Big books with bold ideas

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - STEPHEN MATCHETT

PER­HAPS Michael Chabon did not get the memo about the dif­fer­ence be­tween se­ri­ous fiction and sto­ry­telling, be­cause he has the im­per­ti­nence to write both, and in the same books. Any­body still look­ing for hol­i­day reads could do a great deal worse than Chabon’s two big books, in ev­ery sense of the term, the Pulitzer prizewin­ning The Ad­ven­tures of Kava­lier and Clay ( 2000) and this year’s The Yid­dish Po­lice­men’s Union . And if the days of long, lan­guorous af­ter­noons with a book end with this long week­end for you, have a look at one of his two re­cent novel­las, The Fi­nal So­lu­tion ( 2004), or Gen­tle­men of the Road ( 2007).

Se­ri­ous nov­el­ists, the ones who write for aca­demic au­di­ences, swapped sales for crit­i­cal ac­claim a gen­er­a­tion ago, sur­ren­der­ing in the face of film. Movies, ev­ery­body as­sumes, can tell a big story ( that is al­ways inane) to a mass mar­ket. But se­ri­ous nov­el­ists deal with ideas of power among gen­ders and eth­nic groups, where what the au­thor wants to say mat­ters less than what the reader wants to hear and where sto­ries ex­ist to trans­port the big thoughts.

Which is ex­actly what Chabon does not do. And in the process he demon­strates that the 19th- cen­tury idea of the novel, yarns that tell sto­ries and ex­plore ideas that are ac­ces­si­ble to any­body in­ter­ested, is alive and well. He is also some­thing of a show- off, how­ever, and he likes telling his sto­ries by ad­just­ing gen­res, writ­ing a coun­ter­fac­tual de­tec­tive novel and an Amer­i­can im­mi­grant saga about comic strip creators. But above all Chabon is an ide­al­ist, com­mit­ted to jus­tice and the rule of law re­gard­less of who he of­fends which, com­ing from an overtly Jewish writer fas­ci­nated by the fate of Jews through the cen­turies, is no mean feat. It seems that it is not just the cul­tural stud­ies crowd he likes to tease.

In The Fi­nal So­lu­tion , Chabon plays games with the con­ven­tions of the English de­tec­tive story. The crime oc­curs in the home of an In­dian Angli­can vicar. The om­ni­scient de­tec­tive re­sem­bles Sher­lock Holmes if the lat­ter had lived into his 80s and his last case had fea­tured a mute Jewish refugee from the Holo­caust.

The mys­tery hinges on a se­cret code that is in Ger­man and ex­ists only in the recita­tions of a par­rot. The story is less about solv­ing the mur­der than de­crypt­ing the code. In ex­plain­ing who wants to know what the ci­pher means and why, Chabon demon­strates that na­tion­al­ity or re­li­gious be­lief are not sure guides to how in­di­vid­u­als be­have, which is gen­er­ally out of base self- in­ter­est.

In Kava­lier and Clay Chabon plays with the great Amer­i­can novel genre, pro­duc­ing the clas­sic tale of Joe Kava­lier, a Jew who es­capes from Prague just be­fore World War II and finds both free­dom from per­se­cu­tion and the chance to pros­per on the ba­sis of his own abil­ity in the US. This is all straight­for­ward stuff, ex­cept that the refugee’s great tal­ent is for cre­at­ing comics and his de­ter­mi­na­tion to cre­ate su­per­heroes who fight Nazis is ex­ploited by ra­pa­cious pub­lish­ers.

And that US con­ser­vatism in­ter­feres un­justly with his life, and es­pe­cially with that of his cousin Sam Clay. The main­stream Amer­i­can dream de­liv­ers, but only in parts, for the pair.

Chabon em­pha­sises the way Jews, im­mi­grants and na­tives cre­ate their own ver­sions of the US ex­pe­ri­ence, but the point is that there are as many ver­sions of the im­mi­grant story as there are eth­nic groups who went to the US to es­cape poverty and per­se­cu­tion from the 17th cen­tury on­wards.

But rather than a stan­dard lit­er­ary novel about out­siders, this is an enor­mous book with mul­ti­ple plots, from pulp pub­lish­ing in New York to pur­su­ing Nazis in the Antarc­tic. Chabon has many yarns to tell and he spins sto­ries in the way of 19th- cen­tury nov­el­ists where en­ter­tain­ing read­ers mat­tered as much, prob­a­bly more, than tick­ing the lit crit boxes. His achieve­ment in Kava­lier and Clay was to pro­duce a novel that is a saga suit­able for a very long flight and an ex­am­i­na­tion of how out­siders can find ways to ex­ist safely, if not al­ways com­fort­ably, in so­ci­eties gov­erned, how­ever im­per­fectly, by jus­tice and the rule of law. Be­cause jus­tice mat­ters a great deal to Chabon, as much as — per­haps more than — the more ob­vi­ous theme of his two most re­cent books, Jews who fight per­se­cu­tion.

Gen­tle­men of the Road is an­other of Chabon’s show­ing- off sto­ries, a boy’s own ad­ven­ture fea­tur­ing a pair of chancers roam­ing the king­dom of the Khaz­ars be­tween the Black and Caspian seas a thou­sand years ago. The pair, a very large and dig­ni­fied Ethiopian and a con­gen­i­tally de­pressed Ger­man, are su­pe­rior brig­ands and as such could have es­caped from any mock me­dieval gore- fest in film or fiction. Ex­cept they are Jews and their quest is to re­move a usurper and es­tab­lish the rule of law in the Jewish Khaz­ari king­dom.

The same idea shapes Chabon’s most in­dul­gent ( and com­pared with Gen­tle­men of the Road that is say­ing some­thing) ex­er­cise in genre bend­ing, The Yid­dish Po­lice­men’s Union . Imag­ine a his­tor­i­cal coun­ter­fac­tual fea­tur­ing a de­tec­tive who has es­caped from a Ray­mond Chan­dler story and you have the idea of this mur­der mys­tery set in an Alaska that be­came a Jewish home­land on a 60- year lease af­ter Is­rael was over­run in the 1948 war. But the lease is run­ning out, to the de­light of Alaska’s na­tive in­hab­i­tants who want their coun­try back, and the Jews have to find some­where to go. One of the key plot lines is the way Jewish gang­ster clans dis­guise their crimes in cloaks of piety and join forces with Amer­i­can fun­da­men­tal­ists.

The Mid­dle East metaphor is ob­vi­ous and there is no doubt­ing whose side in the story Chabon is on. The he­roes of his story are the sec­u­lar Jews, who will fight their per­se­cu­tors but have no time for zealots. Like the vagabonds in Gen­tle­men of the Road , the two de­tec­tives, and es­pe­cially their fe­male boss, be­lieve less in des­tiny than in help­ing peo­ple in the present. The way they deal with re­li­gion was enough for The Jerusalem Post to sug­gest that Chabon is

im­bued with the be­lief that Is­rael is a colo­nial, im­pe­ri­al­is­tic op­pres­sor’’.

But the pa­per missed the point; just like the crit­ics do who are sus­pi­cious of the way Chabon adapts gen­res to tell very big sto­ries. His books are about hon­est and eth­i­cal in­di­vid­u­als who hap­pen to be Jewish but whose al­le­giances are based in ideals rather than eth­nic­ity. Chabon is a fine writer, worth read­ing this or any sum­mer. More im­por­tantly, his books are fun.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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