“Tell, don’t show”

By Patrick M

You may already know that in 1924 Gilbert Seldes published a book called The Seven Lively Arts, which was one of the first attempts at claiming that the low- and middle-brow offerings of popular culture (American popular culture, specifically) were as valid as the highbrow, and in some ways more vital. What you might not know is that even though he lived until 1970, Seldes never wrote a follow-up book called Oh Wait Here Are Two More Lively Arts They Are Comic Books and Their Precursor Genre Fiction Specifically The Pulps (possibly hopes for doing so were quashed by the release of Seduction of the Innocent by professional expert witness Fredric Wertham, which covered similar territory with different conclusions).

Ah, writing that paragraph brings Michael Chabon in his long hair running over the fields.

Kavalier & Clay covers roughly the same period as the Golden Age of Comics: which spans the debut of Superman in 1938 to the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1953. Leaving aside some PoMo moments (e.g., footnotes describing how much Amazing Midget Radio Comics #1 (VG) went for at Sotheby’s) and one other “key” (Escapist joke!) exception (which, hang on, I’m getting to it), Kavalier & Clay read to me like a pretty straightforward, Realist Telling of How It Went Down.

Like, to the point where if you didn’t have any background in comics history, I don’t think you missed anything: Chabon literally takes every major Golden Age event I can think of and fairly accurately (though through the filter of his protagonists) gives the thumbnail version. (The only Comicsy-thing-From-This-Era I can think of that Chabon didn’t touch on was the bootleg pornographic comics known as “Tijuana Bibles”, which might have made for a fun footnote, although on the other hand I found the book to be largely sexless.) (As in actual doin’ it sex; I am aware that Sam had some stuff he was working through and there was that one time Rosa was holding onto Joe’s you know what let’s move on.)

I’m not an expert on comic book history, but I know a bit and I know how to use a free encyclopedia, and even the details in the book seem to have clear Actual Antecedents: (1) the cover of the first Captain America depicted Captain America punching out Hitler; (2) Bat Man artist Jerry Robinson has cited Citizen Kane as an influence in his work; (3) Shuster and Siegel sold the rights to Superman to National Allied for $100 and fought for the rest of their lives to get it back; (4) as in the book, pretty much anyone involved in comics was Jewish: Chabon attributes this partly to higher paying commercial art and advertising jobs being closed to Jews, leaving only pulp and comic publishers as options, but also quotes Will Eisner (whose Contract with God is considered to be one of the first graphic novels and parallels Joe’s Golem toward the end of the book): “I’ve often wondered if there wasn’t something else at work, if there wasn’t some other explanation. We have this history of impossible solutions to insoluble problems.”

The “Amazing Website of Kavalier & Clay” (www.sugarbombs.com/kavalier) also has a Real Kavaliers & Clays entry which lists a few more specific inspirations, the most improbably precise of which might be Nick Fury artist Jim Steranko, who started life as a magician and escape artist (preferring “liberationist”), and was himself the inspiration for Jack Kirby’s character of a “Super Escape Artist” named “Mister Miracle”.

For the initiated, these scan as knowing asides; for everyone else, they progress a windy but not-that-complicated story: I frankly see the characters as trapped in Chabon’s need to get the history of this period down, with a notable exception (getting to it). How different is this novel from Never Let Me Go, where the truly terrible things in the book are so subtly presented, they only occur to you ten minutes after you read them? Kavalier & Clay has the opposite problem, I think, which is that Chabon’s mantra is “Tell, don’t show.” This is an advantage for a genre/pulp writer who needs to get in and out; to see it in a novel was ultimately wearying for me, except for (this is it) the one thing that is not like the others, and which for me is the emotional (and physical) heart of the novel: the Antarctica section, “Radioman”.

I read Kavalier & Clay when it came out, and since then when I thought about this book at all, this is the part I remembered most strongly. (Here is something that surprised me: the book is 639 pages; of these, the Radioman section takes up 46.)

In “Radioman”, there are some glancing references to the comics stuff but I think here Chabon is digging deeper and getting into the stuff that the comic book cannibalized: the genre story. It also feels like the first time Chabon is announcing that he’s not fucking around. It’s a structurally weird departure from everything that came before it. The location shifts from the everything of New York to the nothing of Antarctica. Joe aside, every character is new, and the immediate killing off of all of them is startling (and while not as sad as the sinking of The Ark of Miriam, it has a more visceral impact since their bodies remain physically present). The story that unfolds is creepy and harrowing and feels like nothing else in the novel. It feels like a pulp story.

It’s also the only section where the themes of the book were not immediately apparent: I at first planned to jot down notes as I reread this book and stopped because everything was dumb and obvious: Sam’s name is Klayman and the golem is a clay man; the material is escapist about an Escapist and they are trying to use it to escape their circumstances; he’s Jewish and his forbidden love is named Bacon – but the relevance of the “Radioman” section isn’t immediately apparent and I think as a result the ideas of isolation, otherness, and (duh-squared) “escape” resonate more strongly.

The other thing I get from Radioman is how freeing it feels: Chabon drops 422 pages of a novel and starts fresh on a focused knot of storytelling that is still thematically related but is also a “ripping yarn”. When he goes back to wrap up the novel, it feels a little like he’s wrapping up a novel. (This is not 100% fair: there is a lot at stake, but afterRadioman, it feels diminished.)

Kavalier & Clay marked a turning point for Chabon: his first book, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was followed by a failed attempt called Fountain City (Chabon’s account indicates he kept adding tangentially related plotlines to it until it became an overwhelming katamari which he finally abandoned). This led him to write The Wonder Boys, which features a writer overwhelmed by his sophomore attempt. Kavalier & Clay was his third novel. His subsequent work has been defined by a focus on genre.

In a 2001 interview with the Commonwealth Club, Chabon said he had grown dissatisfied with the short stories that he was reading in magazines: “To me, the roots of the short story come out of that kind of fiction. They go back to Edgar Allen Poe, to Balzac, to Kipling. These are writers that wrote what we would now tend to call more genre fiction – horror, detective, mystery, adventure. At the time they were writing, that is what a short story was. There was no genre; that was the genre. I guess I’m trying to work my way back towards that a little bit, and then hopefully toward a more contemporary, modern approach.”

In 2002, Chabon edited McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, which featured attempts by modern authors at the various genres of horror, detective, fantasy, adventure, and others, while eschewing the “quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth, revelatory story…sparkling with epiphanic dew.” It was followed by McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.

His other post-K&C novels include The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an alternate reality Alaskan detective story;Gentlemen of the Road, a “swashbuckling adventure” serial; The Final Solution, which references the work of various authors of detective fiction; and several actual Escapist comic books. He also published a throwback horror story inPlayboy under the name August Van Zorn. If you care to go down the rabbit hole, Chabon cites a literary critic named Leon Chaim Bach (an anagram of “Michael Chabon”) who claims that the greatest unknown horror writer of the 20thcentury is (the fake) August Van Zorn, a pseudonym for (the fake) Albert Vetch. (“Kristen C. Top-Ramen” says “Relax, Michael Chabon.”)

In an AV Club interview from 2007, he talked further on “genre” and its most commonly used definition, “something crappy”:

To me, it’s about pleasure, and the pleasure of reading, and I like to define pleasure broadly, and let it catch a lot of different possible experiences you could have while reading. It seems so obvious to me. Maybe the ghetto-ization thing is easing a little bit. I was walking through an airport bookstore today, and in the general fiction section, I saw George Pelecanos, I noticed some science fiction tucked in there. I think the situation is improving.


If Michael Chabon just convinced you to cancel your New Yorker subscription and just hang out all day at the “George Kelley Paperback and Pulp Fiction Collection”, STOP IT’S IN BUFFALO DON’T GO THERE.

Instead please consider:

  • The stories of Kelly Link, who writes what I would call really blurry speculative fiction. Many of her stories are available on her website for free download, and “Stone Animals” in Magic for Beginners is one of my favorites
  • Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, which is a similarly fun, plot-focused, historic-ish novel about an Escapist! Where real historical figures and events interact with fictional ones! Etc.!
  • Neil Gaiman: “Um, you did not just say ‘Neil Gaiman’ like we don’t know who Neil Gaiman is.” – Everybody
  • Theodore Sturgeon: the inspiration (for both the character and the name) of Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout: Sturgeon wrote 17 kerjillion stories for the pulps, beginning in 1939 and publishing through 1973. I particularly like Microcosmic God: Volume II: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon
  • If you’re still like, “No, only Michael Chabon,” for a LIMITED TIME, here is a scanned copy of The Return of the Amazing Cavalieri from Un-Told Tales of Kavalier & Clay


“Patrick M” is the nom de plume of “Patrick Mortensen”, created by putting the name “Pepper Oakmead” into a Reverse-Porn-Name Generator.

More of his writing can be found on http://recursivebee.blogspot.com and on his hard drive where it quietly waits rejection from the Quality Lit Game.

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15 Responses to “Tell, don’t show”

  1. Mans says:

    I had the same feeling about this book that I had about “Middlesex”–that the authors spend so much time situating the story in a specific historic moment so as to lend the book the weight of serious literature that the book never gets the chance to have its own weight.

    I remember a few sections–the boat sinking, the Golem, Antarctica–and I remember feeling that the end was a let down and weak-willed. But not much else–though I liked it and I like how Chabon writes. I keep hoping he will write something that will make me say, “Ah, yes! That!”

    • Patrick M says:

      In Middlesex, I kind of remember a tug of war between the family history stuff and the gender stuff and how it kind of suffered for it…
      I think in the early aughts I was a lot more forgiving of sloppy structure if I could come up with a way the sloppy structure somehow reinforced the theme of the book. Too bad for all of the ridiculously talented authors out there that someone on the internet got old and grouchy, I guess!

  2. Grinth says:

    I get the feeling that I am the only one who just loved this book. I also get the feeling that I was looking to get different things out of it then others were. The book definitely doesn’t have the weight of say, An American Pastoral, but nor do I think Chabon was striving for that to begin with.

    That being said, I really enjoyed the write up Patrick.

    • Patrick M says:

      Thanks – to be clearer, I did enjoy the book. When I read it ten years ago, I’m pretty sure I loved it. (Also, Michael Chabon has definitely won more Pulitzers than I have.) Let’s meet here in 2021, and see where we stand.

      • Grinth says:

        Great! Let me put it in my calendar.

        I’m sure it might not hold up as well under repeat readings, just like my opinion on films can and often do change upon repeat viewings. So I’m not about to declare it a work of genius or even one of my favorites, but I’d like to think my degree in English lit and my subsequent master’s degree (although in a different field) has equipped me with the tools to be properly discerning on the first read through.

        I guess I was just a little surprised how much my reactions to the book differed from others who have posted over the week.

    • thepurplemonk says:

      NO! I thought this book was excellent! I started off enjoying where it was going, and like a snowball gathering speed down a mountain, I had to keep reading. I do agree that the themes were a little obvious. But the beauty lied in the language he was using. So poignant and heartbreaking! Because of this, I was willing to forgive the unsubtle points he was making. Also, comics were never a subtle medium, and the book tried to adopt comic tropes to tell a VERY human story. So, top marks from me!

  3. stu says:

    I kind of plowed through the last half of this book (it was the weekend before the last week of December and I was afraid discussion started that Monday, whoops), but I think Patrick highlighted why this wasn’t exactly a book you had to brood over afterward to suss out it’s message. Or to enjoy. To use a little grandpa vocabulary, it struck me as “a good yarn” – memorable details and writing, but ultimately quite plot driven.

    I was interested to see Mans mention “Middlesex” and Grinth “American Pastoral.” I actually read both those novels recently, and I think Chabon does fall closer to the Euginedes/ Safran Foer crowd (seemingly popular with all of my friends) than to that of Roth. Maybe that’s not entirely fair (though it’s hardly meant as an insult) and I would personally put Chabon, based on K&C, well above both those other two authors.

    But I guess I ultimately have a preference for the “weight” found in writers like Roth over the innovative and colorful narratives those other authors hinge their writing on. Roth has an ability to quietly bring you into the thought life of a person, to make you inhabit their worldview that just awes me at times. Still, I’d kill to be able to write like Chabon too.

    • Patrick M says:

      For me, when Safran-Foer’s stuff works, it’s when you’ve lost sight of the ironic distance required to judge it: there are times he seems so guileless and stupidly honest about the characters’ emotions that all the stylistic architecture he puts up around it reinforces it, like the world’s most impressive defense mechanism. But it’s a pretty delicate balance and his stuff a lot of the time just reads as dilettanty.

      I guess where I’m going with that is: it’s hard for me to judge the more consciously pulpy stuff Chabon has done because the story gets overshadowed by the phrase “a throwback to…” Like: there’s a reason he has to throw *back* — we left all that writing behind for a reason, presumably.

      I am on board with his real point that people have forgotten how to just tell a really good story, but when he chooses to tell a really good story but by the way it is a Martian pirate horror serial that takes place in the Baxter Building written under a pseudonym, I don’t think he’s doing himself any favors in making his case.

  4. babbycakes says:

    Excellent write-up, you have such a nice pace to your words.

    Now, maybe this will forever mark me as a “Sloppy Structure in Aid of Theme” apologist and a pulpocaust denier… but I totally thought all the Obvious Metaphors like escapism and bacon were meant to be obvious in order to make you think about the idea of metaphor instead of the specific metaphor at hand. Because it’s a book about books, written about writers!

    And there is all this back and forth between historical and fictional, between art and life. I lost my notes about this somewhere, so I don’t remember exactly how I worded it, but basically if the metaphors were more subtle you would be thinking about what they mean to you directly, reader to text, but since they are so obvious you think about what they mean to the characters, or why the characters chose them, and it adds just that little bit more verisimilitude or whiff of 3D humanity to the characters.

    They seem real in that their metaphors are not subtle, and their yearnings are totally obvious and common even if they think they are being enigmatic–just like most people when they write. Or live. You know.

    So obvious metaphor is obvious, and therefore J & S seem a little more human, and we also maybe think about how People In General use metaphor to get what they are yearning for.

    (Obviously this breaks down a little near the end, when there isn’t momentum to keep the obviousness from clotting up into boredom. But for most of it, I think it’s not just an acceptable flaw but actually a strength of the writing.)

    • Patrick M says:

      Thanks for the comment. Re: the sloppy structure reinforcing the theme thing, the kinds of (potential) weaknesses that I notice in other people’s writing are the ones that I am guilty of myself (ROBVS), but I am slooowwwly getting to the point where if an author (consciously or not) writes something that calls attention to him/herself or the mechanics and takes me out of the story, it makes me throw up my hands. Are you telling me a story, or are you showing me how clever you are? (Or are you trying to hide the fact that your story isn’t that good?) FULL DISCLOSURE: My favorite story I’ve ever written turns into a Choose Your Own Adventure partway through 😦
      Now, excuse me, I have to finish the rest of this Kool-Aid James Wood made for me.

      • babbycakes says:

        I totally agree that the whole post-Safran Foer/Eggers self-aware books thing can be grating. Even Great Books that are self-aware can kind of be a little off-putting (I am thinking White Noise, which is still my boyfriend despite it.)

        But! Just like with people who drink cheap beer and like vintage, I think what distinguishes the ironists and dilettantes from those truly exploring their interests is enthusiasm and earnestness. Great boundless joy. Because it’s hard to seem wittier-than-thou and pomo slick when you are trilling with glee over something you really love. And the joy coming off this book could really just melt your face off.

        (And BTW, your CYOA story sounds like it’s probably pretty earnest and joyful as well. Everybody loves those things.)

      • Grinth says:

        “but I am slooowwwly getting to the point where if an author (consciously or not) writes something that calls attention to him/herself or the mechanics and takes me out of the story, it makes me throw up my hands.”

        I completely agree! I just didn’t really get that with Chabon. Cormac McCarthy, I definitely did. (I also have the same issue with Sorkin, hence why I did not love The Social Network as much as most people, but I digress.)

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