Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek


"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."

The above line comes from the afterward of Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, a book that I've only just begun to read, and which I don't have much of an opinion on yet, except that it seems like too strong a lift from Fritz Leiber and his Mouser and Frafhrd stories, and that might be a bit of a turn off for me. You should probably ignore the fact that I read the afterward first, as I was skimming of an acknowledgement of it, but haven't found one yet.

At any rate, there's something about the comment that, I must admit, kind've makes me laugh at Chabon, who is a writer that I quite like, for the most part. He can be patchy: the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is pretty cool, though it sags in the middle, and Wonder Boys is quite well paced; but Summerland is big and bloated, and the Yiddish Policeman's Union, while quite lovely in its writing, feels like it's nothing more than a TV serial, and never moves beyond the opening episode, in which the characters and place are introduced. But what makes me laugh is the idea that the author of any of these books would sit there and talk about his literary training, as if it were something to be admired, as if he was somehow prepared in a secret castle in the mountains, where strange and esoteric skills were given to him. Now, I'm not quite sure if he means much beyond the Master of Fine Arts that he has, or the BA he got before that, but unless he sat at the feet of the resurrected corpse of James Joyce and spent five years having Finnegans Wake explained to him, there's not much in 'training' there, not least in my opinion.

Perhaps, however, what makes me laugh is that there might be a distinction between what Chabon has written before and after Gentlemen of the Road, and that his training, generation and pretensions have made that. He claims, in the same afterward, that most of his fiction had 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 between fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire [and] divorce." The repetition of divorce is a joke, but none of these experiences are unique to the sedate, mainstream fiction he is alluding too; indeed, the truth of it is, the genre fiction that he writes now is filled with the same array of misfortunes, as all fiction is. That sequence of events is essentially the plot of the Yiddish Policeman's Union, after all.

It's funny to me, I suppose, because in my opinion, what Chabon has done has simply shift from one popular form to another, and it is one that has not, honestly, required him to change a lot. The writing is still beautiful, but it is without experimentation--it does not break the boundaries of what is acceptable with the page, the form, or the narrative, and it does not seek to challenge the reader or writer in any way of form. The lack of challenge for Chabon is, indeed, easy to spot: his obsessions with Jewish heritage is still prevalent, as is his interest in sexuality, and no genre shift has forced him to put them aside. Not, mind you, that I think he should--I'm just illustrating how these works are, despite the clothes of the narrative, still part of the same work that he has been producing for years now.

Still, literary training. That's funny, that is.


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