The Short Fiction of Michael Chabon: Nostalgia in the Very Young

By Fowler, Douglas | Studies in Short Fiction, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

The Short Fiction of Michael Chabon: Nostalgia in the Very Young


Fowler, Douglas, Studies in Short Fiction


The heavy burden of the growing soul Perplexes and offends more, day by day; Week by week, offends and perplexes more With the imperatives of 'is and seems' And may and may not, desire and control. The pain of living and the drug of dreams Curl up the small soul in the window seat Behind the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

T. S. Eliot, "Animula"

At its best, Michael Chabon's fiction depicts the nostalgia his characters feel for their former lives, which they have seen severed from them through an aboriginal emotional catastrophe. This sense of an intense nostalgia permeating his fictional world is all the more striking since Chabon's subjects are almost always young and bright and socially advantaged Jewish males, and his prose style is urbane, vivacious, and decorated with end-of-the-century American proper nouns and brand names - for it is in no sense misleading to point out that all 12 stories constituting Chabon's 1991 story collection A Model World were first published in The New Yorker, Gentleman's Quarterly, and Mademoiselle. But in poignant contrast to the glossy surface of his presentation, Chabon's protagonist always seems to be obsessively engaged in investigating a poisoned wound located just at the juncture where his individual life once drew sustenance from a family life-support system. In Chabon's fictional kingdom, the psychodrama Freud called the "Family Romance" is almost always crucial to the narrative. And in all of Chabon's work to this point in his career, memory itself furnishes the heaviness of what Eliot calls "the growing soul." Perhaps not since the high point of J. D. Salinger's career, now 40 years behind us, has a writer of Chabon's fluent gracefulness represented so much nostalgia making melancholy the affluent young. And everywhere in Chabon's fiction there is a valedictory sense of seeing from the outside those emotions that seem to be experienced from the inside only once. In fact, the title of the last story and the entire last sequence of stories in A Model World could well serve as the title for any and all of Chabon's tales: "The Lost World."

In a literary culture poised to reward art in the service of what are currently held to be the important issues of social amelioration and sexual politics, Chabon's constructs are small, tactful, witty, and faintly damned by a certain sense of what has to be conceded as glossy-magazine glamour in his style and milieu - but as they used to say by way of praise in vintage Hollywood: of course it's tinsel, but real tinsel.

Chabon's 1988 novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, surely has its tinsel, too, but in the course of it Chabon managed to write a good novel about American college undergraduates, a literary feat of no small magnitude. In that book Chabon creates a sort of bisexual Bildungsroman in his tale of Art Bechstein's lame-duck summer trying to finish off an Incomplete in order to wrest his BA from the University of Pittsburgh economics department ("my sad and cynical major") even while he struggles to come to terms with his father's gangland guilt for his mother's death and discover why he cannot stop sleeping with his girlfriend and his boyfriend simultaneously. Good box-office.

But in Mysteries an awkward subplot fraught with melodrama deforms Chabon's characteristic effect of delicacy and tact. Cleveland Arning, a decadent young aristocrat who has taken up extortion and burglary to avenge himself on his parents and the expectations of his upscale social class, is destroyed by police bullets in a shoot-out right out of King Kong - and this contrived episode precipitates Art Bechstein's final break with his father and girlfriend. However, in A Model World there is no melodrama, and the classic excesses of the American First Novel have been avoided altogether.

Chabon is at his best a writer of interiors, of subtle modulations of emotional comprehension and temperature. Memory, not melodrama, is his proper concern, and his stories work best when the grave and irrefutable evidence of life's designs against us are sheathed in the light comic irony of sophisticated prose. …

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