By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
All of a sudden young-adult fiction is the thing to do. A disparate lineup of authors, from literary-fiction factory Joyce Carol Oates and horror writer Clive Barker to the Floridian parodist Carl Hiaasen, are bringing out books for an audience far younger than their norm. Leading the way is Michael Chabon, whose new book, Summerland, is his first for younger readers and arrives with the buzz associated with special and unusual things. It‘s special due to predictions that the novel could sell like the Harry Potter books; unusual because Summerland is the follow-up to Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize--winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. From the get-go, then, this book is an odd duck -- a first-rate author‘s effort to craft a story destined for an enormous middlebrow audience.
Chabon claims that he simply wanted to write something his three children would read, but you can’t help but wonder if there are less noble ends at play. His last two films were optioned by film producer Scott Rudin; Wonder Boys was, of course, made -- and made well -- by Curtis Hanson. And on his Web site, Chabon writes of three failed efforts to create a TV series, noting ”the tantalizing financial possibilities presented by writing for television.“ Perhaps it‘s no coincidence that Summerland is published by Miramax BooksHyperion, a synergy-ready publisher if ever there was one.
For the most part, though, I take the writer at his word. What has made Chabon’s previous books so effective is that they have invariably succeeded as both high culture and mass entertainment. They‘re engaging intellectually, yet Chabon never sacrifices the flow of the story for games or tricks. Kavalier and Clay’s story about two Depression-era comic book artists showed his sincere affection for ”low“ forms of literature. And in January, McSweeney‘s will publish an issue edited by Chabon, a collection of best-selling authors doing genre stories -- crime, sci-fi, Westerns and the like. Clearly, he believes there’s something to be said for popular culture.
Even the way he mines his ”literary“ influences speaks to how Chabon considers storytelling his paramount virtue. One of his favorite authors is Jorge Luis Borges, and the presence of the magical realist‘s work is palpable in the way Chabon spices the mundane world with hints of the fantastic. But he reads less like Borges than he does like a kind of Californian Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Chabon’s prose is rich, but he never employs language for language‘s sake. Rather, his seductive flow of verbiage acts as a kind of gully wash, carrying the reader along in waves of sentiment, emotion, affection.
Where Marquez’s work has a constant, low-level erotic charge, the constant in Chabon‘s work is characters with a warm and sunny disposition -- in spite of less-than-sunny circumstances. Wonder Boys featured a pothead author, a debauched editor and a suicidal student; Kavalier and Clay, a closeted homosexual and his angsty Eastern European cousin, who has just escaped from the hands of the Nazis. But the lot of them still seem so . . . nice. They can be painfully sincere, but they are never insipid, and the result is a wonderful kind of fiction; motives are clear in Chabon’s world, and manipulation is largely absent. (Machiavelli would probably do quite well for himself there.) The division between good and evil may not sync up with the world we live in, but what could be better for a children‘s book?
Summerland reads like a brilliant bedtime story, improvised installment by installment over several hundred nights of those punchy minutes before tuck-in. It’s about baseball, a reluctant 11-year-old hero named Ethan Feld, and his quest to save an American idyll off the coast of Washington state where it never rains. It is also about the possible end of the world.
Ethan is a hapless Little League player, his father a hapless inventor, and their reduced family of two still reels from the cancer death of Ethan‘s mother. The plot gets rolling when a villainous venture capitalist tricks Mr. Feld into helping a satanic figure named Coyote invent a machine that will poison the waters that feed the Tree of Life. This will hasten the coming of Ragged Rock, the end of the world by another name. Soon, Ethan is introduced to the natives of Summerland, an elfin race known as ferishers, who pick him as their hero. Ethan and his rapidly multiplying cast of associates attempt to track down Coyote by scampering between dimensions in Skidbladnir, a family dirigible invented by Mr. Feld. To name but a few of the secondary characters that Ethan collects over the course of the story, there is a sasquatch named Taffy; a Cuban defector and batting champ for the Anaheim Angels, Rodrigo Buendia; and a tiny giant named Grim.
The book borrows from several strands of myth, though Chabon intertwines them freely so that there is no clear-cut derivation. The wise ferishers are stand-ins for Native Americans. Ragged Rock seems an awful lot like Ragnarok in Norse mythology, a final world battle between gods and giants. Mr. Feld’s flying car, Skidbladnir, is also of Scandinavian design -- it‘s a modified Saab. The mischievous Coyote seems a stand-in for the Norse god Loki, though he could represent the Native American trickster -- or both. Still, the story is most of all a tale of discovery. New allies, opponents and confrontations are constantly introduced, then resolved one by one. Summerland thus unfolds a bit like a video game, as Ethan and company scamper between worlds with the rapidity of Super Mario tackling new levels of the Nintendo franchise.
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