Adventures with the king of the rogues
Michael Chabon is showing little sign of settling down into a groove, writes
OULD two books be more different than Michael Chabon’s 1995 sophomore novel Wonder Boys , the tale of a college professor suffering writer’s block, and his latest creation, Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure , a kind of medieval road trip in 15 chapters?
Some writers, such as science fiction pioneers J. G. Ballard and William Gibson, gradually shrug off the trappings of genre fiction. In contrast, Chabon, 44, has moved in the opposite direction, melding the values of serious literature with the escapist thrills of the popular novel. As the writer from Berkeley, California, expresses it in his afterword to Gentlemen of the Road, he has ditched the late- century naturalism of his early work to seek a little adventure. In the process he has embraced everything from superheroes in his Pulitzer prize- winning opus The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay to the classic British murder mystery in The Final Solution and Raymond Chandler- esque noir thrillers in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union , published this year.
There’s still a few genres left,’’ Chabon says, laughing, as he relaxes in the library of the Covent Garden Hotel. I haven’t done romance, ghost, spy or jungle stories.’’
Gentlemen of the Road is similar in scope to Chabon’s children’s fantasy Summerland ( 2002), which combined baseball with Native American and Norse mythology. But instead of drawing inspiration from English masters such as C. S. Lewis and Susan Cooper, he looks to sources such as the 19th- century romantic capers of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and sword- andsandals epics of American pulp writers such as Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard.
It’s set about 1000 years ago in tune with Dumas and Howard, but I don’t have cavaliers,’’ Chabon says. It’s swashbuckling, but in the sense that it is about the adventures of two rogues. If anything, it is closer in spirit to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser , although without any magic or fantasy elements.’’
Originally titled Jews with Swords, the story centres on two itinerant horse thieves, rakish Frankish Jew Zelikman and giant African Jew Amram. The pair ply their roguish trade in the Kingdom of Arran — what is now known as Azerbaijan — in about AD950 and bring to mind Flashman, the scurrilous lead character in the series of novels by George MacDonald Fraser.
They’re sort of scoundrels,’’ Chabon says. But they’re not as confirmed in their scoundrelness as Flashman.’’
Chabon originally wrote Gentlemen of the Road for The New York Times, which for the past two years has serialised new novels by authors such as Ian Rankin, Patricia Cornwell and Scott Turow in its Sunday magazine.
They called me up and asked me if I would be interested,’’ Chabon says. It was good timing because I had this idea that I had been saving for a while and I wasn’t sure what format it would take.’’ According to Chabon, the episodic nature of Gentlemen of the Road made for a very different challenge.
I was commissioned to write a 14- chapter novel and I wrote 15 chapters,’’ he recalls.
Each chapter had to be 2500 words long, so I had to work it out very carefully. I had it plotted out one chapter at a time and I had to work out how each chapter was structured in terms of ending on a cliffhanger or a certain note of doubt or uncertainty about what the next chapter was going to bring.’’
Chabon has so far resisted returning to any of the fantastic worlds that he has created during the
past decade, although he contributed to a comic book anthology of Kavalier & Clay ’ s main superhero, The Escapist . However, he has considered telling more tales of the Gentlemen of the Road , perhaps chronicling the first meeting of Amram and Zelikman.
‘‘ I wouldn’t ever rule it out but I don’t have any plans to do that right now,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’m not writing anything right now and I’m not at all pragmatic in how I go about things. I don’t have a sense of ticking things off a list, what I’m trying to get into next. I don’t really know where I’m going until I get there.’’
One thing that Chabon, who co- wrote SpiderMan 2 and spent 16 months labouring on a screenplay for a Kavalier & Clay film that has yet to be made, will not be doing in the foreseeable future is working on any more Hollywood projects. However, a film of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh , directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber and starring Sienna Miller and Peter Sarsgaard, is due out next year.
‘‘ I was only informally involved in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh whereas I wrote the script for Kavalier & Clay ,’’ Chabon says. ‘‘ It’s been interesting and I was curious and intrigued by the whole prospect of going back to my first novel. But I’m not in the mood to do any more scripts right now.
‘‘ Film is a lot of work and it takes time away from everything else you’re doing, and once they’ve got you, they’ve got you. They put you on a treadmill and work you very, very hard.’’