Figuratively speaking, Chabon does go back to Columbia, again and again. “I seem, almost from the beginning, to be wrestling with the inevitability of failure, either as it’s played out through one person’s personal ambition or as it plays out through the effort to create a kind of utopia, the way the Columbia experience was for me.” Failure, I point out, seems like an odd obsession for such a successful writer. (When I asked Chabon if his parents had supported his career choice, he joked that they never had time to get to the “maybe you should think about law school” stage.) But he counters with, basically, the law of gravity: “Someone who has succeeded is as likely if not more likely to be stalked by the specter of failure, because experience and history shows that it can all be taken away from you in a blink of an eye.”
Chabon’s novels show this as well. His characters dream massive, America-size dreams: of a million-dollar comic-book empire, an alternate homeland for Jews, a ship to save children from the Nazis. Or, as in his new book, they simply dream America’s dream about itself: of a place where business is good, marriages hold, and citizens of all races live together in peace. And then the industry tanks, the mandate expires, the boat sinks, the store folds, the community changes, the marriage ends — or, more often, and more poignantly, the dream, whatever it was, just drifts along, slower and lower, losing air, ruptured against the mineral roughness of reality.