Thursday, January 12, 2006

Michael Chabon: The Final Solution

Michael Chabon, as you are probably aware, wrote a novel called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, and it won him the Pulitzer prize. The underlying idea of that novel was a clever one -- something to do with comic-book heroes and the men who created them -- and I remember reading it, but it made little impression on me. The only thing I do remember is that, as with most literary successes, it was a big thick long book which seemed to grind on for ever.

So, although I am not going to argue with those who consider Michael Chabon to be talented, I wouldn't normally have rushed out to read anything else by him. But for two things: The Final Solution includes Sherlock Holmes in its cast of characters; and it's short.

Slightly to my surprise, The Final Solution proves to be one of the most impressive books that I have read in a long time; and I suspect that I shall remember it. Yes, the author is obviously exceedingly bright, but, unlike many such, he mercifully doesn't wave his cleverness in our faces; on the contrary, he rather disguises it, which is an endearing characteristic if ever I came across one.

The plot, involving a small boy, a pet parrot, and a murderer, is entirely preposterous. But it would be unreasonable to complain about that. Most of Conan Doyle's plots were preposterous too; but he pulled them off by dealing mostly from the bottom of the pack, and by using, of course, Dr WAtson as his viewpoint character. And then again, The Final Solution is set in the second world war, when any number of bizarre ideas were tried out, and some of them actually worked. (Consider the case of the bouncing bombs.)

Sherlock Holmes, by the way, simply appears in Chabon's book as one of the cast. He is not the dominant figure. This is perhaps unsurprising when one realises that he is now 89, and has been doing nothing more cerebral than keeping bees, somewhere between Eastbourne and Brighton, for several years.

The title, of course, will probably give you a hint of Holmes anyway -- or it did me. There was another non-Conan-Doyle addition to the Holmes canon some years ago: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. But 'the final solution' also gives us a strange hint of what is now widely referred to as the holocaust, and that features in the plot too. And there is a third reference/meaning, which you will discover towards the end of the book. Yes, Mr Chabon is a clever chap all right.

He has also, as all good authors do, undertaken his research; and only the occasional word or phrase reminds one that the author is not English.

At first one imagines that this book is just another piece of Holmesian whimsy, but somewhere around page 50 you realise that it's really rather good. And it's all very elegantly done. A bottle of whisky in Holmes's drinks cabinet is described as being coated in 'a layer of dust that might have repelled a Schliemann.'

The final chapter of this book (narrated, if you please, from the point of view of the parrot) is, I have to say -- and I say it through gritted teeth because you know how much I hate to bestow praise on a literary novelist -- brilliant. No other word for it. More to the point, however, it is moving and memorable. And the last page is ironic. In more ways than one.

The Final Solution is warmly recommended. And, I repeat -- go down on your knees and thank the Lord -- it is short. It is the living proof of a principle which I have expounded here many a time: namely that, if you have the talent, you don't need to bang on for 600 or 700 pages; you can do it comfortably in 127; which includes a few rather nice illustrations.

Michael Chabon's official web site, by the way, is most unusual.


Anonymous said...

Try Wonder Boys. Longer than Final Solution, shorter than Kavalier and Clay (which I must admit I thought was wonderful), and not at all like either.


Anonymous said...

There's also Mitch Cullin's A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND. It's not ironic or tricky, but very elegant and stylish, as well as moving.
John Barlow

Anonymous said...

I'm thoroughly enjoying the resurrection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle currently in vogue in the literary world. "Arthur & George" by your brilliant author, Julian Barnes, is a magnificent read.

Jenny Davidson said...

My favorite novel of Chabon's is "Summerland," which I highly recommend--it's extremely, extremely good young-adult fiction, also quite short!

Anonymous said...

I read and enjoyed the Chabon after Laurie R. King blogged about the author and his book a while ago. I'm very fond of her Sherlock Holmes series.

Anonymous said...

Hello - long-time reader, but have not commented before. I loved 'The Final Solution' for almost exactly the same reasons you give. Just a quick self-plug, but not one that makes me any money - I'm trying to promote the joys of great short books over on 'Bookslut', since I really believe that the greater the writer, the fewer the pages they should need to achieve their effects. The archive is at:

Alex said...

Shoot, I think I might have quit reading the book just before it got interesting. Maybe I should give it another chance? Here's my post on The Final Solution, genre, and genre subversion:

I must say, Mr. Grumpy, I really value a short book, too. Plugging through Midnight's Children right now, I wonder: Is all of this absolutely necessary?

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