Ad­ven­tures with the king of the rogues

Michael Chabon is show­ing lit­tle sign of set­tling down into a groove, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.’’

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