Revenge of the Regressive Avant-Garde

True hoaxes are radical. Chabon's posturing turns out to lend support to a conservative a vision of Jewish identity that's ideologically noxious and, ultimately, cruel. As I listened, I found myself laughing and impressed, but I also listened to the audience's enthusiastic clapping and wondered whether they were applauding the entertainment or the sentiments behind it.

Michael Chabon's conservative fictions

You may have seen a small and strange article in last Monday’s New York Times, buried beneath the fold in the back of the business section: “Fiction, Hoax or Neither? A Literary Dust-Up.” The article reports on an essay by Paul Maliszewski in the April/May issue of Bookforum, in which he argues that a lecture given several times by Michael Chabon constitutes a deliberate and dodgy attempt to hoax his audience. In the lecture, titled “Golems I Have Known,” Chabon describes, among other hoaxsters, a Jewish writer writing under a good Waspish pseudonym, CB Colby, who then publishes a Holocaust memoir in his own name, Joseph Adler. But it seems that Adler isn’t his real name either, and the author of the memoir is not a survivor but a Nazi named Fischer. As it turns out, Colby/Adler/Fischer never existed, and the fake Holocaust memoir The Book of Hell, which Chabon says is owned by his father, his father-in-law, and perhaps by members of the audience, and from which he goes on to quote a passage, is a novelistic invention of one Michael Chabon. Maliszewski argues that Chabon is taking advantage of his audience’s gullibility in order to show off, and thereby edits out history’s CB Colby, a real man with no connections to Nazis or Jews whatsoever. In Maliszewski’s eyes, this amounts to unethical fiction writing.

The Times does not actually address the substance of Maliszewski’s essay; instead it casts doubt on it by attacking the author’s credibility in the plainest possible way. He is said to have “admitted” perpetrating a hoax on The Business Journal of Central New York, when in fact he mentions that hoax, a brilliant send-up of a right-wing paper described in Baffler #11, as proof of his interest in and sympathy for hoaxsters, not as newspapery “full disclosure.” The Times then opens the floor to Maliszewski’s former employer, Dave Eggers, who accuses him of writing “blasphemous” emails about McSweeney’s while serving as that magazine’s web editor. This is a smear and an unethical one. As for Chabon, he gets off without comment, an established artist whose “work” is allowed to “speak for itself.”

So what does Chabon’s lecture say? In rapid response to the Bookforum article, Nextbook, the Jewish writers’ organization that sponsors the series, put it up on their website. It turns out that “lying” is the big theme of the lecture, as in much of Chabon’s writing. The young novelist in Wonder Boys is a compulsive liar, and his brilliant first novel is described by the narrator as “irremediably false … a fiction produced by someone who knew only fictions.” But Chabon has never risen to the challenge of this early self-diagnosis. His more recent work features trickster characters, magicians, and escape artists who never question themselves so cleverly or intently. In his young adult baseball novel, Summerland, he even revives Loki and the Native American hoaxster Wile E. Coyote. “Golems I Have Known” is no different, except it is a more directly autobiographical fiction featuring Chabon’s own father, a compulsive liar, the kind of man who would forge Carl Yastrzemski signature on a bat and give it to his son as a birthday present. He is also, as it turns out, the kind of man who would, on Chabon’s wedding day, take him aside and lament, privately, the fact that his son was not marrying Jewish.

Given this explicit engagement with fakes, lying, and tall tales, how can anyone accuse Chabon of hoaxing anyone? And yet it does seem that Maliszewski was right to sense something fishy about the lecture. Chabon’s Holocaust story isn’t a hoax in the way of, say, Alan Sokal’s article for Social Text, which exposed the poor judgment of the journal’s editors and undermined the authority of “French Theory.” Chabon’s faux Holocaust memoir is part of a writerly tactic to get the audience on his side by appealing to deep-seated prejudices and fears. It strengthens existing authority. True hoaxes are radical. Chabon’s posturing turns out to lend support to a conservative a vision of Jewish identity that’s ideologically noxious and, ultimately, cruel. As I listened, I found myself laughing and impressed, but I also listened to the audience’s enthusiastic clapping and wondered whether they were applauding the entertainment or the sentiments behind it.

The lecture is an aesthetic triumph, a three-part metafiction about a character called “Michael Chabon.” It makes liberal, even extravagant use of an authorial tactic old as the Arabian Nights, mise en abîme, or stories within stories. The effect on the reader, as Jorge Luis Borges, no stranger to the technique, notes in his lecture on the Arabian Nights and forgery, is “a sort of vertigo.” This vertigo effect calls attention to the artifice of fiction, but at the same time it reveals the conceit of authorship and makes all identity a fiction. In a medieval Muslim world where a sultan can execute his storytelling wife if she bores or offends him, and the imams are on the lookout for blasphemy, you can understand why a teller of secular tales might try to disclaim responsibility for her own words, and why a tradition of “fake” authorship might come into being. But why should Chabon do it in the protected land of the free, unless he too fears judgment and some part of him feels uncomfortable with what he’s saying?

Chabon works his mise en abîme trick this way: while we can all understand how the Michael Chabon telling the story is different from Michael Chabon the character, it’s more complicated when Chabon says that the fictional Colby/Adler/Fischer bears a resemblance to “the figment of an author, August Van Zorn, a character from my novel Wonder Boys.” And again, when Chabon recounts his first meeting at age 12 with Colby/Adler/Fischer, “he told me my glasses were too big for my face. Something I’ve been uncomfortable about ever since.” At these moments, Chabon disappears inside himself. The author of the lecture becomes identical with the character in the lecture, and neither are real. This technique allows Chabon to disclaim any responsibility for the truth, or any authority for what he goes on to say about Judaism. Or, put another way, the only authority he allows is a “true-to-life” experience he acknowledges to be false.

In some ways, this is a brilliant parable about religion. Religion is nothing but a series of myths and legends that we know to be fakes but choose to believe anyway because they have some mystical authority, also false, or because their falseness nevertheless allows us to create an identity for ourselves, to become the gods and heroes of our own imaginations. But Chabon is uncomfortable with religion and identity, that much is clear. His creed: there’s only one God and we kind of sort of don’t really believe in him but we like the stories. Yet for all that, there are particular falsehoods he wants to remain loyal to and repeat. There are stories that signify Jewishness for him, and out of these comes a politics as well. Through the layers of finely woven metafictional dazzle, we recognize a whisper of xenophobic and, at the end, sinisterly stupid ideas. It may be unconscious, and Chabon, self-proclaimed accomplished mimic and showman, may merely be taking dictation from the mental environment, but it is a politics for all that.

The xenophobia emerges subtly out of the lecture’s plot. The “Adler episode” singled out in Maliszewski’s article is the middle of three stories about Chabon’s emerging Jewish consciousness. Each story is presided over by a golem, a concrete symbol of mystical Jewishness drawn from the book of legends. The first golem is built by “Uncle Jack,” owner of a convenience store in Harlem. Uncle Jack’s store is burnt down during the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination, and Jack is done in when he falls chasing a robber. Young Chabon thinks that golem did it. The dark men he imagines burning down the store mingle with the dark figure of a golem he tinkers with in Uncle Jack’s basement. The golem is punishing them, but for what?

Then there’s the Adler episode. The golem there is made by Adler’s wife, a Jew who rescued the Nazi and married him and became an accomplice in his attempts to pass himself off as a survivor. That story leads to the last episode: the story of Chabon’s first marriage to a woman he ends up calling “my goyish wife,” and his own unmasking, this time not as a Nazi in disguise but a Jew. Throughout the marriage, someone keeps sending “Chabon” magical tablets for animating a golem in the mail. To Chabon’s mind, these tablets are a sort of symbol of unerasable Jewishness, and Chabon doesn’t want to show them to his wife. He begins to think about his father’s sadness at his son having married outside the tribe. “All those years of Jews marrying Jews,” his father says wistfully. Chabon never says that his father’s sentence brings about the end of his first marriage, but he implies it. He never explains how he came to want to father authentically Jewish children, fruits of an authentically kosher womb. We don’t know why this gleeful postmodern master of deception, magic tricks, and the inauthentic is suddenly seized with a lust for authenticity.

If Chabon really loved his “goyish wife,” we wonder, why didn’t he ask her to convert? The audience is not getting anything close to the true story of Chabon’s divorce here. Worse, we’re being told an explicit cover story. Clay tablets! Maybe he was having an affair. Maybe she was shtupping the goyish postman? On some level, Chabon knows he’s really faking it. Given how often he uses the word “lies” and “liar” in his lecture when he might have said “fiction” or “story,” a part of him must believe in honesty and truth. Unfortunately, he’s too far gone into his stories within stories to recognize when the truth is required for a fiction writer to be anything more than a showman. His speaking voice becomes more musing and uncertain as he recounts his second marriage to the Jewish writer Ayelet Waldman—a real Jew from Jerusalem, as he can’t resist telling the audience. For a minute, he speaks in something close to his own voice, a quotation from West Side Story. “All this hokum about golems and the point is ‘one of your own kind, stick to your own kind.'”

At last a ray of light. “But that’s not the point,” he hastens to reassure us, “there isn’t a point.” He’s embarrassed a little bit. He didn’t mean it. He doesn’t want that to be the point, but all the golems he’s known are pointing towards Jewish isolationism and separatism. Uncle Jack is the only Jew not to move out of Harlem, and he loses his livelihood and his life. The Colby/Adler/Fischer hoax is another story about a bad mixed marriage: the Nazi rescued by the Jewess in an unexplained instance of Stockholm Syndrome. In the end, the golem of Chabon’s father intervenes to rescue him from his own mixed marriage. The golem no longer protects Jews from persecution, it reinstitutes the ghetto.

If this were all, it might still be okay. Chabon is certainly allowed to be a conservative Jewish writer if he desires. But he goes further. He ends the lecture with a conversion story. He and his second wife visit Yad Vashem. Afterwards, Chabon emerges into the sunshine, “tears streaming from my eyes,” and finds he has one simple wish: “Let there be more of us. Let us not disappear.” Any Jew can have this thought after seeing Yad Vashem. In the context of what’s come before, however, this plays less as a spontaneous reaction than an apology. It is an obvious attempt to coopt the Holocaust into Michael Chabon’s personal quest for American Jewish identity and to make it seem as though the only answer to the horror of genocide is increased isolationism and a politics of racial purity and proper breeding that the Nazis would admire.

Nextbook couldn’t have asked for a better parable of contemporary American Jewish identity. Jews are no more guilty of playing identity politics than any other group, but no longer are they less guilty. Once prized, assimilation to a secular enlightenment tradition is on the wane. Real Jews attend Jewish schools, read Jewish writers, denounce Columbia University’s Middle Eastern Studies Department, support Israel, and, don’t forget, marry other Jews like them. If you’re a secular Jew, an atheist Jew, an anti-Zionist Jew, or an intermarried Jew, you have been silently excommunicated. You become unrecognizable to these other Jews. The modern Orthodox look past you when you push elevator buttons for them on Shabbas. Theirs is the one true faith; they are the only followers of the law.

If the Holocaust and the broader history of the 20th century revealed anything to Jews, it ought to have been that Judaism is no longer a mere choice, a performed identity or set of religious observances. Assimilated Jews were once attacked for thinking conformity could save them. No matter how far you go from Judaism, they were told (correctly), someone else might still shoot you because they think you are too Jewish. The grandchildren of mixed marriages died in the Holocaust. Confirmed atheists in the Soviet Union still had “Jew” stamped on their passports. There is no escape from being Jewish. But conforming to socially conservative interpretations of Jewish law didn’t save anyone either. Nor does it follow, as Chabon suggests, that Jews will disappear if every single one intermarries in a generation. Traditions carry on in ungovernable and mysterious ways, and the last thing we need is the sentimentalization of an ugly fundamentalism by a skillful jongleur like Chabon. He makes it too hard to tell if he’s committed the smaller fraud. He’s so smart, so likable! But he’s clearly an accomplice to the bigger one.

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