Chabon bon-bon

{ Tuesday, April 15, 2008 }

In a previous post about the novel Kavalier and Clay, I said this:

I'm still musing over the poison pill in the bon-bon of the ending: Sammy leaves
his son. I don't care if the kid knows the biology of this triangle. Sammy's
been his dad, and he leaves, with just a cryptic little promise of continuity
scratched onto a business card. It's just hard to swallow that the kid really
doesn't care except in the most abstract way. That's the fairy tale here . . .
we will all live happily ever after in a time when our indifferent fathers can
leave us to find their own true loves and it doesn't hurt us at all.

And then I promised I'd have more to say about it. Then I went prancing away from the Tuesday posts for six weeks or so.

Okay, I'm back, but first with this quote from another Chabon novel, Wonderboys: " was as though I were being permitted to see the crippled, balding, adipose gnome who dwelt within the brazen simulacrum, the lumbering golem I had learned to call my father."

So the symbol of the shell-of-a-man-hero as the father is nothing new. I don't remember any golem/fathers in The Yiddish Policeman's Union, but maybe that's because I moved too fast through the back half of the story. (More on why that happened in a later post. I promise.)

Anyway, I think the poison pill part of Kavalier and Clay is easy to see: Sammy, the abandoned son, leaves his son as well. There's no way to put a good spin on that. It's sad. And yeah, you can blah blah to me all day about living the authentic life. Dad leaves son. It's sad.

So how does Chabon construct the bon-bon to feed us the poison pill? That I want to know. That I want to recognize when I see it again, in real life, where the bon-bons and poison pills can change how I spend my money and time and attitude.

The first thing I see is that Chabon sets up a crucial difference in the two abandonments. When the Mighty Molecule leaves young Sammy, Chabon shifts the pain from the abandonment to the fact that the father promised Sammy he could come along. The broken promise carries the brunt of the pain and intensifies the loss for the reader when Sammy's father dies far away, with Sammy still waiting for dad to keep his promise and come back for him.

But when Sammy leaves Tommy, he makes no promises. In fact, Chabon's narrator explains how Sammy hasn't been there for Tommy most of the time; Sammy has set no precedent for Tommy to expect very much of him as a father. Lowered expectations of the character; lower pain for the reader. Bon-bon.

Next. Sammy clings to the memory of his father; in the last scene between Sammy and Tommy, the boy pushes his father away, sleepily, naturally, with the casualness of trust. Is it abandonment if the boy isn't clinging to the father? Bon-bon.

Next. In the last few pages of the novel, Chabon and his narrator go to some lengths to make Sammy, the central character through much of the novel, a third wheel to Rosa and Joe. How do I know that I'm supposed to be okay with that? Because Sammy is okay with it, and Joe has taken cues from Sammy, and Rosa has taken cues from Sammy, so I am supposed to take cues from Sammy.

Next. Sammy does some musing at his son's bedside about how the superhero and sidekick are stand-ins for the father and son relationship missing from so many boys' lives. How do you make abandonment less bitter? You convince yourself it's universal.

Next. Part of the long-lasting pain of abandonment is the confusion. But Tommy, cramped in the crawl space with the photos of Mom and Joe, synthesizes everything quickly, their love for each other and dad's role as the third wheel, and expresses his concern for what will become of his father. What he is doing is writing off his father, but what he says is sweet: "What about Dad?" Bon-bon.

Chabon coats this abandonment with a lot of sweetness: mutual concern, clarity between friends, a stable and well-adjusted child in his jammies, sentimental memories, and a literal cake (red-velvet). He finishes things off with a picture-perfect Hollywood zoom-in ending: Sammy's gesture of leaving the calling card marked "Kavalier and Clay," a promise-without-promising, an acknowledgment of shared history and an implication of a shared future. And... I... can't... take... another... bite.

Guy just left his son, and I'm supposed to say awwwwwwww, look at that, a gesture of love? No. No. No. The guy just left his son. In real life, even in Sammy's fictional life, everyone knows this is not a scarless procedure.

I don't care how sweet it seems. This is not sweet, what happened here. Now. Does the bon-bon on the poison pill make this a worse book? No. It makes this a brilliant book.

There are too many books (and films and advertisements) that are all bon-bon and would have you believe there is no such thing as a poison pill. And this is a lie. There are books that are all poison pill, and that is a lie, too. Sometimes books use misdirection to say, aha, you thought there was a poison pill but really it is bon-bon, relax. And vice-versa.

But here I am, two months after finishing this book, still teasing apart the threads of truth and trying to find a way to talk about it. And oo, now trying to get rid of the overlapped mental concepts of a bon-bon and a golem. So wish me luck.


Foodie said...

I want some bon-bons really badly now. I will have to go get some tomorrow.

ann pai said...

Power of suggestion rules! I like the coconut ones. Best truffles: Dean & Deluca. Maybe we should have bon-bon day and read Chabon there.

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