Polly want a cipher

Sunday, 12 December 2004 — 1:10pm | Literature, Michael Chabon

If you are still engaged in the holiday ritual known as Christmas shopping, here’s the perfect gift for literary types: Michael Chabon’s freshly-released novella, The Final Solution. It’s a quick read, spanning a mere 131 pages, but boy, is it ever nice to get Chabon’s words in a package that can be digested in a sitting or two.

If The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was at its core a tribute to Jack Kirby, then in The Final Solution, Chabon pays his respects to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Set in 1944 wartime England, it follows an eighty-nine-year-old former sleuth that has retired into beekeeping as his powers of deduction are enlisted for one last case involving a mute Jewish refugee boy from Nazi Germany and his parrot, Bruno. The protagonist is only ever identified metonymically as “the old man,” but he is clearly implied to be Sherlock Holmes in his twilight years. In this respect the premise is similar to Unforgiven, where Clint Eastwood’s William Munny is an obvious throwback to the Man With No Name he played in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, only here in Chabon’s book, the decay explored is intellectual rather than moral.

The mystery itself, on the plot-summary surface, is fairly standard, and befits the complexity of a short story. The twists lie not in the deductive process of revelation, but in the solution at which we finally arrive. Where Chabon excels, as he always does, is in his total mastery of the language.

Today’s literary environment exhibits a widening division between serious art literature that you read for the majesty of the words, and non-serious escapist literature that you read for fun regardless of how it’s written. Michael Chabon bridges the chasm like nobody else (as if that purpose, the celebration of escapism, were not already the explicit theme of Kavalier & Clay). For those who care about good writing, you can bathe in his words and yet derive a sense of dream fulfilment from his romantic fantasy backdrops. For those who dabble in comic books, Baker Street investigations or (in the case of Summerland) a union of Norse mythology, Native American folklore and sandlot baseball, you have the rare privilege of lauding the storyteller not just for the story, but also for the telling.

In The Final Solution, this is very much the case. It’s a simple, perhaps even unremarkable Sherlock Holmes story to begin with, but it’s the telling that makes it all worthwhile. If we recognize that Chabon has already mounted the summit of the fun, artsy novel, here he conquers the fun, artsy novella. He does some remarkable things with his prose; an exquisitely detailed scene of the old man working the hives, his first sight of a war-torn London, a climactic chapter written entirely from the perspective of a parrot – a dazzling feat of animal personification, even by the high standards of someone who has read William Horwood’s Duncton Wood.

But that’s already saying too much. This holiday season, give the gift of a good book.

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