She was a vessel built to hold the pain of her history, but it had cracked her, and radiant darkness leaked out through the crack.
That’s a sentence in Moonglow, the latest book by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Michael Chabon. It — the sentence, I mean, with a change of pronoun — could almost serve as a summary or tag line for Kenneth Lonergan’s masterpiece Manchester by the Sea.
In the end, it’s impossible to communicate fully why a sentence in prose or a verse of poetry is “good.” Some things are simply greater than the sum of their parts. Chabon uses a metaphor to compare a woman to a container. He plays on the second meaning of “vessel” as a ship (the narrator has just described this woman as a “bird of passage, hollow-boned.”) “Built” introduces mystery: built by whom? “Pain of her history” situates the individual within the universal. “Cracked” and again “crack” are pleasingly onomatopoetic and Chabonian. “Radiant darkness” is of course, the flourish here, the heart of it all, the writer risking everything on a paradox that will strike the reader as genius or as flat-footed affectation. (I vote genius.) “Leaked” is the higher gear that you didn’t realize until now your car had: who knew that darkness could “leak”? The image, first of a cracked bowl leaking visible darkness, then of a wounded person from whom spiritual darkness emanates, won’t leave you.
Here are some books by Michael Chabon. Start with Kavalier & Clay, if you haven’t yet gotten to know Chabon. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a tour de force by a writer skilled at working with genre but not in genre, as critic Arthur Krystal observed. You may have seen the film version of Wonder Boys — I had, before I read Chabon’s novel, and I relished the experience of noting the difference between a very good film and an excellent novel. Summerland, The Final Solution, and Gentlemen of the Road are modest efforts, by design, but will please fans of YA lit, Sherlock Holmes, and adventure stories, respectively. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is familiar territory magically made to seem new and strange. Only Telegraph Avenue is a failure, though a noble one.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
The Final Solution
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Gentlemen of the Road