Michael Chabon lives and works in Berkeley and Los Angeles. (September 2019)


‘Ulysses’ on Trial

Morris Ernst (second from left) defending Gustave Flaubert’s November in court against charges of obscenity, New York City, 1935
It was a setup: a stratagem worthy of wily Ulysses himself. The conspirators were Bennett Cerf, publisher and cofounder of Random House, and Morris Ernst, a cofounder of the ACLU and its chief legal counsel. The target was United States anti-obscenity law. The bait was a single copy of an English-language novel, printed in Dijon by Frenchmen who could not understand a word of it, bound in bright blue boards, and sold mail-order by the celebrated Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company. When Cerf and Ernst first began to conspire in 1931, the novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses, was the most notorious book in the world.

Soul Pleasure

Tanya Holland’s West Oakland restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen
Oakland—like a swinging party, like an emergency—is happening. Oakland is always happening. From the moment of its founding, in the 1850s, by a nefarious confederation of squatters, opportunists, filibusterers, graft artists, boosters, visionary thieves, and confidence men, Bump City has been happening. And yet, in all that time, Oakland has …

The Crying of September 11

A diner looking across the Hudson River and New Jersey from Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the north tower of the World Trade Center, June 1996

Bleeding Edge

by Thomas Pynchon
Conspiracy theories insist that we open our eyes and wise up. The fix is in, resistance is futile, and innocence is a kind of benightedness, a handicap to be overcome. Such theories claim to explain everything and may appear to explain a lot but they fall short—bitterly, uselessly—as any parent can attest, when the time comes to answer a question posed by an actual innocent. A good postmodernist, like a 9/11 truther, can afford the luxury of disdain for innocence; a parent is bound to protect it. Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge is best understood not as the account of a master of ironized paranoia coming to grips with the cultural paradigm he helped to define but as something much braver and riskier: an attempt to acknowledge, even at the risk of a melodramatic organ chord, that paradigm’s most painful limitation.

Let It Rock

In trying to consider the impact that the work of Bob Dylan has had on my own writing, I’ve found myself thinking back on that afternoon in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh when I hung out in Ed Ochester’s office for a while, smoking and talking on and on, with all the tedious vainglory for which Ed, God bless him, had such an apparently high tolerance, about the band I was going to be in, to be called Lunchmeat Island or Hex Wrench or the Bats or Dannon Yogurt Steam-Shovel (in the end we would go with the Bats), writing song lyrics and “singing.”


Wes Anderson’s Worlds

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom

From Rushmore to Moonrise Kingdom (shamefully neglected by this year’s Academy voters), Wes Anderson’s films readily, even eagerly, concede the “miniature” quality of the worlds he builds, in their set design and camera-work, in their use of stop-motion, maps, and models. And yet these miniatures span continents and decades. They comprise crime, adultery, brutality, suicide, the death of a parent, the drowning of a child, moments of profound joy and transcendence.

Why I Hate Dreams

An image from Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland

I hate dreams. I hate them for their absurdities and deferrals, their endlessly broken promise to amount to something, by and by. I hate them for the way they ransack memory, jumbling treasure and trash. I hate them for their tedium, how they drag on, peter out, wander off. Pretty much the only thing I hate more than my own dreams are yours.

‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ and the Wonder of Words

Milo and Tock, from The Phantom Tollbooth

When I was a boy I read, in a biography of Daniel Boone, or of Daniel Beard, that young Dan (whichever of the two it may have been—or maybe it was young George Washington) had so loved some book, had felt his heart and mind inscribed so deeply in its every line, that he had pricked his fingertip with a knife and, using a pen nib and his blood for ink, penned his name on the flyleaf. At once, reading that, I knew two things: 1) I must at once undertake the same procedure and 2) only one, among all the books I adored and treasured, was worthy of such tribute: The Phantom Tollbooth. At that point I had read it at least five or six times.