Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Success of Michael Chabon's Failure

In 1992, Michael Chabon killed his novel.

After his successful debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon was heady with new fame and wondered what he could do to make his lightning strike twice.  "I was twenty-four, rootless, feckless, homeless, and mapless, a child of divorce, raised in the broken Utopias of the 1970s," he writes.  His life at the time was a mess, he admits, and he was "baffled, literally not knowing which way to turn."

Then he turned into a bookstore, drawn by a copy of What is Post-Modernism? by Charles Jencks in the front-window display.  "I flipped through its pages as if searching for a clue, a way home, a cool drink for a thirsty soul."  He found that tall cold one on page 20: a watercolor painting by Leon Krier which depicted an idealized vision of the architect Pierre L'Enfant's layout of Washington, D. C. (see above).  The painting struck a chord in Chabon, stirring up memories of his own idealized childhood in of Columbia, Maryland, a "planned city" with ruler-straight streets and cookie-cutter homes 50 miles north of the nation's Capitol.  So, for the next half-decade, the once-and-future author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay poured his energies into writing Fountain City, which tried to tell the story of “a poetically sad young man who apprenticed himself to a visionary, postmodern architect out of a longing for some vanished home or notion of home."  Chabon also threw messianic Zionism, French cuisine, radical environmental activism, baseball, miniature-model building, and Japanese monster movies into the big bubbling stew of his novel.

He spent five years and 1,500 pages trying to wrestle it into presentable shape.  He fought the novel and the novel won.  So he killed it, or "wrecked" it, as he states in the marginal notes of the first four chapters of Fountain City recently published in McSweeney's (I have been quoting from Chabon's introduction to that 95-page mini-book).  But what had gone wrong with Fountain City?  When had the golden ray of sunshine turned into the leaden albatross around the neck?
Every novel, in the moments before we begin to write it, is potentially the greatest, the most beautiful or thrilling ever written; but in the long dying fall after we have finished it (if we finish it), every novel affords us, with the generosity of a buffalo carcass affording meat, hide, bone, horn, and fat, the opportunity to measure precisely, at our leisure, the distance between it and that L'Enfantesque dream.  Our greatest duty as artists and as humans is to pay attention to our failures, to break them down, study the tapes, conduct the postmortem, pore over the findings; to learn from our mistakes.
If nothing else, these four chapters--liberally annotated with footnotes that document the novel's demise in Chabon's self-deprecating asides--are valuable as an instructional manual.  Every writer should keep a copy of Fountain City propped next to the keyboard--wedged between The Elements of Style, The Bible, and John Gardner's The Art of Fiction.  Just think of how many wrong-headed novels would be deservedly wrecked if more writers heeded Chabon's advice.  The new-release table at the local Barnes & Noble would be considerably lighter and thinner, to our benefit.

After Fountain City's funeral, Chabon did learn from his own mistakes.  He wrote Wonder Boys (which, lest we forget, is about a man writing an out-of-control novel) in seven months, published it, and rolled forward into a successful career.  Fountain City never had a chance from that point on.

Chabon's dilemma of "novel failure" is not uncommon, as we learn from this essay in the New York Times by Dan Kois:
       Many writers get lost in their first attempt at a longer work. Adam Begley, author of a forthcoming biography, said Updike wrote two-thirds of “Willow,” a small-town novel, while still a student at Harvard. Loath to waste either ideas or paper, Updike mined the novel for material for a series of Willow-set stories — some of which were written on the flip side of old novel pages. “Updike was nothing if not thrifty,” Begley said.
       Chang-rae Lee said he had spent two years on “Agnew Belittlehead,” a “bombastic, unfunny, oddly New Agey version of a David Foster Wallace toss-off,” before dropping it and writing “Native Speaker” instead. Junot Díaz wrote “a whole lot” of “Dark America,” a science-fiction novel about mutants, before abandoning it 10 years ago because, he said, “it was hopelessly stupid and convoluted.” Jennifer Egan remembered writing, at 22, a “monstrous” 600-page novel, “Inland Souls.” “I would send this book to people,” she said, “and they would become unreachable. And that includes my mother.”

When I learned that bits of Fountain City--which by now had become legendary, thanks to Chabon always chattering about it during interviews--was to be published in McSweeney's 36, I knew I had to get a copy.  Truth be told, though, this particular issue of the off-beat literary journal is a little embarrassing to own.  It comes bundled in a box which looks like a man's head.  A sweaty, red-faced man, at that.  It's more than a little creepy.  But, symbolically, the design seems appropriate: you lift the lid of the man's head and reach inside to dig out the scrap of what Chabon couldn't make work, despite all of his sweaty, red-faced effort.

The four chapters are interesting artifacts from Chabon's brain.  They're a little uneven in quality--some brilliant sentences surrounded by wooden prose which could have used a splash of red editorial ink (though it's impossible to believe that Chabon didn't go back and rewrite these chapters before submitting them to McSweeney's).  One problem--at least evident in the four chapters we're given--is that Fountain City lacks unity and a coherent plot.  Briefly: Harry Klezmer returns home to Huxley, Maryland (a thinly-disguised Columbia) after a year-long nomadic ramble across the United States "in his dead brother's Alfa Romeo," only to find his childhood home put up for sale, his parents split up, and his rabbi father about to embark on a sabbatical to Jerusalem.  Harry goes to visit his dead brother's lover, a big bear of a man named Foster.  They talk about death and stare gloomily into the C&O Canal where Harry's brother drowned himself.  Then, feeling even more cut off from home and heritage, he heads for Europe and another long episode of wanderlust begins. Who knows where Harry aimlessly drifts in the course of the other 1,400 pages?  So yeah, structurally, it's a mess.

Still, if we look at this as the lumpy dough of a second draft, it's really not a bad start.  Based on what we know Michael Chabon is capable of, there is a glimmer of greatness in the midst of the crap.  Even though I knew what I was reading was a truncated amputation and that there would be no sense of closure when I was done, I still came across moments of pure Chabonian delight.  The opening to Chapter 4, for instance, is especially good:
       The plan, as Harry finally conceived it, was to cross the ocean, and then just keep on going. Paris; then Berlin, Smolensk, Ulan Bator, Vladivostok; he would ride in the beds of chicken trucks and in reindeer sleighs and on the backs of Bactrian camels. He would stand on the rear platform of an eastbound train, in a fur hat, and Uzbek snow would fall upon his shoulders and his eyelashes, and his heart would be filled, as it had been for so long now, with Uzbek snow. That was the plan. When he arrived in the capital of France, however, intending to stay for a month at least, the city was in the middle of the wettest September in 117 years, and he felt miserable in the downpours and dank churches, and saddened by the cold reveille of the rain in the drainpipes. After only seven days he was itching to move along.
       For the first few nights he slept in one of the half dozen beds that shared room 17 of the Colombier youth hostel, in the Marias, in the rowdy company of eleven young men from nine different countries, all of them smelling of sour beer and purple wine and the rancid-butter tang of young men. It was a far cry from the perfect solitude of an American motel room, cooled by Freon, lit by a blue TV. By day he walked, endlessly, alone, from one end of Paris to the other, avoiding the great crowds and monuments and churches, spending hours on end aware only of the light coming off the river, of the rain on black umbrellas.
I like writing that's enlivened by the inclusion of the reveille of rain and the rancid-butter tang of young men.  If only the story, as a whole, had been more engaging...

Nonetheless, the McSweeney's artifact, dredged from the "brined and barnacled" shipwreck "at the sea-bottom" of Chabon's hard drive, is worth salvaging and putting on display in the American Writers Museum.  What's most revealing, and beneficial to all writers, are Chabon's marginal annotations accompanying Fountain City.  Here the skull is cracked open and we see the writer's brain at work.  The notes are witty, revealing (Chabon attempts to put to rest the question of his sexual orientation), and above all instructive.
Lesson One:  Write smaller books.
Lesson Two:  Trust your gut and heed the icy grip of the Hand of Dread.
Lesson Three:  Don't take advances; sell your work only when it is complete.
Lesson Four:  Persevere.
Lesson Five:  Marry a strong, talented, vocal, articulate, and above all persuasive reader.*
As he tells The Atlantic in this interview: "the notes are there to serve as the literary equivalent of the label on a packet of silica gel that says DO NOT EAT."  I could particularly relate to this footnote where Chabon writes:
....a book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition.  I often and variously felt, as I was slogging hrough the five-and-a-half year ordeal of F.C., that it was erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs, rendering me null and powerless.  And of course I was the one writing the damn thing.  I was killing myself.
It's enough to make a weak-hearted writer swear off his own Great American Novel forever.

I myself have the wreckage of at least** two novels smoking along the highway which stretches behind me.  One, The Last of Anne, was written in the very earliest years of my marriage when relationships are velvet-soft and raw as exposed nerves, when our new partner is still essentially a stranger.  I don't know where that manuscript is today--probably on the sea-bottom of a hard drive five or six computers ago--and I can't remember exact details of its plot, except that it was about a lonely, insecure guy who marries an enigmatic woman (named Anne) who avoids talking about her past and who, on their honeymoon in a small, backwater town in Wyoming, disappears.  Poof!  Kaput!  The husband tries to get to the bottom of the mystery but is stymied by the local sheriff's deputy who appears to know more about the case than he should.  It was, in short, an amateurish Frankenstein of Richard Adams' The Girl in a Swing and the movie The Vanishing.  Looking back, I can see how I poured all the fears of a newlywed male into the novel: was he worthy of his bride? would she wise up and abandon him on a moment's notice? worse, would she be tragically snatched from him by sudden, unexplained death?  At that time in my life, I was also snacking on a cultural junk-food diet of horror movies in which city-slicker kids took weekend trips and wound up in backwoods Southern towns with bucktoothed and/or toothless horny serial-killer hillbillies and drawling, no-good lazy-ass sheriffs who couldn't give two hoots about the mysterious deaths of the aforementioned city-slickers.  It's no wonder my novel was plagued with unendurable stereotypes and unprintable cliches.

Before The Last of Anne, however, there was the book I believed would catapult me to fame and fortune as a mystery writer.  This failed novel actually showed some promise and may, at some later date, be resurrected (albeit radically improved with cosmetic surgery).  It was a by-the-numbers locked-door type of mystery novel featuring a Jane Marple-ish sleuth named Mrs. Winter.  I was gorging myself on Agatha Christie at the time; which only proves that you shit what you eat.  In the novel, Mrs. Winter is at a Hollywood party when the host, a has-been actor filming his comeback movie, falls into his swimming pool and is eaten by piranhas planted there by the murderer. I got about 50 pages into the first draft before realizing the best thing about it was the title: Mrs. Winter and the Pool of Teeth.

Did I mention I was 13 when I started writing it?

*In Chabon's case: Ayelet Waldman.
**I say "at least" because there is the undecided fate of my more recent novel, Dubble, which is about a 33-year-old midget named David Dubble who goes to work as a stuntman for enfant terrible child actor Eddie Danger in the 1940s.  It's heavy on doppelgangers and Hollywood hijinks.  If you are foolhardy and industrious enough, you can search out the complete manuscript of Dubble and read it for yourself.  It's buried somewhere in the stacks of the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.  It even has a call number assigned to it.

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