Family, Manipulation, and “Moonglow”: A Reading with Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon signs books for students and faculty members after his reading on Monday. Photo Credit: Kukuwa Ashun

by Kukuwa Ashun

Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author Michael Chabon stopped by Purchase College Monday, Sept. 25, to receive his inaugural welcome as the 2017-2018 Roy & Shirley Durst Distinguished Chair of Literature.

Each fall, the Humanities Department puts together a list of candidates from three general categories: the Roy & Shirley Durst Distinguished Chair in Literature; established writers (who would facilitate a single lecture); and early-career writers (who would also come for a single event). As a result, the college aims to recognize relevant and prominent figures across different mediums of writing. Some of the past lecturers have included Claudia Rankine, George Saunders, Rachel Kushner, and Kristin Valdez Quade. Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature who also chairs the Durst Committee.

“Chabon was a natural fit,” Domestico said. “He has wide-ranging tastes, which suggested that he could come up with a varied slate of programs (as he has).”

After an introduction by Professor Kathleen McCormick, and a lengthy applause from students, faculty members, and guests, Chabon stood behind the lectern with an appreciative grin. He immediately opened up with a distinctive and humorous tone, earning laughter from the audience. “I’d like to thank Roy and Shirley Durst [endowing] this chair and, everyone that was involved in inviting me, to come here and sit on it.”

Chabon began reading a piece from GQ magazine that was published last September, titled, “My Son, the Prince of Fashion.” The decision to not read an excerpt from his most recent novel, “Moonglow” was a last-minute adjustment Chabon had decided earlier that afternoon. He revealed to the audience that he wanted to “maybe give myself a little change.”

The account recited was about Chabon’s son, Abraham “Abe,” and his memorable, coming-of-age experience at Paris Fashion Week. Chabon channeled the voice of his son through dialogue, making his listeners laugh at Abe’s contemporary youth, while sympathizing with the boy’s fervor for the fashion world. The piece revealed that while Chabon wanted to give his son the ultimate bar mitzvah present (the trip to Fashion Week), he was still oblivious to the way his youngest son was growing up before his eyes.

“You are born into a family and those are your people, and they know you and they love you and if you are lucky they even, on occasion, manage to understand you. And that ought to be enough,” Chabon said. “But it is never enough.”

Familial narratives are a common and expansive theme in many of Chabon’s fictional works. From his first published novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” (1988), to his ninth, and most recent, “Moonglow” (2016), Chabon manages to explore family dynamics, kinships, and its complications in unconventional forms of storytelling. Whether it’s between husband and wife (“Wonder Boys”), first cousins (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”), or father and son (“Telegraph Avenue”), the use of elaborate familial plots serve as a compelling centerpiece that integrates other strong aspects in Chabon’s writing, which also include long-winded sentences and sweeping metaphors.

Before Chabon’s introduction, Domestico passed out index cards at the beginning of the reading so that the audience could jot down questions for the Q&A portion. This technique of selecting questions from a deck of cards post-reading is not uncommon to Chabon; he used this similar approach during his appearance at the Politics & Prose Bookstore in D.C. last December. As a result, the reading smoothly transitioned into a discussion as Chabon shuffled through index cards, answering questions about his writing style, career trajectory setbacks, and his latest book.

“Moonglow,” a series of conversational, non-sequential stories told from a grandfather to his grandson, in first-person narration, has been debated by articles and reviews alike as to whether it should be read as Chabon’s memoir or an actual, fictional narrative. Chabon intentionally manipulates his readers by naming his narrator Mike Chabon. Despite this addition, “Moonglow” is, in fact, a novel. Stated as “a pack of lies” in the acknowledgments, Chabon set the record straight to the attentive audience sitting before him in the lecture hall.

“This is a real document [at the beginning of the novel]. It’s like a magic act. You come and see the stage magician, you know he’s going to be fooling you, and you want to be fooled,” Chabon said. “The novel is designed to fool you, the magician is designed to fool you, and you say, ‘Please fool me, just make it really good.’ ”

After the event, Chabon signed books, took selfies, and engaged with students and faculty members outside of the lecture hall. His next visit to Purchase College will be in the Humanities Theater, Nov. 1, when he’ll host a discussion about his experience co-writing the screenplay for Disney’s “John Carter” (2012). On Nov. 2, he will screen the movie for the audience.

“He’s a wonderful writer and a generous person,” Domestico said, “so we suspected that Purchase students and faculty would enjoy reading his work and interacting with him in different ways throughout the year.”