Writer Michael Chabon turns genre into literature
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The way Michael Chabon sees it, he took the cowardly way out early in his career.
It's a startling admission from one of modern American literature's unquestioned giants. And it's a little bit true.
As a grad student in his early 20s, Chabon was held in the intoxicating sway of giants like Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, and perhaps most of all J.G. Ballard. He wanted to write science fiction like they did, literate stories without ray guns or limits on the depth of your imagination.
He soon found no one wanted to read it.
"I at that point was obliged to absorb and kind of subscribe -- without really meaning to or wanting to -- to all those prevailing biases in the literary world," Chabon said. "Like, for example, people in the workshop would say, 'I've read this, but I can't really help you. I don't read science fiction.' Or, 'I don't like science fiction.' That was startling to me. That was the first time I'd ever encountered that kind of mindless bias among what I considered to be intelligent, literate people.
"I could've been rebellious, but it's really not in my nature. So I said, here I am at this fancy writing program for two years and I want to get the most out of it, so I just won't write that stuff anymore."
And he didn't, turning out instead two literary fiction novels that brought him major attention, but not the satisfaction that comes with taking risks.
Nearly a quarter-century later, Chabon has delivered "Telegraph Avenue," named one of 2012's notable books by The New York Times. His first novel in five years, its release was one of the literary events of 2012.
It was a major event as well for Chabon, who sees "Telegraph Avenue" as a defining novel, and it's hard to argue as the author acts as conductor, moving a large group of characters and ideas through a complicated world with countless moving parts in a fearless way, and doing it with style and intensity.
Chabon calls it a "unification" of all the genre-bending work he's done since his third novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Started as a failed television pilot, "Telegraph Avenue" lovingly explores the esoteric worlds of soul jazz vinyl album collecting, blaxploitation films, nonsports card collecting and all the other addictive and encyclopedic pulp cultural flavors that set "Kavalier & Clay" apart. And there is a crime buried in its layers that's as much about culture as it is criminality, like Hugo- and Nebula-winning "The Yiddish Policeman's Union."
As in "Gentlemen of the Road," two men are at the novel's heart -- a black man and a white man in an unusual partnership. There are moments of magical realism as found in "Summerland," but also the conventional narrative of his first two novels, "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "Wonder Boys."
"I felt I could bring it all together, that it would be OK," Chabon said. "I could do whatever I wanted to do in this book and it would be OK even if it verged on crime fiction, even if it verged on magic realism, even if it verged on martial arts fiction, whatever it might be, that I was open to all of that and yet I didn't have to repudiate or steer away from the naturalistic story about two families living their everyday lives and coping with pregnancy and birth and adultery and business failure and all the issues that might go into making a novel written in the genre of mainstream quote-unquote realistic fiction, that that was another genre for me now and I felt free to mix them all in a sense."
As he speaks in a rapid style that's as dazzling as his prose, the 49-year-old author is the perfect picture of this union of genres. He's wearing professorial tortoiseshell glasses, a well-cut black suit that speaks to his success and a Western-style shirt that adds a sly sense of hipness and humor. He's eating a country fried steak during a break from book tour in Nashville in Rotier's, the restaurant that inspired Jimmy Buffett to write "Cheeseburger in Paradise."
It was the kind of pop cultural mosaic -- finery leavened with whimsy -- he thrives on. The kind his father, Robert, taught him early on to appreciate.
"He just knew everything about everything about quote-unquote high art, but he also loved Japanese monster movies and 'Star Trek' and comic books and the Marx Brothers, Ray Milland in 'The Man With The X-Ray Eyes,' and growing up he never seemed to me to try to draw a distinction between those things. If he took an interest in it, it was worthy of interest."
He was soon disabused of the notion that anything he was passionate about is "worthy of art" at the University of California-Irvine, and he admits he wasn't hard to convince.
"Yes, I want to be loved," he said with a laugh. "Also, I could see their point in a sense."
But in retrospect, he sometimes wishes he'd gone the other way -- instead of starting in the mainstream, crossing over to it.
Not to say he didn't enjoy those first two novels. "Pittsburgh" was an homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Phillip Roth and Marcel Proust and a part of literature that he also loved. But emboldened by his success, he returned to his earlier ideas and began working on "Kavalier & Clay," one of a handful that helped open the door for so-called genre fiction to be taken seriously as literature.
Author Chris Offutt thinks we owe Chabon something for that. Offutt, a self-described "comics super freak" who calls Chabon the best writer of his generation, remembers being astounded at the open discussion of comics when he attended a "Kavalier & Clay" reading.
"There we were in a bookstore, surrounded by literary fans, talking comics," he said. "Chabon's work proves that the line between genre writing and literary writing is mostly a marketing ploy. Like Graham Greene, he proves that a writer can entertain readers with high-quality prose."
Chabon believes it's a little easier today for young authors and his contemporaries to experiment and get published by serious literary houses. He points to several examples of fence jumping, like Colson Whitehead's zombie novel "Zone One" and Rick Moody's "The Four Fingers of Death." Junot Diaz is working on a post-apocalyptic novel, and Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer for his own, "The Road."
The shift, though still small, feels permanent.
"The gatekeepers of culture are people who are younger and more comfortable with mashups and crossovers," he said, "and the idea of a literary writer writing a zombie novel doesn't faze them as much as it probably would have fazed them earlier."