Pop quiz: Name the writer who has garnered these seemingly incompatible, but praising reviews. From The Weekly Standard’s John Podhoretz: “The best writer of English prose in this country, and the most interesting novelist of his generation.” From Oprah: “Exuberant…Grand fun.” Answer: The mash-up that is Michael Chabon.
From his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, published in 1988 when he was just 25, to The Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), two collections of short stories, two essay collections, a young adult novel (Summerland), a novella (The Final Solution) and his most recent novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon has simultaneously entertained us, literarily amazed us, and blown our academic minds. We’re talking Neil Diamond, Harry Houdini, and Alfred Hitchcock shaken, mixed, and served up. Or, as John Leonard said of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union for The New York Review, it’s “as if Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick had smoked a joint with I. B. Singer.”
As a lover of comics and an avid reader of fantasy fiction, a school assignment at the age of ten—to write a short story involving Sherlock Holmes—convinced Chabon that he wanted to be a writer. And it’s as if that ten-year old boy is always in his mind, or in his fingertips. Chabon incorporates the best parts of genre fiction with the dexterous wordplay, cultural impact, and emotional force of what the academy considers “high” art. Influenced by pulp/genre writers Raymond Chandler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, and what he calls “borderland” writers—writers “who can dwell between worlds”—John Crowley, Jorge Luis Borges, Stephen Millhauser, Thomas Pynchon, to name a few—he sets up classic genre constructions and layers on stories of exile and belonging, identity, nationality, freedom, and destiny, then mixes them up with sports mythologies, folklore, and the workings of the human heart. Longing and regret are constant themes, but with a nod to Yiddish humor he keeps the bleak and funny in balance.
“There’s always been this hunger for fantasy,” he says. “The world has always been awful, the world’s always sucked, mostly because of the things people do to one another. All you have to do is read the Bible. Just read Job.” Striving for that perfect blend of mystery, entertainment, and the revelations of fiction that open our eyes to something familiar turned new, something inside that we can turn out, something bewildering made small and clear, Chabon says: “A mind is blown when something you always feared but knew to be impossible turns out to be true; when the world turns out far vaster, far more marvelous or malevolent than you ever dreamed; when you get proof that everything is connected to everything else, that everything you know is wrong, that you are both the center of the universe and a tiny speck sailing off its nethermost edge.”
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1963, Chabon studied at Carnegie Mellon and received an M.F.A. at UC Irvine. He lives with his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their four children in Berkeley, California.
Excerpt from “Ragnarok Boy,” Maps and Legends (2008)
I was in the third grade when I first read D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and already suffering the changes, the horns, wings, and tusks that grow on your imagination when you thrive on a steady diet of myths and fairy tales. I had read the predecessor, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and I knew my Old Testament pretty well, from the Creation more or less down to Ruth. There were rape and murder in those other books, revenge, cannibalism, folly, madness, incest, and deceit. And I thought all that was great stuff. Joseph’s brothers, enslaving him to some Ishmaelites and then soaking his florid coat in animal blood to horrify their father. Orpheus’s head, torn off by a raving pack of women, continuing to sing as it floats down the Hebrus River to the sea: that was great stuff, too. Every splendor in those tales had its shadow; every blessing its curse. In those shadows and curses I first encountered the primal darkness of the world, in some of our earliest attempts to explain and understand it.
I was drawn to that darkness. I was repelled by it, too, but as the stories were presented I knew that I was supposed to be only repelled by the darkness and also, somehow, to blame myself for it. Doom and decay, crime and folly, sin and punishment, the imperative to work and sweat and struggle and suffer the Furies, these had entered the world with humankind: we brought them on ourselves. In the Bible it had all started out with a happy couple in the Garden of Eden; in the Greek myths, after a brief eon of divine patricide and child-devouring and a couple of wars in Heaven, there came a long and peaceful Golden Age. In both cases, we were meant to understand, the world had begun with light and been spoiled. Thousands of years of moralizers, preceptors, dramatists, hypocrites, and scolds had been at work on this material, with their dogma and their hang-ups and their refined sense of tragedy.
Gentlemen of the Road (2007)
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)
The Final Solution (2004)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)
Werewolves in Their Youth (stories) (1999)
Wonder Boys (1995)
A Model World and Other Stories (stories) (1991)The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988)
Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son (2009)
Maps and Legends (2008)
Interview with Ramona Koval, The Book Show, ABC Radio, December 5, 2007
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum interview
Michael Chabon for The New York Review of Books at the 2008 Democratic National Convention
“The Fourteen Skies of Michael Chabon”
The Amazing Website of Kavalier & Clay
Michael Chabon’s home page, defunct as of January 2007, but preserved via The Wayback Machine
Michael Chabon’s home page at Harper Collins