Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Everybody Hurts

Yesterday at work, I had an impromptu discussion about Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music. I enthusiastically recommended it to a coworker awhile back, and in our conversation, I dropped a phrase that I quickly realized I use quite often. Rightfully so, I mentioned that I had last read the aforementioned novel "when I was around 20." That generic time span tends to cover my reading life from when I was 19 until around 23, give or take. It was during this time that I did a lot of voracious reading, but I now retain little concrete memories about certain titles, whether this is due to the passing of a few years or my lack of intellectual comprehension, i.e. reading books and thinking more than "that was great" or "that was bad." Upon further thought, I realized that this also extends to some of my readings by Michael Chabon. This is not a new revelation; I more or less stated this last October, in my review of Manhood For Amateurs. At the time, I wrote:

"During the course of [reading Manhood For Amateurs], it struck me that, despite his staggering publication resume, I've never read any of Mr. Chabon's non-fiction. I've read two of his novels and one of his story collections, and despite having some catching up to do with his complete bibliography, I've long counted him as one of my favorites."

To make this more comprehensible, my appreciation for Chabon's writings stemmed from readings of the story collection A Model World (when I was roughly 19) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (when I was 20). The natural solution would be to re-read these works, and I fully plan on doing so. I'm not worried that I'll suddenly dislike them; on the contrary, I fully expect that I'll pick up on more nuances now that I'm a more seasoned reader than I was years ago. I recently finished Chabon's 1999 story collection Werewolves In Their Youth, and when I saw Mr. Chabon read last fall, I remember him mentioning that the stories were written around the time of his divorce from his first wife. I went into the collection expecting stories that dealt with difficult emotions. Little did I realize that it would be one of the most mentally draining works I've encountered in a long time.

Virtually every story in the collection deals with strained or outright failed relationships, sometimes with a glimmer of hope, and sometimes just served cold. The opening story, "Werewolves In Their Youth," tells the tale of two misfit elementary school students, one of whom is called upon to "communicate" with the other, a young boy who adopts varying pretend personalities, depending on the day or the situation.

"The girls screamed at Timothy the same way every time he came after them--in unison and with a trill that sounded almost like delight, as if they were watching the family cat trot past with something bloody in its jaws. I scrambled up the side of the ravine and emerged as Timothy, shoulders hunched, arms outstretched, growled realistically and declared that he was hungry for the throats of puny humans. Timothy said this or something like it every time he turned into a werewolf, and I would not have been too concerned if, in the course of his last transformation, he hadn't actually gone and bitten Virgina Pease on the neck (Chabon 4)."

It may seem that the obvious conclusion is that Timothy is suffering from a dysfunctional home life, but Chabon crafts the story so it flips, and the reader realizes that Paul (the narrator) is suffering from his parents' separation. Despite being a social outcast, Paul seems to act out more "normally." Timothy is on the verge of expulsion and a transfer to a special school, but seems more comfortable as evidenced by his elaborate daydreams. Paul seems to suffer more as evidenced by the explicit realities of his parents' crumbling marriage.

"'You mean, he can't come over to our house anymore? Ever again?'
There were tears in her eyes. 'Ever again,' she said. Once more she crouched before me, and I let her take me in her arms, but I did not return her embrace. In the picture window at the end of the hall I watched her reflection hugging mine. I didn't want to be comforted on the impending loss of my father. I wanted him not to be lost, and it seemed to me that it would be her fault if he was (Chabon 25)."

If these fictional realities seem harsh at the beginning, Chabon is just getting warmed up. None of the stories are meant to be about sadness for sadness's sake, but he does come awfully close to making some of the situations seem impossibly despondent. The best example of this is the story "Son Of the Wolfman." During yet another failing marriage, Richard has to decide whether or not to be emotionally involved in his wife Cara's pregnancy. She's been impregnated by another man, a serial rapist, after a stretch of time in which she and her husband have been unable to conceive. What saves this from being a horribly gratuitous sketch is Chabon's knack for creating honest pain. While the idea of the rape is the most wrenching, the split between Richard and Cara seems almost akin to that travesty, at least atmospherically.

"He never went with Cara to the obstetrician, or read any of the many books on pregnancy, birth, and infancy she brought home. His father had been dead for years, but after he told his mother what manner of grandchild she could expect, which he did with brutal concision, he never said another word to her about the child on the way. When his mother asked, he passed the phone to Cara, and left the room. And when in her sixth month Cara announced her intention of attempting a natural childbirth, with the assistance of a midwife, Richard said, as he always did at such moments, 'It's your baby (Chabon 57).'"

So in all of these depressing scenarios, where is the beauty? As I mentioned before, Chabon does offer moments of hope and redemption, but not in the obvious, revelatory ways. In "Spikes," a man named Kohn gives Bengt, a young neighbor, a ride to baseball practice, and the normalcy of the game works as a soothing antidote to the different forms of depression and problems that the two seemingly unrelated men are facing.

"They stood around behind home plate, smoking, leaning against the backstop. Then when practice began--ball tossing, bunting, and base-running exercises, followed by an intrasquad game--the men, as Bengt had suggested, mostly stayed put. From time to time they exhorted their sons, or teased them, not always kindly. The boys made a study of ignoring the men and the things they said. And yet Kohn felt that the presence of their fathers was as indispensable to them as bats, dirt, spikes, grass, the reliable pain of a baseball smacking against the heels of their mitts (Chabon 137)."

As always, Chabon's attention to detail is wonderful, whether said details are literary or authentic. Sometimes both of these ideals are combined. In one brief passage, he writes about the sad dynamic between two parts of the United States, two areas in which I've personally lived, and the chord he strikes, while gloomy, is incredibly apt:

"Eddie left the clamor of the freeway and plunged into the calm, alphabetical streets of Northwest, then headed west on Burnside, towards Williamette Heights. Although he had spent most of his adult life amid the vast, amorphous, pale cities of the West Coast, cities built in rain forests and bone deserts and on the shoulders of terrible mountains, he had been raised in the corroded redbrick river towns of the old Midwest (Chabon 107)."

Will these stories appeal to everyone? Probably not. Unlike music, it's rare for someone to pick up a book in hopes of having accompaniments to sorrow, loss, or heartbreak, and Werewolves In Their Youth has the vibe of a literary blues album--no problem or heartache goes untouched. However, the pieces work along the lines of my favorite stories, and atmospherically, I was reminded of the short works of Raymond Carver. The problems aren't solved by the last page, but enough is given that a reader can see both sides of a possible conclusion, for better or for worse. Perhaps the heightened sadness in these tales makes for a subconscious look at the beauty in Michael Chabon's fictional craft. A good friend of mine once commented on how it can be difficult to read fiction that feels like it's not meant for public consumption. If all of these stories were written under the umbrella of his divorce, then one is reading not only stories but glimpses into mental stress. However, Chabon retains his distance from the stories, and this collection is an excellent, rare example of taking the bad (the negative sides of human experience) with the good (terrific writing).

Work Cited:
Chabon, Michael. Werewolves In Their Youth. Copyright 1999 by Michael Chabon.

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