Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Lesson from Michael Chabon

As you can see over there I'm reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. I've not read him before but I've heard good things. I picked up the book because Gary Trudeau, interviewed in my USA Today newspaper insert, said that he reads mostly non-fiction because if he reads someone like Chabon it'll take him three months to get through the book because he's so frequently knocked off his feet that he stops to analyze just what Chabon did that accomplished the knocking. So I pretty much had to read him even though I hate Doonesbury. (And most comic strips, really. Not funny. Like, hardly ever.)

Anyway, Chabon taught me something not to do.

He's an amazing writer. That much is clear a page or two in. But he does something at the beginning of chapter two that I have now promised myself not to do. I share it with you, free of charge:

Here's the end of chapter one:

Joseph Kavalier lifted his own head from the mattress and stuffed the pillow beneath it. "Thank you," he said, then lay still once more. Presently, his breathing grew steady and slowed to a congested rattle, leaving Sammy to ponder alone, as he did every night, the usual caterpillar schemes.

I was blown away by "caterpillar schemes." At first, it was one of those short phrases that in the course of reading strikes you like a hand to the chest. You stop, notice, and then really consider the thing. I went back and reread and, once having figured out the meaning, just kind of sat there for a few seconds thinking, Shit, that's good. Who among us hasn't, in our youth, lain awake night after night, considering how we might break free of our ugly selves and emerge fantastically into a new world of color and possibility? It's a perfect metaphor. I was left both bitterly envious and awed at once.

And then Chabon ruined it.

I was proud to have figured the thing out. I'm not a smart man, Jenny. When I understand a metaphor, I'm like to tell my wife about it. So I was feeling good about myself and feeling a fawning admiration for the writer when I read this at the start of chapter two:

It was a caterpillar scheme--a dream of fabulous escape--that had ultimately carried Josef Kavalier across Asia and the Pacific to his cousin's narrow bed on Ocean Avenue.

I was pissed. I wasn't immediately aware of why I was pissed, so I thought about it. And here's the lesson for the day, kids.

When you come up with something so incredibly fresh and awesome such as "caterpillar scheme" you don't repeat it. Use it once and get out quickly. Repeating it lets everyone know that you know it's fresh and awesome. It's a turn-off. It's a little like coming up with the perfect one liner at a dinner party and then saying it again.

Also, trust the reader. I wasn't educated at Harvard. I was not raised on the classics. I never took a college course that required me to analyze literary novels. But I understood exactly what Chabon meant and he cheapened my understanding by explaining it to me with "a dream of fabulous escape." I felt insulted. Trust your reader to recognize your brilliance. And if they don't, so what? It's their loss.


Shaun Hutchinson said...

This is really great and oh so true. I really loved that book. I'm surprised his editor didn't catch it. I'm frequently told to trust my reader. It's tough.

Unknown said...

Take out the dashed phrase and I'd be okay with repeating "caterpillar schemes."


Anita said...

I don't think I would've gotten the caterpillar schemes thing...but it wouldn't have stopped me from reading. My kids and Husband read his baseball book one summer...took them all summer and they complained about it (unusual for them), but they kept reading and occasionally mention the book, two years later.

Amy said...

Great advice.