Mrs. Box by Michael Chabon, 1992
The magic trick:
Beginning by describing how the story’s setting has since burned down
Typical of Michael Chabon, this story has a great blend of banal situations and cinematic adventure.
It tells us of a disgraced optometrist caught between his instincts for sweet nostalgia and devious designs, set against a lovely backdrop of old Portland.
The beginning of the story does something particularly nice with the setting. It opens by describing briefly the history of the building that will host our story, concluding with the ominous nugget that the building burned down a year ago.
But one summer day before that fire … our story.
Talk about setting the tone.
And that’s quite a trick on Chabon’s part.
The Farnham Building stood on a hillside in the northwest corner of Portland, overlooking the Nob Hill district and the Willamette River, from 1938 until late last year, when an elderly electric blanket belonging to one of the building’s many elderly residents started a fire that killed six people and left the Farnham a whistling black skeleton in the center of a ring of rubble and ash. Fifteen stories tall, painted throughout the course of its existence a somber and unwavering shade of wintergreen, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a hospital tower, the Farnham never aspired to a landmark brand of beauty – it was just imposing enough to pass for stately, just Moderne enough to qualify as hip – but it had been home to a number of decrepit, rich widows and fashionable restauranteurs and interior designers, its lines and fenestration had a certain Bauhaus gravity, and its unusual color and prominent site lent it, in the eastern Portlanders, some of the authority of a brilliant cathedral or a domed capitol.
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Your summary of why this story works gets to the heart of what has made Chabon’s fictional universe unique all these years. To me, he’s a cross between Britain’s Graham Swift and the US’s Mark Helprin. But, anyway, SSMT is right on the mark, as usual!