Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pull Me Out Alive

Yesterday I had to write a brief essay on Michael Chabon for a larger project, and in doing a bit of research I found a 2008 essay of his in The New Yorker, which I remember reading when it came out. Chabon is an escape artist, an artist of escape, and perhaps even a philosopher of sorts, whose stories teach us that we can escape perhaps only when we realize that we cannot. He recounts the following story from a religious-school class called Jewish Ethics:

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly as it was experienced in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a fine story about a boy who loved Superman so much that he tied a red towel around his neck, climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of "UP, up, and away," leaped to his death. There was known to have been such a boy, Mr. Spector informed us--at least one verifiable boy, so enraptured and so betrayed by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

But if escape and escapism are problems of the ethical realm, Chabon has no problem engaging with ethical dilemmas, brandishing his knack for storytelling and impulse toward mystery. And, anyway, it was not about escape, Chabon wanted to tell his teacher; it was about transformation.

I think there is a cultural need for this kind of fantasy, this longing to throw a make-shift red cape about our shoulders and be magically transformed. No doubt Linus Steinman, the mute 9-year-old boy in Chabon's The Final Solution who has escaped from Nazi Germany with his only companion, an African gray parrot, would have experienced this very same longing.

I remember back in 2004, browsing an old bookstore in Seattle with a friend. I noticed my friend, a child of survivors, gripping a book with a giant parrot on the cover, staring intently at it (I didn't realize it was Chabon's new book), as if he planned to use it as a weapon of some sort. "What are you doing to the parrot book?" I asked.

My friend, who had a flair for the dramatic, said, "Michael Chabon gets it. He gets it." When I finally read The Final Solution, I realized what he meant. Devoid of the standard, even stereotypical, images of corpses, crematoria, and barbed wire, it's the unlikeliest of Holocaust novels. In fact, it's not even mentioned, but for a few oblique but well-placed allusions to the disaster. We don't ask "why?" in relation to the Holocaust. Instead, we are fixated on who has stolen the boy's parrot and why. In Auschwitz, there is no why, and often, in talking about things that cannot be explained, we run the risk of trivializing or sensationalizing them. Chabon, it seems, gets it.

Our current position in history has placed us in the wake of so many terrors and tragedies of all kinds. And I think that, for this reason, we experience a collective longing to be saved, and to see others be saved, imagining ourselves in turn as savior or saved. Chabon's fiction taps into these needs. There are some events from which we cannot escape, but also from which we cannot help but long to be rescued. Chabon's characters come alive for us because they mirror our own secret desires for fantasy--or, perhaps it is reality that we long for, as an escape from the era in which we stand, an era that feels more like fantasy than reality.

And one more possibility: perhaps, in the so-called real world, in our world, novelists and storytellers are the ones who wear the metaphorical red capes. Perhaps storytellers alone possess the ability to transform us all. Chabon writes: "Now the time has come to propose, or confront, a fundamental truth: like the being who wears it, the superhero costume is, by definition, and impossible object. It cannot exist." But if it can't exist, it's only because our need for it to exist depends on public amnesia, a disavowal of a history in which there have been no cosmic superheroes--only the deafening sound of silence. Perhaps it is literature that has the power and potential to obliterate the desire for the costume. For without the costume, what is revealed instead is the "truth of the story we carry in our hearts, the story of our transformation, of our story's recommencement, of our rebirth into the world of adventure, of story itself."


Casey said...

"...we can escape perhaps only when we realize that we cannot."

I was just teaching The Scarlet Letter to my undergrads, and was struck more than I have been previously by just this idea. Craggy old Chillingworth stalks guilt-ridden Rev. Dimmesdale for 200 pages until Dimmesdale finally climbs up on the scaffold to publicly confess to an affair with Hester. Once he's made his confession, Chillingworth says,

"Hadst thou sought the whole earth over, there was no place so secret,--no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me,--save on this very scaffold!"

Dimmesdale then thanks G-d for leading him there, to the scaffold.

Monica said...

I love The Scarlett Letter. And you've really nailed it with this moment from the story--the idea that escape likely looks much different than we anticipate. Concealment often leads not to one's escape from consequences or criticisms, but to a much deeper and darker imprisonment from which one can't escape.

Oh, man, do I sound melodramatic now. It's time to go to sleep, I think.