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Throwing Mud

Michael Chabon’s fact and fiction

Matthew Brogan
April 17, 2005

In his article in the April/May issue of Bookforum (“Lie, Memory: Michael Chabon’s Own Private Holocaust”), Paul Maliszewski describes me as a “skeptical, equivocal listener” to the performances Chabon gave in Seattle, WA, Washington, DC, and Fairfax, VA, last May, sponsored by Nextbook. Maliszewski treats my skepticism as either a character flaw or the slick response of a cagey spokesman: “If there was a base, Brogan moved quickly to cover it. He would not be fooled; he didn’t seem to believe anything very strongly—or he believed everything somewhat loosely.” In fact, my skepticism was a perfectly appropriate response to the style and content of Chabon’s performance.

Chabon’s talk was titled “Golems I Have Known, or, Why My Elder Son’s Middle Name is Napoleon.” It begins, “I saw my first golem in Flushing, New York, shortly before my fifth birthday.” Chabon goes on to detail three encounters with these supernatural beings. (“I saw the Golem of Flushing open its eyes.”) He introduces these tales with an outlandish claim: “The truth is that golems are real, they are out there now, and they are everywhere.” At the same time, he punctuates his story with insistent references to lies, liars, and lying, culminating in his final words: “And, naturally, I’m still telling lies.” In other words, Chabon’s talk exhibits all the hallmarks of a tall tale, with the author signaling to the audience at every turn that the narrator is not to be completely trusted.

Maliszewski prefers to ignore, minimize, or deliberately misread these signs in the hope of stirring up a scandal. He tells us that “Chabon promised a real account,” that “Chabon does make broad claims about truth,” that Chabon “was presenting ideas as facts,” and that he presented his talk as “an authentic portrait of the artist.” He even quotes Chabon’s promise “to come forward now and come out with the truth” about the existence of golems to support his argument. This is like invoking Spinal Tap to indict the music industry. Similarly, he dismisses Chabon’s repeated references to lying as “the fine print at the bottom of a contract.” The truth is just the opposite. If anything, Chabon might be criticized for being too obvious in his winks and nods to the audience, but it is clear that he wanted them to share in the fun.

Maliszewski also wants to separate Chabon’s fantastic stories about golems from his story about Joseph Adler, but he never mentions that the Adler episode is a story about a golem. Chabon tells his audience that he noticed a small, lumpy statue on his only visit to Adler’s house, but when the Mayflower movers come to remove Adler’s belongings, the statue has transformed itself into a giant (it had grown “as a lie grows”). Adler’s own book, his Holocaust memoir/hoax (Chabon’s story is even equivocal about this), also includes a story about golem. At Theresienstadt, Adler claims, he traded two potatoes for a magic tablet said to have the power to reawaken the famous Golem of Prague, a tablet that miraculously finds its way into Chabon’s hands later in the story. Now, some might object to the mixing of such fanciful tales with references to the Holocaust; others might take exception to fictional accounts of Holocaust in general. But if this is Maliszewski’s concern, why not tackle Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, rather than an unpublished performance? Readers could then at least judge for themselves.

Maliszewski acknowledges that Chabon’s talk follows a long literary tradition, but, as usual, he gets it wrong. He writes: “Chabon isn’t just mixing fact and fiction, something all novelists do, going back at least as far as Daniel Defoe; he is creating a fictional memoir and presenting it as real.” Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Journal of the Plague Year, and Moll Flanders are all fictions masquerading as memoirs, as are Gulliver’s Travels, The Three Musketeers, and a long list of other classic works of fiction. It should be obvious that there is a vast gulf between these novels and Binjamin Wilkomirski’s counterfeit Holocaust memoir, Fragments, and the works of other frauds or propagandists. These fiction writers are not looking to put one over on the public for personal or political gain; they are simply employing a familiar literary trope, in which the story includes a fiction of its own origins. And like Chabon’s talk, these novels often upend their own claims of veracity with broad hints at their true fictional nature. They do so through fabulous tales—talking horses, golems in the basement—and through extravagant “truth claims.” In a prefatory letter to Gulliver’s Travels, for instance, the supposed author writes:

Do these miserable animals presume to think that I am so far degenerated as to defend my veracity? Yahoo as I am, it is well known through all Houyhnhnmland, that by the instructions and example of my illustrious master, I was able in the compass of two years (although I confess to the utmost difficulty) to remove that infernal habit of lying, shuffling, deceiving, and equivocating, so deeply rooted in the very souls of all my species, especially the Europeans.

Swift and Chabon make truth claims only to encourage us to question them, whereas frauds like Wilkomirski depend on keeping their lies a secret.

Chabon’s performance, in its small way, also participates in a more contemporary exploration of the relationship between history and the imagination. W.G. Sebald’s documentary novels, J.M. Coetzee’s anti-lectures and third-person memoirs, Simon Schama’s historical novellas—these books all experiment with literary form to explore how narrative and the imagination help to shape public and private histories. These authors do not deny the documented past, nor do they conceal their inventions; rather, they explore the necessary, if elusive, role of language, storytelling, and the imagination in realizing any approximation of the lived past. For his part, Chabon merely argues that telling a story—even a far-fetched one—is a legitimate way of talking with his readers about his work as a creative writer. Could anything be less controversial?

Like a prosecutor with a weak case, Maliszewski ultimately resorts to inflated rhetoric. “Liberties with the truth, so casually taken,” he proclaims, “also weaken life.” But what does this mean? Is he saying that memoir is a nobler art form than fiction? Or that realism is preferable to the fabulous? Either of these propositions might make for a provocative essay, but Maliszewski’s point seems to be simply this: Michael Chabon promised us a memoir and instead gave us a yarn. But the question remains, where was the promise? Mr. Chabon’s talk was not titled “Michael Chabon: The Early Years,” or “Coming of Age in Columbia, Maryland”; it was titled “Golems I Have Known.”

In the end, we are left with a clear sense of Maliszewski’s outrage, but no clear reasons for it beyond petty personal ones. Despite his own experiments with satire, he discovers he is tone-deaf when it comes to Chabon’s tale (“I had been fooled”). But instead of committing himself to becoming a more attentive listener, he attacks the source of his embarrassment. At the same time, he dreams of someday exposing a hoax and is convinced that his moment has arrived. By hook or by crook, he is determined to land this fish. But perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps Maliszewski harbors a deep faith in the existence of golems and ours is just a disagreement between a “skeptic” and a true mystic. (Note to Mr. Maliszewski: I don’t really mean this; I am being facetious.)

The only thing more suspect than Maliszewski’s reading of Michael Chabon’s performance is the judgment of Bookforum‘s editors in publishing it. Michael Chabon’s talk could have served as a touchstone for a spirited discussion of Jewish identity, fictional representations of the Holocaust, the relationship between memory and invention, even the state of contemporary fiction. Maliszewski touches on some of these issues, but is ultimately more interested in scandalmongering—the scandal here being that Michael Chabon, author of short stories, novels, and a comic book, is—hold on to your hats—a writer of fiction. As an organization devoted to promoting lively conversations about Jewish literature, history, and culture, Nextbook would have welcomed intelligent responses to Mr. Chabon’s talk, even sharply critical ones. That the editors of Bookforum preferred Mr. Maliszewski’s sensationalism is disheartening; that they published it under the cover line “Michael Chabon’s Holocaust Hoax” is disgraceful.