I heard Michael Chabon speak last night at a packed Northwestern University auditorium. The Pulitzer winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay as well as other me-favorites such as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Maps and Legends, Chabon is who most good writers want to be when they grow up.
So yeah, I was pretty geeked up about it.
The poster advertising the event had me a bit confused. He was to be speaking about Edgar Allan Poe — which was fine; EAP is no slouch in the Fascinating Character Department, but I would have been just as happy to hear Michael Chabon lecture about Michael Chabon. Fellow writers always want the secret to “How’d he do it?” Did he grow up among down-on-their-luck peanut farmers? Did he vacation every year in the Maldives? Did he flunk out of the Sorbonne? Does he use a special brand of pencil?
So instead it was to be a biographical lecture? Boredom was a distinct possibility.
I went anyway, of course, and I needn’t have worried. When it comes to words, Chabon calls the tune. He’s an entertainer on the page and on the stage. He shared plenty of autobiographical insight on his way to the Meaning of Poe — in fact, he found the old master of macabre to have plenty to say to all writers and readers in the modern day.
Chabon had written this lecture especially for this engagement, he said by way of apology. He read his essay word for word, head down and in a soft but confident voice. He may have been trying to project a little humility, but his words give it all away: This guy knows he’s flipping brilliant, a master of both the Ideas and the Words required to convey them. He spoke for over an hour, and I’ll be damned if I could find one word that was not aptly chosen for its purpose.
I hope this lecture gets collected in another book of essays like Maps & Legends. It’s a literary creme brulée all by itself.
He opened with a personal story (possibly true — he’s been known to found lectures on a stretcher or two, such as “Golems I Have Known” from Maps and Legends) about his childhood belief he was the reincarnation of Edgar Allan Poe. At this point, Chabon established himself as the coolest nerd, the ultimate example of the Geek Who Comes Out On Top. He related stories of his grade-school tormentors, and his bookish habits that “elicited … or invited” flat tires, glares, kick-me signs and insults from the club of cool kids. Reinforcing his belief in his reincarnation, he quoted the opening line of “Cask of Amontillado,” one of the best openers ever:
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.
Of course, Chabon noted, his revenge involved fewer chains, trowels and lime-encrusted tunnels, and instead took the form of … a lecture! One where he would identify these tormentors by name! Which he promptly did, to the applause of the packed house.
From there, he launched into a detailed analysis of Poe’s choices as a writer and his use of language, especially the maudlin ballad “Ulalume.” But were we talking about Poe’s use of language or Chabon’s? Chabon has a command of words so deep and wide, I sometimes snort “showoff” when reading one of his dense Oxford-defying paragraphs. He didn’t shy away from his usual lingual challenges during the hour, but at one point, he seemed to poke fun at himself: He rattled off a list of literary analysis concepts, eye-glazing words grown long on Latin roots, things only a Rhetoric major might be familiar with, then said: “We don’t need those tools to show that Poe rocked the language.”
Poe, Chabon said, was a poet “to the T” — the T being the only thing missing from his name to make it official. He may have been the founder of genre — horror and detective and mystery — but he infused his earthy prose with as much meter and metaphor and pure poetry as an epic ode. Here, the parallels of Chabon and Poe are pretty striking. I’ve not read many better masters of language —particularly of metaphor — than Michael Chabon.
(At Star Farm, I earned the nicname “Simile Man” for my superheroic and untiring crusade to always find the perfect comparison for any description I was writing. Doesn’t mean I was the best at it, I just tried the hardest. But if Simile Man was, in fact, ever successful, that success was never more than a Jimmy Olsen to Chabon’s Man of Steel.)
Take this bit from Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I usually save rote memorization of passages for Shakespeare, but I can type this one by heart. It’s a scene where Landsman, the noirish hard-luck detective, and Berko, his police partner, cross paths with Landsman’s ex-wife, a pretty tough and sharp witted broad herself.
From the first time that Landsman brought Bina home, she and Berko seemed to share an understanding of, an angle on, a laugh at the expense of Landsman, the funny little sorehead in the last panel of a comic strip with the black lily of an exploded cigar wilting in his puss.
Now that’s a metaphor. Immediately you understand an entire history here of the merciless teasing Landsman’s had to endure, the kind that only comes from those who love you and know you best. Plus, that evocaton of a Katzenjammer-style comic — from the exploding cigar gag to the archaic “puss” — matches perfectly the Old World veneer Chabon has laid over this book and its setting in a run-down and soon-to-be-abandoned Jewish settlement in post-war Alaska.
Chabon, like Poe, is a poet. He admitted that if one were to take some of his more “well-wrought” paragraphs and broke them up into free verse, they’d be hard to distinguish from real, Norton-Anthology-style poetry. But he closed his lecture with a hard truth: Poetry don’t sell. Despite his (and Poe’s) desire to satisfy that inner poet and give it voice, he (like Poe) found it necessary to “make art I can sell for cash money.” That’s why Chabon closes up those paragraph breaks in his free verse, injects some plot by way of (like Poe) juicy genre, and sells it as a novel — the only viable medium for writers who want to eat.
The parallels are kind of uncanny. Maybe he really wasn’t kidding about that reincarnation stuff.