Thursday, 29 July 2010

Michael Chabon: Gentlemen of the Road

(Yes, that is the American hardback cover. I bought it in a wholly gigantic second-hand bookshop in New York last year, figuring I should have something American to read on the ‘plane home. Only as it turned out I didn’t get round to reading it until a few weeks ago.)

Michael Chabon is probably my favourite American author these days, mostly for the obvious reason that he writes brilliant books. Wonder Boys is both hilarious and capable of stirring the soul in a way that few tales of tubby middle-aged wasters can manage. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay takes that most wearisome of genres – ‘wide-angled view of America in the twentieth century’ - and makes it hearty, sorrowful, original, and fun. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union plays the same trick with detective stories, and then adds Yiddish, which is pretty much always a good thing. And as for The Final Solution, you have to be pretty special to get away with a pun about the Holocaust; even more so when it’s in the book’s title.

But I won’t turn this into a general survey of Chabon’s ouevre (although I’ll add that The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is worth a look, and not just for the theory about Born to Run being a staunchly Catholic album; and his short stories aren’t half bad either). The point of mentioning some of the other books is to note Chabon’s willingness to muck about with genre, from the comic books in Kavalier and Clay, to Yiddish Policemen’s Union’s pointing out that there was more to Chandler than a few murders and some wisecracking. Gentlemen of the Road, then, is a love letter to adventure, a swords-and-sandals romp involving elephants, disguises, fighting and trickery. Rarely have I seen a book enjoying itself so much.

Gentlemen of the Road is dedicated to Michael Moorcock, and that gives a fair indication of what’s to come. I think the closest comparison is a sort of historical, Rider Haggard-style romp (minus the casual Victorian racism) crashing into a Fritz Leiber story. Amram and Zelikman, the two swashbuckling heroes, are loosely Jewish (and Abyssinian and Frankish, respectively) versions of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser: one huge and axe-wielding, the other slim and devious. The pair wander the Middle East and the Silk Road, getting into scrapes and trying to keep a few coins in their saddlebags, and find themselves embroiled in a a counter-coup in the Khazar kaganate. The tale rattles along pleasingly, with cliffhangers after most chapters (as befits its original inception as a serial) and plenty of cunning twists, and it all ends rather satisfyingly.

There is much to be said for all this. Chabon is a fine writer, and there is more to Gentlemen of the Road than journeying and killing. The heroes’ underlying melancholy lurks in the background, bringing out the heroes' conflicting need for and dissatisfaction with their lives of violence on the road. I particularly admired Zelikman, who isn't simply a devious shadowy adventurer, but a talented doctor plagued by depression. The friendship between the two main characters feels real, and as the tale progresses you see why they stick around together, despite and because of all they've been through. This characterisation and the often-brutal historical setting mean that the pleasures of adventure are always underpinned by loss and impermanence.
"There was a turbulence around those gates now as, driving out the survivors, bright-shirted men put their shoulders to the oak beams and sealed off the living from the dead, the loot from the looted, and bought themselves the time they would need, or so they hoped, to get away... They were insane with bravery and fools for battle, but like men from one end of the world to the other, they were slaves to their appetitues and to their love of treasure, and with their decks piled high with gold, fresh meat and casks of Georgian wine, the Northmen must as a matter of the highest principle choose profitable retreat over the doubtful glories of combat." 
In extracts like this, you can see amid the picaresque chaos and violence both the meandering, luxuriant language and the background disappointment with humanity, the knowing, resigned sense of understanding how people act and the sort of trouble they will inevitably cause. 

However, there are limits to these depths. There are smiles and surprises, but not a huge amount more. This is, primarily, a brief jaunt, an homage to a faded genre rather than a startling work in its own right (something which The Yiddish Policemen’s Union does manage to achieve). I think this might be because of the brevity of the novel, and the serial structure. The shortness alone wouldn't hold back someone like Chabon, but there's so much going on in terms of geography and action that there isn't an opportunity to do much between describing events. Everything happens so swiftly that there is little opportunity to develop themes and characters, and the setting is so vast that a lot of it blends into one dusty, chilly whole. 

It’s certainly fun, and it’s certainly Chabon. Here you will find the trade mark generosity of description, the openness about gender, the pride in the many faces of Jewishness, and, primarily, the love of literature as a mode of entertainment as well as edification. However, it’s not a major work, and not a brilliant novel. It’s short and enjoyable, but it doesn’t stand up next to Chabon’s others. 

But more importantly, it has ace chapter headings, including my favourite in quite a while: ‘On Swimming to the Library at the Heart of the World’.

Oh, and it’s illustrated. Please can we have more illustrated books, publishers? I don’t see why children should get all the fun.  

4 comments:

  1. As an aside about the many facets of Jewishness (rather than Judaism, being more a matter of culture than religion), you may be interested in his extraordinarily moving essay on Yiddish - http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2002/02/say-it-in-yiddish

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  2. I hadn't seen that one - thanks! It's wonderful, and not just because it's basically a very, very early draft of Yiddish Policemen's Union.

    Had some fun with the Amazon reviews of Say it in Yiddish, too. Choice quotes (slightly out of context) from people who seem to have no idea why they bought it:

    'I wrongly assumed that this was a book that had a number of humorous phrases in Yiddish. If had known what it really was, I would not have ordered it.'

    'Unfortunately I do not live in the right part of the world to use most of the phrases in this book'

    And the rather over-optimistic:

    'A recommended must in your Yiddish collection.'

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  3. "Gentlemen of the Road" also has a nonfiction counterpart.

    On an acknowledgments page that's included in the American edition by Del Rey Books starting with the third printing, Chabon wrote: "My chief source of information was the excellent The Jews of Khazaria, second edition, by Kevin Alan Brook".

    He also mentioned his use of this book in "Michael Chabon Answers Readers' Questions" in The New York Times Magazine at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/08/magazine/11chabon-questions.html

    Library Journal at http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6529404.html also notes that "The Jews of Khazaria" is a useful nonfiction reference for readers of Chabon's novel who want to learn more about the Khazars.

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  4. Also intriguing - thank you Kevin. I have the US Ballantine edition, and it doesn't have that acknowledgements page (although it does have a brilliant essay on the 'Jews with swords' working title).

    Now, I'm not really one for non-fiction (the plotting's awful, and I don't like any of the characters), but I am drawn to the historical background of Gentlemen of the Road. It's a combination of area, time and inhabitants that I'd heard almost nothing about before coming to the book.

    This is pleasing not just because it's enticingly unfamiliar, but also because it feels just like one of the made-up places from old-school adventure tales, with the devious twist of it being real.

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