The latest issue of McSweeney’s includes a four-chapter excerpt of Michael Chabon‘s Fountain City, which was intended to be his second novel had he ever been able to finish it. Fountain City had a spectacular concept, but thanks to five years of fruitless labor, it became a spectacular failure: In his introduction, he explains that “over the course of the next half decade I wrote fifteen hundred pages and incorporated into the plot and fabric of the novel everything from messianic Zionism to French cuisine to radical environmental activism. And baseball. Oh, and Japanese monster movies.”
Sounds like fun, but on the evidence of the 70-odd pages Chabon reveals, it’s hard to imagine why he didn’t quit sooner, or how any reader could get to page 100, let alone 1,500. His hero, Harry Klezmer, drifts over two continents, three cities, and a few dozen pages while performing little that resembles a character-defining action. His father encourages him to go to Israel, an offer he declines; he goes to D.C. to meet Foster, his late brother’s partner, and they discuss death in a perfunctory way; he goes to Paris and gets chatted at by the locals. Stuff happens, as stuff in novels do, but Harry is responsible for putting little of that stuff into motion. “At night he flirted unsuccessfully with the female inmates of the hostel,” Chabon writes, which seems preposterous—it’s nearly impossible to imagine him doing something so intentional as flirting with somebody (though, true, it’s easy to imagine him being unsuccessful at it).
In the introduction and the copious footnotes to the chapters, Chabon cops to the problem with this “rather insubstantial hero,” and points out how Harry’s lack of motivation gummed up the plotting. But Chabon still has difficulty pinpointing exactly how his book went off the rails. To hear him tell it in his footnotes, failed fiction is largely due to a kind of misapplication of personal experience—he was suffering less from craft and style problems and more from an inability to make the detritus of his life do the bidding of the great god Theme. Chabon footnotes a casual mention of an Earth First-ish organization, Earth Five-O, by explaining that he initially intended to take a dig at a former college acquaintance, and later “had come to see the idea of ecological restoration, in kabbalistic terms, as tikkun olam—mending the world—and felt that it belonged at the core of my story.” But, he notes: “The history of failure is rife with such tasty and illusive visions.”
Elsewhere, he notes that his own love-hate relationship with Paris may have been part of the problem: “I could not help but write about [the city]; and yet, inevitably, the thought, and then the act, of doing so embarrassed me…. This may, in retrospect, have been one of my fundamental problems with F.C.” And in his concluding remarks he suggests that the whole botched thing was a product of bad timing—if only he had met his wife earlier, he might have found a way to make the novel work. “She read it before she had settled in as my First Reader, as a novelist’s spouse,” he writes. “She read it before she had learned to harness the talent, strength, advocacy, and all the skills of articulate persuasion she had….”
Chabon’s being a bit arch in saying that, I think. But it does suggest that those old feelings of frustration welled up as Chabon went back through his old pages—“grooving on them, just a little bit,” as he writes, but also exasperated over all that effort. If scrutinizing the story’s mechanical failures is too painful (and, to be fair, probably too dull to read about in footnote form), he can at least look back though the manuscript to get in touch with his memories or enthuse about his wife’s smarts as a close reader. If you don’t want to deal with why you changed the first sentence of the novel three times (at least), you can at least tell a few tales about your sexual history, about some important figures from your childhood, about a few amusing coincidences.
One thing Chabon never suggests throughout his notes to Fountain City is that it was wasted effort. “I believe in failure; only failure rings true,” he writes. “Success is an aberration, a random instance devoid of meaning.” He’s probably being a bit arch there too—it’s only his successes that have given him the time and opportunity to address his failures. But believing in failure is much more reasonable; after spending five years toiling on an unpublished (and perhaps unpublishable) novel, believing in success can only feel hubristic.