Michael Chabon: “Citizen Conn” from The New Yorker, 2/13&20/12

New Yorker Illustration by Jashar Awan

New Yorker illustration by Jashar Awan

Many intense and fertile partnerships, whether creative or romantic, suffer from an imbalance in the relative importance that the respective partners attach to the partnership, to its history and its very existence. There is so often a subject and an object. The object, almost by definition, tends to be the more clueless of the two. – Michael Chabon, Book Bench interview

The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who leave easily, and those who are easily left. Well, no, of course it isn’t that simple, since everyone plays both sides at some point in his life. But for those of us who have been, predominantly, the one casually left behind, this story is a heartbreaker, but perhaps less of a mystery than for those who never let the door hit them in the ass on the way out.

It’s a story of the creative team behind a popular comic book series from the 50s and 60s. And again, the world is divided into to kinds of people (though not really): those who appreciate comic books and the history behind them, and those who were raised to consider them the devil’s toilet paper. In spite of my nearly-genetic membership in the latter class, I loved this story.

It’s told from the point of view of the rabbi at an assisted living facility. She’s more of an observer, though she tries, unsuccessfully to play catalyst throughout. It’s an interesting POV, with many connotation.

“Can I make you some tea, Rabbi?” Mr. Feather said.
Naturally, I wanted to reply that he ought not to bother, that he should just sit down and rest and let me put the kettle on for him. But over the years I had seen enough of the assiduous cruelty of children and grandchildren, in suppressing old people’s vivid hunger for bother, to know better.

In his Book Bench interview, Chabon admits he has no idea where she came from, but she was suddenly there: “I think she was a good choice, because her ignorance of comics and comics history makes her a good stand-in for the reader, while her obligation to pay attention makes her a good stand-in for the writer.” I’m struck by the assignment of those values. This feels important; it feels like a smart way of analyzing the choice of narrator. It feels like the sort of thing MFAs spend $25 grand to learn.

I’m also interested in the title: the story is told from the rabbi’s point of view, to me it’s “about” one character, but it’s titled for the other. I’m still mulling that over.

The story concerns one Morton Feather, a resident of the ALF served by the rabbi, and his estranged partner-in-crime-fighting-superheroes, Artie Conn. Feather is dying, and Conn is seeking forgiveness for a deal with the devil he made forty years before, when he signed away their rights to the material they’d created in exchange for a lump sum payment. Their partnership, and their work, had suffered after that; the comics they created went down in quality, until finally, Feather was fired, while Conn stayed on and enjoyed considerable success in the business.

Sounds simple. But Conn has made every effort to right the wrong. He’s arranged for significant payments, and gives ample credit – more than is due, in fact – to Feather for his success after the breakup. Still, Feather will not speak to him. Still, Feather holds the grudge. The rabbi is bewildered. What does he want? What is the hurt that is unhealed? Feather won’t say.

“If the circumstances were different, I’m sure I’d be able to look back on my career in comic books with a good deal of pride and affection. But, unfortunately, for various reasons, which, I hope you’ll forgive me, I prefer not to discuss, I can’t think about that time or my work then with anything but a bitter taste in my mouth. A taste of ashes. It’s all ruined for me. That’s the sorry truth.”

The reason is hidden in plain sight. When the offer to buy the rights is made, Feather retains an attorney and prepares to fight. Conn, however, agrees to sign. When Feather learns this, he doesn’t try to convince Conn; there’s no scene, no fireworks; he just dismisses his lawyer and signs on the dotted line. And his work loses its inspiration; the comics they continue to produce together are never the same again.

We’re told this – by the rabbi’s husband, a comic book fan and historian who has idolized the pair since childhood – less than halfway through the piece, yet the story still plays on the mystery of Feather’s refusal of all remuneration and contact with Conn. I assumed I was being hypersensitive again. I thought, there must be something else. Like the rabbi, I wracked my brain. A rebuffed sexual advance? A love triangle? Something said privately, something so cruel it still stings decades later? But there it was, plainly spelled out – and the story itself glossed over it, and returned to it only on discovery of an old yearbook Feather bequests to Conn (a pretty aggressive act, actually, kind of a final “screw you” that doesn’t quite hit the mark with its target), an afternoon the two men, as boys, spent discussing science fiction in the library at school where they hid out from the crowds (another scene that broke my heart, since I spent so much time in my junior high school library I was recruited as a library aide), before Conn’s family moved and they didn’t see each other again until they were teamed up at work years later.

It’s with that yearbook, and the beautiful scene of these two lonely boys discovering each other for one single lunch hour, that the rabbi understands the importance of the relationship to Feather, even if Conn doesn’t:

Perhaps what had snuffed out the flame of Mort Feather’s wild and minor genius was not the fact that Conn had sold out their partnership, and their possible legal claim to a considerable fortune, but that, with a stroke of his pen, he had wiped out the history of a blessing, refuted – to make a balloon payment – the lone, certifiable miracle of Morty Feather’s life: his friendship with Artie Conn.

At which point, I said: “Duh!”

The rabbi goes on, in a second insight which, though beautiful and poignant, feels like one too many:

I prayed that one day, here or in another place, Mr. Conn would find the forgiveness that he sought from the shade of the boy he had once chatted with, for an hour, about life on other worlds, on what had been, though he was blind to it, the happiest day of his life.

I don’t mean to be flip. I’m having trouble typing because of all the tears. And I suppose, if Chabon had made his rabbi a little less clueless, we wouldn’t have had the story. But it just rings false, somehow. I didn’t need the extra poignancy of the earlier meeting to recognize how slighted Feather must have felt when Conn accepted the buy-out. Why did the rabbi?

In spite of my quibbles (I don’t get the Swiss army knife, either, though I enjoyed it), I was engrossed in this story from the beginning. It reads beautifully. It moves at a perfect pace. And as I’ve already said, it touched me greatly. In fact, it’s maybe one of the few stories that made me feel smarter than the characters. Maybe even smarter than the writer, in some respects.

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