The Great American

This is an apparently incongruous essay about major literary novellist. But since it’s Michael Chabon, I figured I’d indulge myself: he’s a Pulitzer-winning heavyweight whose works include a loving eulogy for the Golden Age of comic books, a considerable number of knowing baseball references, and the adaption of some Edgar Rice Burroughs stories into a Disney movie.

In other words, Chabon likes genre fiction; more to the point, he uses it as a powerful thematic reference point for the American identity. I really like his novels, and I really like that aspect of them (and I’m also a huge fan of the movie adaptation of his second book, Wonder Boys, which is probably my all-time favourite American film, and which was what led me to discover him as a writer).

That said, though, there are certain sections of his books that I find slower, less interesting, and I wonder if this also has something to do with that whole genre-and-identity thing.

(Alert readers will notice that this is the idea I stopped myself from digressing into a few posts back; really alert readers might notice that that idea is actually a retrospective edit into that previous post, designed in large part to set this one up).

The parts of the Chabon canon that have nothing to do with America are the parts I find most accessible: Gentlemen of the Road, for example, a homage to high fantasy which is set in faintly improbable countries that no longer exist, a thousand years ago. But then again, I also really enjoyed the first half of Kavalier & Clay, which is all Americana: superhero comics and electric urbanism imbuing young, apparently powerless immigrants with new hope and strength.

On the other hand, the whole second half of Kavalier & Clay didn’t do so much for me. Here, Chabon is doing the “geek” thing, with a plot crafted from extensive metatextual referentiality to the “Silver Age” of comic books, and at the same time, he makes a “serious” narrative shift of pace; it’s all about lost optimism, disillusionment and a renewed hope in a suburban family setting. It’s also, I think, a distinctively American story, both in its use of a ruthlessly authorial, almost pulpy, plot-twist, and in its expectation that the reader will either experience the emotional impact so coldly set up, or else enjoy the genre referentiality.

Oddly, there’s one tiny continuity error in the novel, which suggests this wasn’t the original plan (or else is designed to emphasise the mid-novel narrative break by doing just that)….

I also find myself tripping over the extended intermission before the third act of Wonder Boys the book, where two of the protagonists disappear off to hide in what’s effectively another story: someone else’s rather meaningless family reunion, where they all sit around the table and fail to connect. The screenplay simply ditched the entire digression, and it could simply be that its presence in the book’s narrative jars me because I saw the film first, and because I rate the film so highly; but even if I’m biased in that way, the detour around the detour seems like a smart bit of editorial intervention: the long digression is quietly involving (mood-wise, it’s what David Lynch’s The Straight Story would be if it was a novel by Thomas Pynchon) but it’s superfluous to the novel, both in terms of plot and pacing.

What it is, moreover, is a piece of standard-issue Americana, the family narrative as mini-metaphor for social change and generational tensions. It’s as much a piece of genre fiction as the worst of clichéd heroic fantasy, yet it conceals its true nature because of the conventions of the narrative, the same ones that function in suburbia. It also contrasts very strongly with the setting in which the rest of the novel takes place. It is, very deliberately, a switch of genres.

With that in mind, I’m curious if this out-of-place half-act is a surviving section from Fountain City, the unfinishable and selfconsciously Great American novel that Chabon had been trying to complete, before he gave up and turned the writing and abandonment into one of the inspirations for a different book. Quite probably that’s a wildly wrong guess, but it’s the sort of question that occurs to me, and it would certainly be appropriate if it was.

In a critical sense, this is a key point of Chabon’s writing, where he directly highlights the innate connection between  the identity-building themes of genre fiction and the American identity itself. But at the same time, there’s an emptiness there for me that I don’t think is deliberate. It’s Passover told as Thanksgiving, but I don’t think that’s even intended as the double-ended skewering that it actually is. The clever, “geeky”, genre games aren’t enough to transform it into fun for me, just as they aren’t enough when Joe Kavalier retreats to his fortress of solitude in the polar wastes, and Sammy Clay hides his secret identity behind the life of an ordinary American.

It’s a measure of Chabon’s skill as an author, though, that these sections simply read as less good than the rest.

So, ultimately, where am I going with this? Genre-fiction fandom as a metaphor for America, embodying on multiple levels the search for a new, free identity and the generational renewals of that search, from the Mayflower via Occupy (another reason, perhaps, that it has no resonance for me, since I’m not American)? I think so, yes. And, if so, then the wider tensions and concerns and narratives of genre fiction might turn out to be intimately symmetrical with those of America itself.

America, in other words, is a work of genre fiction.

More on that theme in general some other time, perhaps?

(Funny, that. I knew where this essay was going to end up well before I wrote it, or even had the idea for it.)

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