Whatever Happened to Sara Jane … and Learning to like Michael Chabon

I do not remember exactly how I developed this huge attitude about Michael Chabon. I think it was the book Cavalier and Clay that sort of sealed it. We did not like the “innovative” language. But I have felt guilty about this for many reasons. Not only is Michael Chabon sort of local, and we should be nice to locals, but he is a brilliant writer in his way and also a father and husband and no doubt a nice man in many ways. Why is it that in matters of literary reputation we find it wholly acceptable to think and say awful things about people? It is not a desirable trait, I will say that; the desirable thing to do is to read carefully and judiciously and take note of where we differ with the writer on matters of style and preference and so forth. Yet, I suppose to those of us who take writing seriously, it is a matter of life and death and so we get all bent out of shape and conjure up these elaborate and childish peeves.

Also, it was sort of a secret perversity: How could anyone not love Michael Chabon? One sensed that it was a civic virtue to like Michael Chabon. So I wanted to come to some rational and reasonable opinion.

This is sort of the story of how that happened. That is, again today Muni took me to a library, this time somewhat by a perverse accident, and that is how I came to read the Michael Chabon story “A Model World.”

I also want to say — indeed started out this letter intending to say — that I took Muni to Powell Street today to go to the Exit Theater at 155 Eddy Street for Ady Abbot’s solo performance Whatever Happened to Sara Jane? today and it was really, really great. And that is what led me indirectly to read the Michael Chabon short story called “A Model World,” first published in The New Yorker in 1989.

If you live in SF and take Muni you will relate: After leaving the theater I found that an “equipment failure” had occurred in the Civic Center Muni station and the underground was not running. (Yes. You know.) So I took BART to 24th Street to catch the 48 Quintara out to West Portal Station where I had left the car. When i arrived at 24th Street, I found the 48 would not leave for 33 minutes. But voila! There is the Mission Branch Library so I did what I used to do all the time, which was go in and hang around among the books. And that is when it occurred to me that I have certain somewhat reflexive and not wholly rational prejudices against certain perfectly acceptable and even brilliant writers. So I browsed. I thought to myself, Let me see something Michael Chabon wrote when he was young and not such a brilliant big shot; I’ll bet I can learn to like his work if I read the early stuff, before it got fancy and full of aspiration toward something — and I don’t mean to be harsh here, I’m just guessing — perhaps only partially realizable. That was when I found the short story collection A Model World and took it home, along with also A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit, a collection of T.C. Boyle stories Tooth and Claw and finally the Raymond Carver collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? since I realized I have been using Raymond Carver as a sort of marker and totem of a certain kind of voice and style without really any great passion or clarity lately, having not really read carefully any of his work, and thought, hey, I should get a taste of that if I’m going to talk about it. Tastes change. We come back to things and feel differently about them. Reading is a constant series of corrections.

So one interesting thing about “A Model World,” published in 1989, was the place that “the so-called greenhouse effect” plays in the story. It’s a moral tale, and it’s indeed riveting and entertaining but also offers a glimpse of mid-1980s academia, academic life and the state of computers and as well the state of climate science and the state of Michael Chabon, which seems, at that time, quite likable. Competent, warm, likable. So I will stop hating on Michael Chabon. I feel much better now, thank you.

But about Ady’s performance, which was great: This was the last day of the Fringe Festival so you will have to wait to see more of the Sara Jane thing (Sara Jane Moore, that is; it’s the story of her grandmother’s friendship with the woman who tried to shoot President Gerald Ford in 1975 — a few weeks after Squeaky Fromme’s attempt).

Well, so that is my letter today; I will stick to the five-day-a-week schedule except for the weekends, when I may write only once or now and then not at all. I figure that is doable.
Now I have some more books to read, and for my birthday, Karen is taking us to Dixie, the new Southern-style restaurant in the Presidio …

So much more to say, always, but that is enough for now.
cary t.

p.s. In matters of literary taste, I am not a bold leader and discoverer. Although I am indeed quite a strange individual, and though my real tastes will be often outlandishly avant-garde, I wait until someone else expresses a taste, a like or dislike, and then I second it. I am a seconder.

But it is also true that I am one of those people who does not like anyone who has too much success or gets too much attention, and if someone wins the Nobel Prize I am sure to get on him for something. This also, I suspect, comes from being a middle child: You are taking food off my plate, sir, if you become too big in the world. We must share. I, too, want some of the limelight. Not all, like you are taking; just my share. (Yes, I know how absurd this is, I who have never published a novel or play or even short story in a big magazine. I live a “literary” life wholly divorced from observable truth. It is one of the small luxuries of having no literary success: You are free to imagine your status in any way you please.)

Anyway, I am hungry. I want to go to dinner.