The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash. But everyone knew that it was only an illusion. The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.
—Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Certainly, in almost every Michael Chabon fiction, there is this vanishing—subtractions, desolations, and abandonments; sinister design and rotten luck. In The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), his debonair debut novel, young Art Bechstein suspects that his mother was murdered by mobsters who were really after his father. In Wonder Boys (1995), his graduate school slapstick, Grady Tripp has lost one parent to postpartum complications and another to suicide. In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), his magnum opus on art, work, buddies, genocide, and the bloodthirstiness of children, Sammy Clayman’s father deserts him (twice!) and Josef Kavalier loses his whole family to the Nazis. In Summerland (2002), his stealing-home baseball fantasy for kids, Ethan Feld’s mother, a veterinarian, dies of cancer, and his father, an inventor, is abducted by wolfboys and mushgoblins. In The Final Solution: A Story of Detection (2004), his sly riff on Sherlock Holmes, a nine-year-old German boy named Linus, an orphan, a mute, and a refugee, wanders the English countryside in 1944 with a parrot that sings strings of numbers that refer to the cattle cars of the Holocaust. In Gentlemen of the Road (2007), his sword-and-sandals serial recently published in The New York Times Magazine, the vagabond physician Zelikman, variously described as a scarecrow and a ghost, drifts through the Dark Ages with a heart turned to stone after the rape and murder of his mother and sister.
Even in Werewolves in Their Youth (1999), a mixed-nut assortment of stories, one boy, fatherless, turns himself into a werewolf; another perishes in a Fourth of July fireworks explosion; a third runs off with his new baby half-brother to save him from their sadistic father; an infant dies in his mother’s arms on a ferry boat; a divorced family therapist is afraid to take a bath with his own daughter; and we get a flabbergasting amount of domestic violence. Then, in a horror tale attributed to the shlockmeister August Van Zorn, whom we first met in Wonder Boys, there’s Yuggog, a cannibal queen in an underground necropolis in bone-pit Pennsylvania, feeding on millworkers and anthropologists. Werewolves also told us that
sex had everything to do with violence, that was true, and marriage was at once a container for the madness between men and women and a fragile hedge against it, as religion was to death, and the law of …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.