Michael Chabon: “Citizen Conn”

02/13/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, February 13 & 20, 2012.

If you take this as a story about the decades-old feud between two golden-age comic-book creators, the stubborn artist Morton Feather and his writing partner, Artie Conn, then you’re going to be disappointed: despite being written by the same author, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay this is not. Likewise, if you take this as a spin on Citizen Kane, in which an empty success of sorts is traced back to a deep-seated childhood unhappiness, you’ll probably also be let down. These tropes have been tread before, and although Chabon has done well in revisiting or reinventing genre fiction with his creativity, short stories don’t give him nearly the amount of space he needs for that layered sort of world-building. However, if you accept the grasping meaning of what Chabon’s struggling with — “our everlasting human cluelessness” and the ways in which our dreams of the future constantly blind us to the already-achieved happiness of the past — then this is a fairly decent story that is flawed in its perhaps needless ornamental descriptions.

The baseline, as in the escapism of Clay, is that troubled boys create heroes to save themselves, and what destroys the partner- and friendship of Feather and Conn is Conn’s choice to drag reality (of the monetary sort) into the fantasies this painter so desperately needed. Now that both men are facing death, Conn’s desperate to repair the rift between them and be forgiven, but Feather refuses, entombing himself instead among the few remaining possessions — painting after painting after painting — that fill his apartment in the Zion Pointe Residence for Independent Seniors. Our narrator, incidentally, is as neutral as they get — a female rabbi with no real knowledge of these artists (her fanboy husband provides that service) –, a choice that allows Chabon to emphasize that neither of these men are “right” and that the complexities of human emotion are not so easily satisfied as through money and fame. Feather’s life and livelihood have become like ashes to him, corrupted by the death of his friend’s imagination and support; on the other hand, Conn has realized that fame and fortune are meaningless to him without his friend, and now he’s determined to “give him peace before he dies if it kills him.”

But this is not all that Chabon fills the pages with; the result is a bit freewheeling and overlong. I’ve always had a problem with descriptions, particularly in short stories, for I prefer the writing to be sleek and minimalist: to either stay tersely on point, or to wander through layers of ideas (like Waking Life) without ever committing to any single point, trusting in the strength of characters to provoke our own conclusions. Chabon’s details, unfortunately, fail to make the point about these men, and focus instead on irrelevant facts about the community, the rabbinical services, the comic book business. And while the neutrality of the narrator is, as I mentioned, a strength toward addressing the key and unknowable concepts, the narrator herself does not have to be quite so vague and, dare-I-say-it, stereotypical. (“I had noticed that there tended, even among the least observant Jews, to be something about my presence, as a rabbi, that struck people as ineluctable. Men with no faith, women with nothing in their hearts but guilt, rage, or the accumulated inky soot of years of fierce denial, had crossed crowded ballrooms and airports to give me the opportunity to condemn them or force them to confess.” Do you see how, even in giving us a generality like this, Chabon tends to add flourishes?)

I connect, ultimately, to the final paragraph more than I do to any of the characters or plotting, and I think that’s illustrative more of the flaws of the rest of Chabon’s story than to its cumulative weight. I felt an emptiness in reading this, and was therefore waiting for something to reach out and grab me: this direct final paragraph, which pointedly draws a conclusion, succeeds in doing so. We can do better.

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