December 16, 2004
Chabon Crusades for Fun Literature
"The Final Solution: A Story of Detection" by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins, $16.95).
Depending on their authors' predilections, so-called "literary" novels are often unsettling, disturbing, enlightening or tragicomic. They are not, in the main, much fun. Fun is left to hacks, those genre writers who churn out the chick-lit blockbusters, weepy romances, thrillers, sci-fi fantasies and blood-and-guts horrors that dominate the best-seller lists.
Michael Chabon is the shining exception to this rule. He's a literary writer on a crusade to put the pleasure back into our reading experiences. In his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," the fun begins in the title -- "Amazing," a word not often deployed in contemporary literature -- and carries through all 639 pages. Chabon next reclaimed the "low" genres (the mystery, ghost story, etc.) by editing "McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales," a collection of such yarns by famous literary and genre writers intended, in Chabon's words, to remind us "how much fun reading a short story can be." (Although it received mixed reviews, the anthology was successful enough to warrant a sequel, the forthcoming "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.")
"The Final Solution" -- a brilliant and unswervingly entertaining novella -- is Chabon's latest sally against the dastardly forces of literary dreariness. As the subtitle proclaims, this is a "Story of Detection," a good ol' fashioned whodunit complete with slaying, sleuthing and a coterie of suspects. But while mystery keeps tension high until the last page, the book's ultimate interest lies less in discovering the murderer and more in the author's exuberant unfolding of the stories of all those involved.
At the core of "The Final Solution" are 9-year-old German Jewish refugee Linus Steinman and an African gray parrot named Bruno. Linus never speaks; Bruno habitually recites curious series of German numbers -- "Neun neun drei acht zwei sechs sieben" -- and both are highly surprising to discover in the British countryside in July 1944, while World War II rages on the continent. As such, they are a "puzzle to kindle old appetites and energies" for a long-retired and once-famous detective who has spent the past several decades in secluded retirement, consumed with beekeeping. When Mr. Shane, a guest at the boarding house where Linus and Bruno live, is bludgeoned to death and Bruno disappears, the old detective reluctantly agrees to take the case.
In each short chapter, Chabon's omniscient narrator perches on a different character's shoulder and relates events as seen through the eyes of that person (or, in one example, the bird). Among the picturesquely odd personages embroiled in the murder and bird-napping are Kumbhampoika Thomas Panicker, "who was not only a Malayalee from Kerala, black as a boot heel, but also a high-church Anglican vicar" and proprietor of the boarding house; Reggie Panicker, the vicar's delinquent son and the police's primary suspect; and Parkins, a supposed architectural historian who, strangely enough, works at a local "Research Dairy," which, strangely again, is guarded by National Security.
While everyone hopes to retrieve Bruno and the intriguing string of German numerals in his brain, no one involved seems particularly perturbed by the murder itself. Mr. Panicker, for one, is delighted that Mr. Shane's untimely death has brought into his life the old detective and "the unlikely possibility, all the more splendid for its unlikeliness, of adventure."
For the careful reader, "The Final Solution" is an equally delightful adventure, not only because of the swift and engrossing plot but also on account of Chabon's extravagantly rich prose. Inset in his elegant sentences are words and names as rare and dazzling as precious stones: "ecru laid," "mundungus," "serried," "ignus fatuus," "rep necktie," "Webley," "blackthorn," "Der Erlkonig." Far from pretentious, Chabon's diction welcomes the reader into lost worlds -- for example, the world of British beekeeping circa 1944. One piece of advice: Don't read Chabon without Internet access - you'll find yourself wanting to Google something on almost every page.
Along with offerings of humor, adventure and linguistic luxuriousness, Chabon finds time for pathos and poetry. His story transpires in an England scarred by war, and the attempted extermination of the European Jews alluded to in the title hangs over the book. This is a story of survival and survivors. Referring to London, the narrator says: "They had bombed it; they had burned it; but they had not killed it."
The parrot's German numbers occasion beautiful musings on the powers and curses of memory, many of them articulated through the perspective of Bruno himself. The numbers "lingered far longer and more vividly in his mind than any of the thousand other songs he could sing, for reasons unclear even to him but having to do with sadness, with the sadness of his captivity, of his wanderings, of his finding the boy, of the rolling trains, of the boy's mama and papa and the mad silence that had come over the boy when he was banished from them."
I am unable to offer further interpretation of the fascinating ways the solutions to Chabon's mysteries intertwine with the legacies of the Holocaust, lest I spoil the surprise. Suffice to say that in Linus Steinman, the mute refugee with the parrot on his shoulder, Chabon has created an immensely resonant and original figure of the survivor. That he's able to touch on issues of such seriousness, in a novella that is such fun to read, is just one more sign of his immense talent.
Reprinted courtesy of The Forward, www.forward.com.
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