Thursday, May 22, 2008


I don't remember actually buying Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, although I suspect my purchase was prompted by my viewing of the Michael Douglas film Wonder Boys, adapted from an earlier Chabon novel. But I remember reading it at a fever pitch, including one long, hot October afternoon in which I sat on my back porch, smoked an entire pack of Camel Turkish Golds, and polished off the last 300 pages of it.

Kavalier is a contemporary masterpiece--it takes that whole "hysterical realism" thing you see in people like David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Jonathan Lethem, in which the books are incredibly long and peppered with legitimate historical research and facts, and takes it to its artistic peak. Chabon seamlessly integrates a fictional story with real characters and events from the 1940s and 1950s comic-book world, and it does so so well that when I watched a history of superheroes on the History Channel a few weeks ago, I was a little surprised not to see The Escapist included.

(Note: I've not read Wallace, so I suppose I'm not really qualified to call Kavalier and Clay the artistic peak of hysterical realism. I've read Franzen, though, and I enjoy both his nonfiction essays for The New Yorker and his massive, Oprah-approved novel The Corrections. I've also read Lethem's horrible The Fortress of Solitude.)

At any rate, when I went to Jackson Street Books on Monday, I poked around for awhile and found a relatively inexpensive first edition of Chabon's 2002 follow-up to Kavalier, Summerland, and of course I bought it. It's an odd book so far (I'm about 50 pages in), and not odd the way Kavalier was. For one thing, it's written on the level of juvenile fiction, not too far removed from the Harry Potter books and similar to them in that it speaks on an eleven-year-old's level without talking down to him at all. And there's magic here, too--a talking fox/monkey who can jump from branch to branch on the Great Tree of Existence; a mystical corner of the earth where it was always summer and now isn't; an evil coyote. And the list goes on.

Summerland was apparently written as a piece of juvenile fiction, but I'm waiting to see if it's meant for adults as well, if it utilizes the form and conventions of that genre in order to make its point. I'm not sure what that point is just yet, but I know it's deeply immersed in American mythology: baseball, an innocent small-town stuck in the 1950s, people making a living through the imagination--even Native American tricksters. In the meantime, I'm not enjoying this the way I enjoyed Kavalier and Clay. It lacks that book's sense of urgency, of deep existential need. It's replaced by whimsy, which isn't bad, but it's never the same.

It may be that I've moved past the point where I can enjoy young-adult literature--I've never really liked the Harry Potter books either. I hope my readers don't take that as some sort of proclamation of my maturity and a statement on how I've moved beyond your vulgar tastes. I'm pretty sure it's really a self-indictment.

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