Saturday, August 16, 2008

Gentlemen of the Road

So one advantage of NBC's awful weekday Olympic --in their defense they're doing a somewhat better job on weekend sports coverage--that I'm finding more time than I expected to read. There I am, evening set aside for sports overload, and they're replaying the gymnastics they covered badly the night before. In primetime. Instead of, say, showing us some of the many other Olympic sports that they haven't been showing at all. The gymnastics has, at times, been good enough to overcome terrible coverage, but I don't need to see it replayed. The swimming has been compelling thanks in part to Michael Phelps being worth almost all the hype--it's impossible to choose a greatest Olympian ever--and plenty of other swimmers turning in great swims and keeping things close and exciting. Particularly disappointing though has been the beach volleyball, which has been boring me horribly after I loved it in Athens. I especially dislike the top American men's team and find myself hoping they lose. So anyway, I've been spending a lot of time sitting in front of my television with a book.

I went to the library last weekend to pick up Ha Jin's Waiting and impulse borrowed Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road.

It was decent although nothing particularly special and I can't help but wonder if that's partially a reflection of Chabon's attitude toward the book. At the end there's an afterword where Chabon writes, after first telling the reader that his working title was Jews with Swords, "I know it still seem incongruous, first of all, for me or a writer of my literary training, generation, and pretensions to be writing stories featuring anybody with swords." Does it really? This is a writer whose best novel features comic book creators and who, in addition to writing about comic books has also written an actual comic book for Dark Horse Comics. And then there's his detective story as homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Is it really so unexpected that such a writer would write an adventure story? I don't really think so and I think that the afterword tells the reader more about Chabon's image of himself as a writer than it does about the apparent incongruity of the book. And I think that this idea that it is incongruous for him to write such a story seems to have affected the book negatively.

The book is almost entirely predictable, resting on its use of language and description, begins its Victorian pastiche with a humorous tone, slyly laughing at its characters and itself.
They sent the Persian and the stripling out into the inn yard then, and as was their inveterate custom and a crossroads of fortune, bickered like a couple of Regensburg fishwives. At first they argued about whether or not they had time to argue, or if arguing would cost them their appointment with the ostler in the clearing, and then about whose fault it had been that they were never paid by the landlord of an inn outside Trebizond, and then Zelikman succeeded at returning the conversation to the elephant boy, and his grandfather's stonghold in Azerbaijan, and the easy money that delivering him thence represented, at which point they resumed an old, old argument over whose definition of "easy money" was the least commensurate with lived experience, and about who was afraid and whose courage had been more openly on display in the recent course of their partnership.
That's good fun, but Chabon isn't really the funniest of writers and when that tone flags the novel becomes significantly less fun. It's as if, rather than just let it be a fun, silly adventure story, Chabon at times seems to want to give it some weight, but he hasn't built a structure that can sustain it. The long bits of description rarely actually describe much and the characters never really move past caricatures. Which would all be fine if it were just a bit more fun as a whole, but it never quite gets there.

As a side note, both his most recent books have been so nicely designed and I think the illustrations in this one are great.


Pookie said...

Michael Chabon drives me bonkers. I loved Kavalier and Clay. It's one of my all-time favorite reading experiences (I read it back-to-back with David Glen Gold's "Carter Beats the Devil"; they made an excellent pair and their covers even sort of matched, so it was perfect!). I tried following it with "Wonder Boys" -- and HATED it. I hated every word of it. With a burning passion. (And yet, strangely, the movie is one of my favorites.) Not having learned my lesson, I read "The Yiddish Policeman's Union". I didn't hate it while reading it but the minute I closed the cover after reading the final word I was overwhelmed with a sense that I'd just wasted a lot of time reading a crappy book. Dude! If he could write such a great book in Kavalier, why do all his others suck? That's not fair!

I do like adventure novels, though; this sounds like I might have enjoyed it more, but if he shows such obvious disdain for his subject matter... I dunno.

Meg said...

Oh, no, I don't think he shows obvious disdain for his subject. Actually I think he loves his subject (and really, Jews running around as weapons wielding vagabonds who get thrown into a war is a premise entertaining enough to be worthy of love). He does write, in the afterword, about why he wrote an adventure novel and why he enjoys adventure novels. It just seems to me like he can't quite let go and forget that he's supposed to be a literary novelist and sometimes wants to class it up, which isn't really what it needs.

I've heard mixed things about The Yiddish Policeman's Union--some people I know loved it, some disliked it--but I haven't read it yet. Soon! I've read and enjoyed some of his short stories but Kavalier and Clay is really the one I love too.