Big books with bold ideas
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.