Thinking about Michael Chabon on Erev Yom Kippur

From Wonder Boys, p. 275 of the paperback (the movie tie-in edition, with Michael Douglas on the cover): a paragraph that ends with what I think is a great sentence, but one that’s hard to extract from what comes right before it—which, in turn, is somewhat impenetrable out of context. Here’s the opening:

I looked at James, remembering the sight of him in the Gaskells’ backyard, the trembling flash of silver in his hand. Then I looked down at the spine of the book Crabtree had handed me and saw, to my amazement, that it was a rebound copy of The Abominations of Plunkettsburg, by August Van Zorn, property of the Sewickley Public Library. According to the circulation label it had been checked out three times, most recently in September of 1974. I closed my eyes and tried to clear my head of this proof of the uselessness of Albert Vetch’s art, of all art and energy and human life in general. There was a sudden rumble of nausea in my belly and the familiar spray of white noise across the inside of my skull. I waved my hand in front of my face, as though shooing away a cloud of bees.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll probably remember this scene, when Crabtree and Grady go to rescue James from his parents’ house; if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recognize the characters: James is Grady’s young student who almost shot himself in the head earlier in the weekend, in the backyard of the house shared by Grady’s lover and her husband, Grady’s boss; Crabtree is Grady’s agent; and August Van Zorn (Chabon’s Kilgore Trout, in a way, although the comparison isn’t perfect) is the pen name of Albert Vetch, a hack who lived in the hotel where Grady grew up, and whose work as a pulp horror writer Grady and Crabtree discovered a shared affection for when they first met in an intro fiction class in college. The book is one of many that James has stolen from the library. Wonder Boys is set, I think, roughly in the early nineties; in other words, 1974 was a while ago. Which all leads to this:

I saw that I could write ten thousand more pages of shimmering prose and still be nothing but a blind minotaur stumbling along broken ground, an unsuccessful, overweight ex–wonder boy with a pot habit and a dead dog in the trunk of my car.

Which keeps haunting me. In spite of the inclusion of “human life in general” in the list of things that are useless, I read this to be the narrator realizing that if you make great art, but are still a lousy human being, the former doesn’t in any way absolve you of the latter. The quotidian side of the obligation to do good—being an honest and righteous person in your everyday life, in your daily interactions with people, is imperative, regardless of the greater effect your work may or may not have in the wider world. (Your great novel, brilliant discovery, innovative nonprofit, etc. might change somebody’s life, but does that give you permission to treat your friend, your child, your spouse, your gas-station attendant, your employee unkindly? No.)

Does Chabon feel this way himself? I get the feeling he does.

Is it not that far a leap to go from this to the President saying “I can say without hesitation that the most challenging, most fulfilling, most important job I will have during my time on this Earth is to be Sasha and Malia’s dad“? I think it’s not.

If I have wronged you, the person reading this, in any way in the past year, I am sorry, and I hope you will forgive me.

If you have wronged me in any way, I forgive you.