Michael Chabon: How to Salvage a 'Wrecked' Novel


After publishing his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon embarked on a follow-up entitled Fountain City. Five years and 1,500 pages later, Chabon had still not found his bearings, and in 1992 the project was dropped—or, as he puts it, "wrecked." Chabon was then able to dash off The Wonder Boys in seven months, win the Pulitzer Prize, and become one of America's most celebrated novelists. He recently revisited Fountain City, however, encouraged by the editors of the quirky San Francisco-based quarterly McSweeney's. An annotated, four-chapter fragment, complete with cautionary introduction and postscript is contained in the "275-cubic-inch full-color head-crate" that is McSweeney's 36.

Chabon spoke with The Atlantic from his home in Berkeley about what he was able to salvage from the wreck of Fountain City, the lessons he did or for the most part did not learn from the experience, and how this novel that never was fits into his oeuvre.

Why did you release Fountain City? And why now? By publishing it, even in fragmentary form, are you further investigating the theme of restoration (and loss)?

When I began annotating it, several years ago, I planned to go all the way through the thing, with the intention of figuring out, once and for all, what had gone wrong with it. I hoped that the experience might be useful not only for me but for millions of other failure enthusiasts and fans of ruination all around the world. Along the way, I began to see that the act of annotation promised to offer the opportunity to recover, not the novel—irrecoverable as ever—but traces and fragments of the life I had led while writing it. But then I faltered, got sidetracked, or rather maintracked, and, cleverly, found a whole new way to fail.

At some point during that time, I think I mentioned what I was trying to do to Dave Eggers. When the present editors of McSweeney's wanted to include a fragment of a novel in their "head," they came looking for me. I was a little hesitant, no more convinced than ever that anyone ought actually to read Fountain City. But in the end I decided that the annotations defaced the thing sufficiently to prevent anyone from thinking that I offered it with any kind of warranty of quality.

In your introduction you note that you've disproved or disregarded every conclusion you'd hoped to reach with the wreck of Fountain City. Then you come to Lesson 5: Marry a strong, talented, vocal, articulate and above all persuasive reader. Not everyone can marry Ayelet Waldman, however. So what is the average schlub, toiling away at his/her novel, to learn from your mistakes?

I figure Ayelet can't be the only strong, talented, etc., reader in the world! And marriage is not even required, though it does engender a certain sense of obligation in the potential reader. I don't think there's a substitute for an acute, articulate, trustworthy reader who's in it for the long haul. Of course you can learn from your mistakes; what else are you going to during all that dead time between making them?

Can you see yourself writing a novel inspired by this particular vision of a novel that never was? Or a novel about the novel that might have been?

The novel inspired by a "vision of a novel that never was" was Wonder Boys. And pretty much every book since has been been inspired by a vision of something that never was—the Golem of Prague, a Yiddish-speaking Jewish home in Alaska.

The world of Fountain City seems so close to your heart. Washington and Columbia/Huxley, Maryland; places and worlds that might have been that never were; dislocation and a search for a vanished home.

I am wracked at least once a day, for at least one second, with an overwhelming sense of loss and longing for the vanished Maryland utopia in which, in my imagination, I grew up. It never was, either; utopia, I mean. Not really. Only in my mind.

Related question: architectural plans, architectural models, model building, and model-smashing by Japanese monsters (via Toho Studios) weave their way through Fountain City and its notes. Seems like you've got tropes enough for some novel, if not this one. Have you thought of reassembling those pieces into something else?

The rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, complete with model, eventually found its way into The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Also it flits through Wonder Boys, I recently discovered. And the great Toho novel, though at times Thomas Pynchon has flirted with it, has yet to be written.

Maybe I'm projecting, but Erno the damaged dog feels like an important emotional touchpoint for you. Moreso even than Foster, the partner of Harry's deceased brother. Is the dog a metaphor for the damaged (wrecked) novel itself?

No, I don't think so—or at any rate, certainly a lot less than it is, as one of my annotations suggests, a cheap trick.

A good chunk of the footnotes (which make up half the volume) are given over to a consideration of your own sexuality. What prompted you to address the matter at such length here? Was it something about which you'd received questions but never had the forum/opportunity to address?

Yes. That's it. I have dealt with the subject since then, in an afterword I wrote for a reprint of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and a bit elsewhere. But at the time I was annotating Fountain City, it was something I had been asked about a number of times without ever giving what felt like a satisfactory answer. And, you know, there was Roy, and Foster, these gay characters, and yet another account of a close bond between and gay man and a straight man...

The extensive footnotes make up a meta-narrative that is, if you don't mind my saying so, more interesting than the novel (at least the selection you've given us). Had you been playing around with that kind of a self-commenting work? (A stretch, probably, but you do open the introduction with reference to a book called What is Post-Modernism?)

I don't mind at all; indeed you endorse my own opinion—the fact that the novel isn't very interesting probably explains the whole debacle right there. Let's just forget the whole enterprise! Mystery solved! I'd like to put on the post-modern cape and fly around the room a little bit going ta-da! but honestly the notes are there to serve as the literary equivalent of the label on a packet of silica gel that says DO NOT EAT.

So anyway, what happens next? Chapter 4 leaves Harry in Paris. Does he make it to Berlin? What about Florida, apprenticeship with a visionary architect, baseball, messianic Zionism, radical environmental activism, all of which you tell us make their way into the 1,500 pages of Fountain City?

He meets, or met, a woman, the daughter of the visionary architect. Fell in love with her. Apprenticed himself to her father, followed the latter to Florida to work on a commission to build a neighborhood surrounding a brand new baseball-only ballpark in a mythical Florida burg called Fountain City... I dunno. It was a long time ago. There was an unwilling spy with a fez.

What about the aesthetic lessons you drew from this "fruitful incompletion"? Were there themes and tropes that you would explore elsewhere, or techniques and structures that you would employ successfully in later (published) books?

Well, it's pretty hard to imagine that I could have written, or would have been moved to write Wonder Boys without having gone through Fountain City. And I stole the greenhouse in that subsequent book clean out of FC. The only part of it I was ever able to salvage.