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Secret World

Secret World

The more Michael Chabon I read, the more I’d like invite him to lunch sometime.

That semi-delusional sentence is not in fact as absurd as it might seem at on first read; I only live 90 minutes from my Pulitzer Prize-winning imaginary friend Michael, and we do have a fair bit in common. Between progressive rock (and jazz), comic books, baseball, Jewish roots, an acute awareness of our own shortfalls as fathers/husbands/human beings, and, oh yeah, that whole making-stuff-up-and-writing-it-down thing, there would be plenty of conversational ground to cover. So, I really hope I’m not screwing the chances of that ever happening by sharing a few honest thoughts here.

I’ve been working on Chabon’s newest novel Telegraph Avenue for a few weeks now, making twenty or thirty pages of progress at a time, reading in snatches once or sometimes twice a day, building a collection of stolen moments. Recently, these interludes have become more and more intense; I’ve grown to truly care about the vast and copiously intertwined set of characters that inhabits this particular world of Chabon’s. But I definitely used the word “working” on purpose back there; getting this far was no easy stroll.

Chabon is a brilliant writer in the sense that he can toss out three world-class metaphors, two stunning similies, and a word that the guy who wrote the dictionary has to look up, with roughly as much effort (it seems) as you or I require to find our car keys in the morning. That is a gift—the kind of gift for which people win prizes, and often deserve to do so. The tricky part is how that gift translates into writing compelling fiction.

I would like to say that my commitment to finishing Telegraph Avenue stems entirely from my appreciation for these richly drawn characters and their artfully described quirks and frailties. I would like to say I’m all in with this novel because the story is so intricately woven and provocatively human. And all that would be true, but incomplete. There is also the matter of the sunk-cost fallacy—as in, I’ve invested too much time and effort in getting this far to give up now.

The first half of Telegraph Avenue is so densely packed with technically brilliant writing that I sometimes longed for a machete to cut through the jungle of lush, tangled, maddening ropes and vines and roots and deadfalls of language to find the story lurking underneath. I kept wanting to take my imaginary friend Michael aside and say “Look. I know you’re a fantastic writer. We all know that by now. So would you please quit trying so damned hard to impress us? Just tell your story.”

The good news is, somewhere around the time Chabon stunt-writes his way through a twelve-page, single-run-on-sentence chapter told, nominally—and the following is not an auto-correct fail—from the point of view of a parrot, he finally backs off, changes guises from Michael the auteur to Michael the storyteller, and lets his tale breathe. The last third of the book is so engaging and readable and rich with story and character that I’m actually getting a bit downcast about nearing the end. Having hacked my way into the broad clearing at the center of the jungle, I don’t want to leave this richly imagined secret world.

I guess what I really want to say from my current coordinates on page 405 is just this: believe, Michael. There’s nothing left to prove, not to anyone. Just believe in your story, and tell it as only you can.

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