AMERICAN LITERATURE IS a literature of nostalgia, preoccupied, at least implicitly, with evaporated dreams and vanished Arcadias. It’s a fertile absorption, each generation of authors locating new sources of longing and disillusionment to call its own. Fenimore Cooper had his wilderness, populated by noble savages. Melville dreamed of the ships of his youth, symbols of the pre-imperial America being swept away by the fast-industrializing, fast-dividing nation that was his home. Fitzgerald conjured Gatsby’s ever-receding green light, perhaps the most indelible image of American yearning and aspiration. And Updike embodied postwar nostalgia with Rabbit Angstrom, the aging high-school basketball great. If one were compelled to articulate an overarching theme to the nation’s literature, a good case could be made for the notion that Americans are the perpetually disappointed heirs to a legacy of prosperity and fulfillment that may never have existed in the first place.
In its literature’s extensive history of reckoning with the strange aftermath of the founding, the United States may never have seen an author who takes nostalgia as his theme as seriously, enthusiastically, and explicitly as Michael Chabon. Since the publication of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), his breakthrough third novel, Chabon has burrowed into the question of how Americans inhabit a present that unfolds in the shadows of a formidable past, examining, as he recently put it in the New York Times Magazine, “the lost utopia that never quite happened, that I never quite knew, that I have never since forgotten and that I have been losing, and longing for, all my life.” In Kavalier & Clay, that utopia is the glittering, art deco Manhattan of the 1930s, examined by way of the Golden Age of Comic Books. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) — written as a Raymond Chandler pastiche, itself a kind of nostalgia — Israel assumes the Elysian role, as the novel imagines that the nation lost the 1948 war, sending thousands of refuges to the Alaskan coast and snuffing out the hope for a Jewish homeland mere months after its inception.
These subjects may sound narrow, but Chabon isn’t a marshal of curios. He uses the particularity of one tribe’s nostalgia — of comic book collectors, of New Yorkers, of Jews — to represent the generality of American longing. And his novels are fair-minded about nostalgia, interrogating the feeling even as they partake of it. A fine passage from Kavalier & Clay exemplifies the elegance with which Chabon achieves this balance:
One of the sturdiest precepts of the study of human delusion is that every golden age is either past or in the offing. The months preceding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor offer a rare exception to this axiom. During 1941, in the wake of that outburst of gaudy hopefulness, the World’s Fair, a sizable portion of the citizens of New York City had the odd experience of feeling for the time in which they were living, at the very moment they were living in it, that strange blend of optimism and nostalgia which is the usual hallmark of the aetataureate [a Chabon neologism that denotes a golden age] delusion.
Notice Chabon’s unblinking repetition of “delusion,” and notice how attractive he makes that delusion. In Chabon’s hands — and this is his great insigh...read more