February 13 & 20, 2012: “Citizen Conn” by Michael Chabon
I have to say that, even though I found the ending somewhat unsatisfying, I liked this story a lot.
It’s the story of Morty Feather and Artie Conn, two giants of the comic book industry who years ago had a falling out. Now Morty is living in a nursing home in Santa Monica, near death from bone cancer, and Artie, retired to San Diego, is seeking forgiveness. No one can quite figure out why Morty is so upset with Artie, least of all Rebecca, the new rabbi in the nursing home.
So, Artie makes several visits, tries to apologize and give Morty credit that he might think is due him. But that’s not it. There’s something else. And that something else is—sort of—revealed at the end. But Artie still doesn’t get it, probably because what Morty wants is something Artie can’t really give him at this point.
It’s a nice piece about friendship, and along the way Chabon gets to write about comic books again. There’s also a brief interview that’s worth reading: This Week in Fiction with Michael Chabon.
Apart from the slightly unsatisfying ending, my one concern here was with the narrative voice. I like the choice of the female rabbi, although (a) it isn’t clear why it should be a female except that it’s interesting that her husband is a fan of the comics, and that feels right; (b) the title of the story is too cute; and (c) I wonder if this is a credible female voice. I can’t really tell, and I’d welcome comments from women about this.
[Also, I hate this week’s cover, which is called “Loading,” but since I’m reading the Kindle version I don’t have to look at it much.]
>I know several women who are humanist chaplains, and the woman rabbi seemed authentic to me.
I found it interesting that Chabon referenced Stan Lee and Jack Kirby of Marvel Comics in the interview. As I read it, I thought of DC Comics/Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both of whom were cheated of Superman royalties for years. Their relationship wasn't as strained as the two men in Chabon's story, but there were hard feelings.
And it was another New Yorker ending–unsatisfying. I wondered if Conn knew what the issue was when he saw the yearbook and just didn't tell the rabbi.
>Thanks, Maggie. I wasn't asking about Rebecca's authenticity as a rabbi, but rather as a woman. Was the voice sufficiently female? I guess you've also answered that, though.
>I haven't gotten to the story yet but did want to address the female rabbi. Women are ordained by "Reform" Judaism but definitely not by "Orthodox" Jews (I'm not sure off hand about the middle-of-the-road "Conservative" Jews. On the whole, the differences in groups can be quite controversial, and we see a lot of this today in Israel, where Ultra-Orthodox Jews are reasserting themselves in big ways often in opposition to other Jews they see as less authentic.
Again, I haven't yet read the story and may have to amend my view later on, but my initial response, based solely on Judaism itself, is that the author is going out of his way to take a provocative position viz. Judaism. That would be good if it makes sense in the context of the story. If, on the other hand, this injection of controversy (a lot of controversy) does not contribute to the story, then making the rabbi a female would be a huge error.
>Chabon almost casually mentions the rabbi is a woman then draws no further attention to it. I felt that was secondary to the story. I'm sure there are people who will object to the fact that the rabbi is a woman because they don't accept women in that role, but Chabon didn't shove it in our faces.
>OK, I read the story and want to slightly revise my prior opinion of the female Rabbi. The story does draw attention to it in one scene, where Chabon specifically points out that some are put off by a female Rabbi but that it's no issue at all to Feather. I suppose that one might suggest this illustrates an aspect of Feather's personality, but I do think it's trivial to the story. It seems mainly a device to introduce David, the Rabbi's comic-fan husband into the story in order to deliver the Feather-Conn back-story, which could not have otherwise been presented in a first-person narration by one other than Feather or Conn.
So i guess I'll drop my concern over the female rabbi. But I did find that narration clumsy; the use of David to get the benefits of third-person into a first-person story.
A couple of other points:
I was absolutely repulsed by the instantaneous incident where the Rabbi and Conn brushed right past the Weintraub's, a newly-bereaved family who had been working with the Rabbi to arrange a funeral, to pursue a meeting between Conn and Feather. I can't imagine any Rabbi of any denomination doing a thing like that for such a non-time-sensitive matter (actually, we later learn it was time sensitive, but neither the Rabbi nor Conn knew it a the time).
Unlike Cliff, however, I really, really liked and was moved by the ending — a lot, and perhaps enough so to almost make me put aside my other problems with the work.
>Marc, I agree with you about the bereavement scene. It did seem odd that she would behave that way. And, on reflection, I think that my problem with the ending was more that the "secret" wasn't something more concrete. I agree with you that the thought of this connection they made as high school boys–that Artie discarded so easily–was touching.
>I liked this story a lot. It illustrates subtly the poignancy and complexity of a close friendship between two men that is destroyed because of the inability of one to acknowledge to himself the depth of it, combined with the inability of the other to understand and forgive his friend's emotional handicap. I wondered, too, why a woman rabbi. (I don't think that it is at all a gimmick to allow the introduction of her comics-fan husband.) I quickly realized that, even though some men could negotiate this sensitive ground, a woman would more likely be trusted and confided in by a man (to the extent that either of the men did). She has a light touch and an affectionate tolerance for her husband's foibles as well as for the two artists'. In the end, although she fails to save either man from the dilemma, she does solve the mystery for herself and for us. We don't see very far into the depths of her own inner life, but as far as the portrayal goes, she is in my eyes an authentic woman of a cheerful, sensible, fairly self-confident type. The exception to that statement is what other commenters noted: her failure (as a woman and as a clergy person) to handle the encounter with the Weintraubs more graciously.
>The story was told magnificently and Chabon is a pleasure to read. Having a female rabbi just added an interesting dimension–he was not trying to change the way anyone thinks. If people are still offended by female rabbis then they need to read only what reconfirms their own attitudes. Thought the ending was an acceptance of the way we are as humans and perfect for this tale.