In his best-selling first novel, 1988’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon created a luminous account of the raptures, confusions, and merry pranks of yuppies in love, and now in A Model World and Other Stories he illuminates much of the same emotional territory with the same natural-as-sunshine artistry. His characters are all well dressed, well spoken, and nothing very bad happens to any of them beyond the occasional brush with death or bout of unrequited love. Such a predilection for the sunny side of the street is rare among contemporary writers of fiction almost to the point of heresy, but there are excellent precedents among the giants of literature. Tolstoy said happy families are all alike, but no one knew better than he how to paint them in all their commonplace glory.
The first and more distinctive section of A Model World consists of six stories, all but one featuring protagonists in a state of decorous, misdirected rut. There is Ira, who attends his cousin’s wedding and falls in love at first sight with someone he can recognize as Miss Wrong before they’ve been introduced. Chabon sums up Ira’s situation in a way that encapsulates his own theory of love’s mystery: Ira ”had yet to fall in love to the degree that he felt he was capable of falling, had never written villanelles or declarations veiled in careful metaphor, nor sold his blood plasma to buy champagne or jonquils, nor haunted a mailbox or a phone booth or a certain cafe, nor screamed his beloved’s name in the streets at three in the morning, heedless of the neighbors, and it seemed possible that to fall for a woman who had been around the block a few times might be to rob himself of much of the purely ornamental elements… of first love… It would be wrong to love her, he could see that; but he believed that every great love was in some measure a terrible mistake.”
Of all the current generation of young writers, Chabon is surely the most quotable, whether for general principles (”Friendship is different in another language; a foreign friend doesn’t have to understand what you feel… It’s enough if he understands what you just said”) or for minute observations of social quirks (”Donna’s Hollywood friends spoke with a schmoozing accent whether they were Jewish or not, even ex-cheerleaders from Ames, Iowa, and men named Lars”).
The second part of the collection is given over to a series of stories about young Nathan Shapiro, from the point in his childhood when his parents’ marriage begins to founder to his first kiss at age 14. Except for the last of these five tales, ”The Lost World,” this seems more familiar territory, and Chabon moves through it with less of his ordinary daredevil flair, as though taking care to respect the privacy of the inhabitants. But even at half a head of steam Chabon can run rings around the competition. Definitely a book to read. A