Where Things Get Weird

Last week, the novelist Michael Chabon delivered a strange and digressive lecture at Benaroya Hall that began with an anecdote from his childhood about finding, in a candy-store basement that smelled of "iron shavings and cold linoleum," a golem. A golem, a fixture of Jewish legend, is an artificial being made out of clay and "brought to life by mystical means," Chabon explained. The particular golem Chabon came across as a kid was clumpy and coffee-colored and had a "squarish" head, and though Chabon is certain he encountered this golem and claims to have seen others, too--"The truth is that golems are out there"--he was happy to concede that most people had no cause to believe him. Such was not the only virtue of his many-virtued lecture: He didn't insist on his own credibility.

What began as a story about something Chabon may or may not have seen in his youth gave way to a story about a collection of children's mystery tales he came across in the young adult section of his childhood library called Strangely Enough, which, strangely enough, included a mystery about a golem. Stranger still, the author of Strangely Enough, C. B. Colby, at the time owned a house at the end of the very street Chabon lived on. Years later, when Colby's house was being emptied into a moving truck, Chabon witnessed several movers hefting out of Colby's place a huge, clumpy, coffee-colored clay statue--the now-dormant body, by some impossible coincidence, of the golem that Chabon had seen mysteriously animated in the candy-store basement years earlier.

"This is where things get weird," Chabon then said, and the audience laughed, though sure enough, things got weirder--with captivating asides on such far-flung subjects as the Golem of Prague, a faked Holocaust memoir, the children's author Judy Blume, the "infinitely malleable clay of language," and the contemporary descendants of Napoleon Bonaparte. You would have assumed it was all just convoluted, elaborately imagined fiction--Chabon is, after all, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer--except that he kept interrupting himself to explain how, if his lecture were fiction, it wouldn't (so as to be believable) be so riddled with chance. ("This part," he admitted at the verge of one illogical point, "may be the embroidery of a guilty recollection.")

The lecture inaugurated the Seattle King County Nextbook Writers Series (see www.nextbook.org for information about future events)--a project of Nextbook, the New York-based national initiative to promote Jewish literature and culture. I'll go ahead and admit that I was wary, religious experiences being something I try to avoid. But this wasn't a celebration of religious experiences; it was an illumination of the ways in which religion, like language, enlivens and informs and obscures.


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