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Armchair Reviewer

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Sometime this past week on Twitter, I read someone’s advice to authors regarding their presence on Goodreads, the social network book site. The advice went something like this: authors, make sure the details on your page are correct and in order and then RUN AWAY. I didn’t give this sort of “don’t read the critics” advice much thought until I logged onto Goodreads last night to change my progress on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay from “currently reading” to “read.” I didn’t have the energy to type up a review of the book, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2001, but perused what others had to say about it.

And Holy.Cow.People. Why the bitterness? Chabon writes an epic, expansive novel, integrating the immigrant Jewish experience, the Holocaust and survivors’ guilt, the development of the comic book genre, and the transition of American society into the empty Ward-and-June façade of the post-war years, and the pain this emptiness causes a closeted gay man. So many of the reviews on the site fault him for trying too hard, being too fond of his prodigious vocabulary; some of them mock him for writing about Jews in Brooklyn in the 1940s and the Holocaust, as if doing so was an unforgivable re-tread of old, worn-out themes.

I have a hard time with this type of criticism. I threw a book (theoretically) out the window last month, because, although the plot idea was intriguing, the writing bored me to absolute tears (The Time Traveler’s Wife) and am currently listening to another novel, A Discovery of Witches, which is equally tedious in its prose. Does Chabon love a good, long, encapsulated sentence? Yes he does. In my opinion his care toward his style gives the reader more room, more time, to delve a bit, to think along with the text. In more formulaic fiction (and my apologies to Niffenegger and Harkness for consigning them to these ranks) the writing is just there to speed the plot along. It doesn’t invite you to stop and think, but rather whisks you away before you have any time to get a closer look and see, perhaps, how thin and transparent the world of their tale is. These sorts of books have their place. My love affair with the Sookie Stackhouse books is enough evidence there, as far as my own tastes are concerned. But why gripe with Chabon because he doesn’t want to do that?

Chabon writes really, really well. His Yiddish Policemen’s Union cracked me up and made me stay up late. The Final Solution was clever and sneaky. He is in command of his pen, as it were, and crafts the story, instead of letting it take him over. Perhaps that is what some readers are responding to when they see him as trying to hard. The research that propels Kavalier and Clay also gives it a bit of a scholarly air, which some other armchair reviewers might find off-putting. I was intrigued by the research, though not by the factoids pertaining to the development of comic books (about which I, alas, do not really *care*) but by the magic and the Golem.

While I was reading Kavalier and Clay, I repeatedly came across other references to the Golem in other things I read or listened to. The Golem is a great story–a saviour who is also a monster, the first Frankenstein’s Monster. He can be the repository of our wishes and fears and, because of his elemental nature, appears uncorrupted–with the word TRUTH emblazoned on his forehead. The Golem as a superhero, a Jewish, apocalyptical superhero, is a very good idea.

I like it. Good on you, Chabon. Stay away from those Goodreads pages.


Written by Jennifer

July 26, 2012 at 9:01 am

Posted in books

3 Responses

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  1. Depending on your stomach for fantasy, Terry Pratchett’s Feet of Clay makes for an excellent read. I mention it because the story heavily involves Golems (as do several subsequent Discworld novels, but this is the first in which they appear). There’s no need to read previous books in the series to make headway in Feet of Clay, but of course the previous bits of story add extra savor to those in the know.


    July 26, 2012 at 9:34 am

    • I have read several of Terry Pratchett’s books, but only one of his Discworld titles. I am super into Golems right now, including as part of a YA research project in my fantasy academic life. I will totally put this on my list. Thanks for giving me the title.


      July 26, 2012 at 10:26 am

      • Happy to pass on a love of Discworld. When you’ve finished Feet of Clay, the other two Discworld novels in which Golems figure heavily are Going Postal and Making Money. The Golem guardian in Going Postal who discovers that s/he is a feminist is particularly enjoyable. For these two titles, Stephen Briggs is the audiobook narrator and does a fantastic job. Enjoy!


        July 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm

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