the pathetic caverns - books by author - Michael Chabon
eclectic reviews and opinions
Michael Chabon, Kevin McCarthy, Glen David Gold, et al
The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist
I enjoyed the all-comics issue of McSweeney's quite a bit, but it emphasized two strains of comics, historical funny papers and postmodern angstfests, somewhat at the expense of narratives and cape-wearing guys -- the kind most of us grew up on.
So it's tempting to consider The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist as an adjunct to the McSweeney's comics volume. It features some of the more creative mainstream comics talents, like Jim Starlin, Mike Baron, Bill Sienkiewicz, the perpetually controversial Howard Chaykin, and the terribly underrated Gene Colan. In the spirit of McSweeney's, however, their work serves a thoroughly postmodern conceit: that the comic book characters described by Michael Chabon in his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay actually had a 50-odd year publishing history from which to assemble a collection. Unfortunately, it's not good enough to effectively represent the best of narrative comics.
The The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist has two big problems that it can't quite overcome. The first is that the Escapist, Luna Moth, and their foes must pretend to a cultural heritage they don't actually have. Peter Parker doesn't require any clumsy exposition -- everyone already knows that he's Spiderman. But Tom Mayflower's backgound (which conflates the backstories of the Batman and Doc Savage, more or less) must be explained. Moreover, the characters haven't earned any real emotional response from the reader, and the events don't have the sort of mythic resonance that a Superman plot can have. Glen David Gold tries to address this issue, with limited success. His story is the purported suppressed culmination of a 1976 story arc, so he sets the stage with two pages of introductory text discussing what an impact that storyline had on the readership -- but describing an effect is a very different thing from acutally inspiring it.
The second problem is the anthology asks modern creators to assemble memorable stories from over half a century of imagined material. Chabon's describes Joe Kavalier's art like a super-powered amalgam of Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, and Neal Adams -- too much to live up to. Likewise, it's an incredibly tall order to ask someone in 2003 to write what might have been the best story of 1953, or 1963 -- hard because not every story has the magic of a classic, and also because the comics field had changed hugely from decade to decade. The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist tries to deal with this as well, by including stories that are intended to be "representative" of a given publishing period more than they are intended to be "good." (Most of the lesser works fall to consulting editor Kevin McCarthy, who penned 7 of the dozen stories, the lion's share by number if not by page-count.)
These problems don't stop The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist from being a fun little book. It's handsomely designed, and it seems like everyone involved nust have enjoyed working on it. Fans of the included comic artists will probably be interested. There's still enough fanboy in me that the idea of Gene Colan illustrating a Glen David Gold story increases my heartbeat a fraction. But while the book features some top-notch talent, it doesn't feature their best work.
Werewolves in Their Youth
My previous experience with Michael Chabon, his novels The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, both of which I enjoyed, didn't begin to prepare me for this collection of 8 short stories, which is almost exclusively populated by people who loathe each other. I liked it, overall, but Chabon leads with 4 of the strongest stories, and the back half of the book suffers by comparison.
The titular opener, "Werewolves in Their Youth" is an unsettling and hard-hitting portrait of two troubled adolescents, and introduces the book's recurring theme, when its narrator describes his only friend:
I stood there awhile, above my little city, rolling a particle of ant between my fingers, watching Timothy pursue a snarling, lupine course along the hopscotch crosses. I knew that someone ought to do something to calm him down, but I was the only person in our school who could have any reason to save Timothy Stokes from expulsion, and I hated him with all my heart.
In "House Hunting," a sexually dysfunctional young couple gradually realize that there is something very wrong with the way in which their real estate agent is showing them a house. And sex, when it finally occurs, offers no respite from despair:
"That was fun," Christy said, when it was over. She stretched her limbs across the wrecked bed as if to embrace it, and rolled, like a cat, back and forth, until it was smeared with the manifold compound of their lovemaking.
"Still hate me?" said Daniel.
She nodded, and that was when Daniel saw the mistake that they had made.
The third story, "Son of the Wolfman," was perhaps the best, a gripping portrait of a couple struggling to deal with a pregnancy resulting from a rape. It's also one of the two tales that offers at least some hope for redemption. It illustrates the crisp, authoritative third-person omniscience with which Chabon constructs his environments:
Cara, a casting agent, was married to Richard Case, a television cameraman. They were both thirty-four years old. The had met and become lovers at Bucknell University and at the time of the attack had been married since 1985. In their twelve years together, neither had been unfaithful to the other, and in all that time Cara had never gotten pregnant, neither by accident nor when she was trying with all her might. For the past five years this unbroken chain of menses had been a source of sorrow, dissension, tempest, and recrimination in Cara and Richard's marriage.
One of Chabon's stylistic hallmarks is the construction of long, complex sentences and paragraphs, which take odd turns midway through, as in the roundabout way in which the opening of "Mrs. Box" introduces its protagonist:
Fifteen stories tall, painted throughout the course of its existence a somber and unwavering shade of wintergreen, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a hospital tower, the Farnham never aspired to a landmark brand of beauty -- it was just imposing enough to pass for stately, just Moderne enough to qualify as hip -- but it had been home to a number of decrepit, rich widows and fashionable restauranteurs and interior designers, its lines and fenestration had a certain Bauhaus gravity, and its unusual color and prominent site lent it, in the esteem of Portlanders, some of the authority of a brilliant cathedral or a domed capitol. It was visible from all over town and from as far away as Vancouver, Washington, where one summer afternoon it was spotted by Eddie Zwang, a bankrupt optometrist in a Volvo station wagon who was at that moment crossing from Washington to Oregon on the I-5, headed for someplace like Mexico or Queen Maud Land, the hatch of his car filled with twenty thousand dollars' worth of stolen optical equipment.
The remainder of "Mrs. Box" doesn't really live up to its opener -- Eddie Zwang's crisis of conscience in his ex-grandmother-in-law's apartment is all-too unsurprising -- but even when the stories are slight, and the forlorn, beaten-down protagonists begin to overlap, Chabon's authorial voice more than held my interest. It's a somewhat odd voice. Chabon lets us perceive more about his characters than the characters perceive about themselves, and terse descriptions of events are often mingled with complex, surreal metaphors, as in "That Was Me:"
The local drunks -- there must have been about sixty-five or seventy of them, many related by blood or sexual history -- were a close-knit population, involved in an ongoing collective enterprise: the building, over several generations, of a basilica of failure, on whose crowded friezes they figured in vivid depictions of bankruptcy, drug rehabilitation, softball, and arrest.
The final story, "In the Black Mill" is something of a departure, but not a completely successful one; it's purportedly written by one of the characters from Wonder Boys, and it is a letter-perfect pastiche of H.P. Lovecraft, creator of the Cthulhu mythos, a pulpy (not to mention purply-prosed. -ed.) dark fantasist of consummate xenophobia.
It offers an in-joke or two -- Lovecraft's work, set mostly in imaginary New England towns, frequently mentioned a "Miskatonic University"; Chabon's sinister Pennsylvanian tribe is the "Miskahannock." Chabon also transplants the former San Jose home of Sarah Winchester (as in repeating rifle heiress) to Pennsylvania, in the fourth fictional reference i've seen to the house in as many years:
It was a large, rambling structure, filled with hidden passages, queerly shaped rooms, and staircases leading nowhere, built by the notorious lady magnate, "the Robber Baroness," Philippa Howard Murrough, founder of the college, noted spiritualist and author and dark genius of the Punkettsburg Mill. She had spent the last four decades of her life, and a considerable part of her manufacturing fortune, adding to, demolishing, and rebuilding her home.
Lovecraft's own work, despite his often clunky prose, has a certain monomaniacal charm -- it's so single-mindedly paranoiac that you almost have to be impressed, and his gruesome deities are compelling enough to have worked themselves pretty well into the popular consciousness (at least among dark fantasy and horror connoisseurs).
When you read a Lovecraft story, it doesn't really matter that you know, from the first page, if not the first paragraph, how it will end. On the other hand, the ending of "In the Black Mill" is also, shall we say, more than adequately telegraphed, and I found the combination of the utter lack of dramatic tension and the sly winks to genre convention gave it the feel of a purely technical exercise, and made for a very unsatisfying read.
That's not a criticism I would level at the book as a whole, mind you. The best of these stories are very good, and the worst of them are interesting. i think the collection would be stronger if it showed a little more thematic range, but then, its narrowness gives it a certain cohesiveness.
(Curious about the other three, are you? Michaela Roessner's Vanishing Point (which I liked a lot, although I never reviewed it -- well-written and quite imaginative), Tim Powers' Earthquake Weather, and one or another of Nancy Collins' Sonja Blue vampire novels (the house appears as the "Ghost Trap"). There's a web-presence for the house itself. For what it's worth, one of my very favorite tourist traps.)
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