Wednesday, 20 January 2016

A Model World and Other Stories by Michael Chabon Review

I first discovered Michael Chabon a few years ago when I read a copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It’s one of those books I picked up pretty much on a whim. I saw someone read it on the bus. It was a trade paperback version with the shiny Pulitzer Prize for Fiction sticker on it. I must have seen the novel displayed at a bookstore because I ended up with buying and reading it. I love it so much I read it twice in the same month. Then I loaned it to a friend and never got it back. Luckily I found an identical edition at my local used bookstore and I own it once again. It’s one of my all-time favourite books. There are many things to love about it and there a parts of it that stick in my mind, even to this day, years after I originally read it.

During that same trip where I bought a new (but old) copy of The Amazing Kavalier & Clay I also bought a few other books by Chabon. I’ve wanted to read more of his work but for years I kept forgetting about it when stepping into a book store. Being in the middle of at least half a dozen other books right now, I was fighting the urge to dive into one of my new Chabon acquisitions. I wanted to finish a few of my other books first. Needless to say I settled down with A Model World and Other Stories last Sunday and I’ve been having moving and enthralling lunch hours these last few days.

A Model World and Other Stories is a collection of short fiction by Chabon. Published in 1991, it collects some of his earlier work as you can tell by his writing style. Having only read one of his books before, this collection was noticeably a book by a younger and less polished author. The book is divided into two halves. Part I: A Model World collects six stories about young adults and their failures to find any real purpose to their lives (except maybe for “Smoke” which is about a relationship of another kind). They’re all continuously worn down by failed romantic relationships yet they continue to pursue love, hoping against all odds that it will finally give their lives meaning. All the stories her are good but my favourites are “S ANGEL”, “A Model World”, and “Smoke”.

On Sunday I reviewed “S ANGEL” on Twitter. It’s a story of a young Jewish man who is attending his cousin’s wedding. Ira is unlucky at love but he meets an older woman who immediately captures his attention. After some failed flirtations he realizes that she’s not the woman for him. He knows who he’s really in love with. The problem is that it’s his cousin Sheila, the bride. Chabon writes characters that immediately feel real. His penchant for enchanting descriptions serves him well when introducing multiple characters. All of them are nicely lost and confused about who they are, especially in relation to others. I like how well a wedding works for a story about family, love, and plans gone wrong. “S ANGEL” is immediate and poignant. It satisfies. This description, or a slightly altered one, could be applied to nearly all of the stories in this book.

Part II: The Lost Word collects five stories that are all connected. They’re snippets in the life of Nathan Shapiro. The first story begins with his parents’ impending divorce and the rest of them focus on Nathan, the elder of the two Shapiro sons, and how his life has been affected by this prominent display of an unsuccessful marriage. With these stories, Chabon succeeds at telling individual tales that also manage to support each other very well. Some of these stories ranked among my favourites. The concluding story, “The Lost World” is excellent.

This book might trick you into thinking that its primary subject is emotions, how people deal with change and relationships (familiar, romantic, and friendships) or even characters. It’s actually about Chabon’s love of a really good sentence, more than anything else. That’s fine by me because even early on in his career he could write stuff like this:

He stood in the middle of the half-empty room for a minute or so, until his glance fell on a wastebasket that stood beside the space where his father’s desk has been. It was mostly full of shit cardboard and the white wrappers of coat hangers, but at the bottom he spied a crumpled yellow ball of legal paper, which he fished out and spread flat on the floor. It was some kind of a list, made by his father, and Nathan knew at one that it was a secret list, and that after he had finished reading it he would probably wish he hadn’t, as he was continually pained by the memory of a love letter he had found in a box in the basement, written to his father by a girl who had once been Nathan’s favourite baby-sitter. He lay on his stomach in the space where there was no longer a great, oaken desk and read what his father had set down. The handwriting was neat and restrained, as though Dr. Shapiro had been angry while he wrote. [From “More than Human”]

And this:

My friend Levine had only a few months to go on his doctoral dissertation, but when, one Sunday afternoon at Acres of Books, he came upon the little black paperback by Dr. Frank J. Kemp, he decided almost immediately to plagiarize it. It was lying at the bottom of a whiskey crate full of old number of the Evergreen Review, which he had been examining intently because he was trying to get a woman named Betty, who liked the poetry of Gregory Corso, to fall in love with him; he was overexuberant and unlucky in love and had just resolved – for example – to grow some beatnik facial hair. The little book was marked on the outside neither from nor back; it was a plain, black square. Levine picked it up only because he had been lonely for a long time and he idly hoped, on the basis of its anonymous cover, that it might contain salacious material. When he opened it to its title page, he received an indelible shock. “Antarctic Models of Induced Nephokinesis,” he read. This was the branch of meteorological engineering he was concerned with in his own research – in fact, it was the very title he had chosen for his dissertation. [From “A Model World”]

The other reason I don’t have a problem with Chabon’s penchant for writerly flourishes is that he’s good at them. It also helps that the book is a little slim. The stories are of a nice length, never feeling like they overstay their welcome. They’re all enjoyable to read (save one or two) but by the time they end you’ll have a hard time telling a friend what the story was about. That’s because these stories convey emotions better than they convey action or plot or even what would traditionally be called a story. They’re snippets in time. Chabon not only creates situations that feel real but moments in time that are filled with real people. The details that he so casually slips into the stories are like incantations literally bringing strangers to life on the page in a matter of a few sentences. The events, even though they’re not particularly spectacular or noteworthy, are weight down by a feeling of great importance. These are moments in the lives of the many characters that have shaped them or revealed to them their own true identity.

As such, most of these stories read as though Chabon is teasing us. There has to be more to these people and their lives. They’re like preview chapters to a novel but only the first chapter or two exists. You might get the sense that I wasn’t entirely satisfied by this book and you’re correct. I wasn’t and I’m still not. But I’m hopelessly curious as to what happens next. Did Ira and his cousin Sheila ever confess their true love for each other? What about Nathan? Did he ever learn to cope with his parent’s divorce and learn to love others? There is no harm is asking these questions but I have to keep in mind that they’re not essential to the success of the stories I read. In fact, they might be indicative of their success since I was so quickly sucked into the world of these realistic and relatable characters.

The highlight of this book and, I think, its real reason for being, is a collection of writing exercises for Chabon. The craft on display here is one of a man coping with the status of literary wunderkind. Having had great success at a young age with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon’s new fame didn’t sit well with him at the time and some of that is reflected in these stories. It’s as if this entire collection is proof to himself and to his readers that he’s not a one hit wonder. He’s a writer with skill who can construct a moving tale seemingly out of nothing. The best part of this short collection (200 pages) is the presence of wonderfully crafted sentences which aren’t simply beautiful sentences. They’re sentences that work really hard at creating something that the reader can visualize and relate to. They can be found on nearly every page and they’re lovingly complex. They’re sentences to be savoured and Chabon proves himself to be the kind of writer to sit and savour a sentence. The downside to this kind of writing is that some readers my overlook the strengths of the stories being told and focus solely on the craft so clearly on display. These stories have stuck with me every time I’ve put down the book. The events that took place, the characters, their problems, it all dances around in my head and demands that I think about the nuances present in the stories.

If you haven’t read Chabon before I wouldn’t suggest starting here. If you’ve read some of his other work and found them enjoyable primarily for the plots, again, don’t bother with this book. If your interest is in the craft or seeing the growth of an author early in his career, than by all means, do yourself the favour of reading this book. In almost every story contained within Chabon proved himself to be a powerful yet subtle craftsman and he’ll surprise attentive readers who are interested in reading about confused or damaged individuals searching for purpose in a chaotic world.

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