlier essay “Imaginary Homelands,” he writes:

For a long time now I’ve been busy, in my life and in my work, with a pair of ongoing, overarching investigations: into my heritage—rights and privileges, duties and burdens—as a Jew and as a teller of Jewish stories; and into my heritage as a lover of genre fiction…Years spent writing novels and stories about golems and the Jewish roots of American superhero comic books, Sherlock Holmes and the Holocaust, medieval Jewish freebooters, Passover Seders attended by protégés of forgotten Lovecraftian horror writers, years of writing essays, memoirs, and nervous manifestos about genre fiction of Jewishness.

This is one of the richest veins imaginable for cultural exploration, and Chabon has conducted it so expertly for so long that he can trust us to make many of the associations for ourselves. Revealingly, this is actually the second essay that he has written under the title “The Recipe for Life.” The first, published almost two decades ago, was a meditation on the myth of the golem, a prototypical science fiction story with anticipatory shades of Frankenstein. In his earlier piece, Chabon quotes the philosopher Gershom Scholem: “Golem-making is dangerous; like all major creation it endangers the life of the creator—the source of danger, however, is not the golem…but the man himself.” Chabon continues:

When I read these words, I saw at once a connection to my own work. Anything good that I have written has, at some point during its composition, left me feeling uneasy and afraid. It has seemed, for a moment at least, to put me at risk…I have come to see this fear, this sense of my own imperilment by my creations, as not only an inevitable, necessary part of writing fiction but as virtual guarantor, insofar as such a thing is possible, of the power of my work: as a sign that I am on the right track, that I am following the recipe correctly, speaking the proper spells.

The recipe, Chabon implies, can come from either “The Idea of the Golem” or Astounding, and we owe much of his remarkable career to that insight, which he implicitly credits, in turn, to his father: “The past and the future became alloyed in my imagination: magic and science, heroes and villains, brick-and-steel Brooklyn and the chromium world of tomorrow.”

The art of acknowledgments

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Now that the copy edit for The Icon Thief is finally done, I can turn my attention to a somewhat easier, theoretically more entertaining project—the acknowledgments section, which I’m scheduled to deliver by the end of next week. Like most writers, I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long time: as a chance to thank loved ones, mentors, associates, and frenemies, it’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to an Oscar speech. Yet it’s impossible to approach this sort of task without feeling somewhat self-conscious about it, to the point where I almost want to skip the whole thing. (This is part of the reason why my novel won’t bear a dedication, even though there are many people in my life who emphatically deserve it.)

The big question, of course, is why novelists bother with acknowledgments in the first place. As John Mullan points out in The Guardian, the acknowledgments section of a novel is a fairly recent innovation: we don’t see them at all in the nineteenth century, which was more prone to elaborate dedications, and they don’t seem to have become common in mainstream fiction until the last fifty years or so. Personally, I have a feeling that the increasing frequency—and length—of author acknowledgments is a result of the rise of MFA culture, in which such thank-yous become a way of repaying obligations, currying favor, and, I suspect, settling scores. (Many people I know, including me, turn to a novel’s acknowledgments section first, as if checking a gossip column for boldfaced names.) But that’s neither here nor there.

My own preference for acknowledgments, as in nearly everything else, runs toward concision. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I always cringe a little when I see an acknowledgments section that runs for longer than a page. This applies only to fiction, mind you: it’s perfectly legitimate for a nonfiction writer to thank all of his or her sources, and such lists often contain invaluable information. And I’m fine with novelists who take the time to include bibliographies (although not everyone is). All too often, though, an author’s acknowledgments, especially in first novels, seem to stretch out forever, like a senior will. Part of me even thinks, unkindly, that there might be an inverse relationship between the length of an acknowledgments section and the quality of a debut novel, although I have only anecdotal evidence for this. I’m not going to name any names, but you know who you are.

But I’m probably not being fair. Like everything else in a novel, an acknowledgments section is an expression of the writer’s personality, and there’s occasionally a place for lengthy lists of thank-yous. Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, while a flawed novel in other respects, concludes with an exuberant list of the author’s influences, from Tom Swift to Steve McQueen. And although Michael Chabon’s generous acknowledgments for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay run more than two full pages, I wouldn’t change a word. Chabon, not incidentally, is also an eloquent defender of acknowledgments in general. In a letter to the New York Times, he writes:

If there is some kind of old-fashioned virtue in concealing one’s debt to and gratitude for the hard work of others, it’s difficult for me to see where it lies. The comparison to an Oscar speech is easy but bogus; it’s much more like an invocation, a quick prayer of thanks offered up to your ancestors before you paddle your canoe over the falls.

Which is a nice image, even if many acknowledgments seem less like a prayer than an entire church service, including petitions to all the saints. (If you’re curious about what my own acknowledgments will be, well, you’ll just have to buy the book. Although many of my real obligations are already listed here.)

Written by nevalalee

May 10, 2011 at 8:25 am

The Phantom Tollbooth and the Terrible Trivium

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Michael Chabon’s wonderful appreciation of The Phantom Tollbooth in the New York Review of Books puts me gratefully in mind of one of my own favorite novels, a book that I read and loved as a child but didn’t fully appreciate until picking it up again a few years ago. As a kid, you respond most immediately to the surface pleasures of Norton Juster’s great book: the puns, the absurd characters and situations, the seemingly effortless skill in storytelling, and, not least of all, Jules Feiffer’s remarkable illustrations. It’s only much later that you realize that this book of amiable nonsense is actually an instruction manual on how to be alive, and in particular on how to be a real grownup.

Most works of art are gloriously useless, but The Phantom Tollbooth is one of those rare novels, like In Search of Lost Time, that is both a masterpiece and full of incredibly useful advice. Juster doesn’t simply put Milo in the Doldrums, for instance, but gets him out as well. How? By thinking. He demonstrates how easy it is to jump to Conclusions, and that you can only get back with a long swim in the Sea of Knowledge, from which you emerge perfectly dry. He tells you how to deal with the Senses Takers of the world, whose forms and questions can drain you of your sense of purpose, duty, and proportion—but not if you keep your sense of humor. Through my namesake, Alec Bings, he reminds you to always look at the world from different points of view. And it’s a miniature symposium, of course, on the joys of words, numbers, colors, and music.

But the greatest episode in the novel, and one that you can only truly understand after you’ve tried to be a grownup for a while, is the story of the Terrible Trivium. Reading this scene again a few years back, after I’d quit my old job and was trying to make a life for myself as a writer, was a jawdropping experience. In the Mountains of Ignorance, Milo and his friends encounter an elegantly dressed gentleman without a face, who charmingly asks them to complete a few simple tasks—moving an enormous pile of sand with a pair of tweezers, emptying a well with an eyedropper, digging a hole through a cliff with a needle. They get contentedly to work, and it’s only after hours have passed, and Milo calculates that they won’t be done for another eight hundred years, that the awful truth about the stranger emerges:

“Quite correct!” he shrieked triumphantly. “I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”

And then he explains, whispering softly:

“Now do come and stay with me. We’ll have so much fun together. There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why, if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again—and with a little practice you can become a monster of habit, too.”

Needless to say, Milo and his friends escape—but it took me years to make my escape as well, and as we all know, the Terrible Trivium is always lurking nearby, ready to snatch us up. It’s for that reason that I try to reread The Phantom Tollbooth every couple of years, if only as a reminder that the world is full of books and ideas and art and music, that I have all the tools I need to be a real human being, and that as much as I’d like to live in Juster’s world—which is the greatest children’s book of the twentieth century—there’s just so much to do right here.

As a bonus, here’s the map I drew for my wedding day, inspired by Jules Feiffer’s beautiful endpapers:

Tree of Codes and the power of constraints

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The more I think about Tree of Codes, the more I’m reminded of another Woody Allen observation, which also appears in Eric Lax’s book:

There’s no question that comedy is harder to do than serious stuff. There’s also no question in my mind that comedy is less valuable than serious stuff.

Similarly, it’s clear that Tree of Codes was much harder to write, at least in some ways, than most conventional novels, but in the end, it’s also probably less valuable. I’d much rather see Foer really tackle a genre piece, for example, after the fashion of Michael Chabon, although I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

Still, there’s something to be said for an artist willing to work under such serious constraints. Writers, in particular, stand to benefit from deliberate restrictions, much more than, say, filmmakers, who are already forced to deal with severe constraints—of time, budget, location—that don’t apply to fiction. (The history of film, unless you’re James Cameron, is a history of solving problems using limited resources.) A writer is limited only by talent, and perhaps by time, which means that most restrictions need to be imposed from the outside. Which is often a good idea.

So what form should these restrictions take? You could try writing under a set of challenging formal rules, as poets do, or within a massive symbolic architecture, like Dante and Joyce. But for ordinary mortals, the most productive constraint is a very different one, and it’s such an important point that I’m putting it in boldface:

For most writers, the best and most useful constraint is genre.

Genre is often seen as a crutch, allowing a writer to let established formulas take the place of invention—but ideally, the opposite is true. By pushing back against a genre’s conventions, and finding ways of telling fresh stories within those constraints, a writer is forced to be much more inventive than if he or she had complete narrative freedom. As P.D. James puts it in The Paris Review:

…I thought writing a detective story would be a wonderful apprenticeship for a “serious” novelist, because a detective story is very easy to write badly but difficult to write well. There is so much you have to fit into eighty or ninety-thousand words—not just creating a puzzle, but an atmosphere, a setting, characters…Then when the first one worked, I continued, and I came to believe that it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live.

It’s even possible, she might have added, to discover things about men and women that wouldn’t have occurred to the author at all without the genre’s constraints. This is also one of the virtues of an intricate plot, which can test a writer’s ingenuity as much as any elaborate symbolic structure, and has the additional benefit of not being unreadable. Which, really, isn’t a bad place to start.

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2010 at 7:26 pm

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