Rabbi Quixote

Tuesday, 18 December 2007 — 5:17am | Literature, Michael Chabon

The hardcover edition of Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon’s serial novel for The New York Times (working title: Jews With Swords), closes with a provocative afterword in which Chabon reflects on his turn from the paradigm of “late-century naturalism”—contemporary stories about “divorce; death; illness; violence, random and domestic; divorce; bad faith; deception and self-deception; love and hate between fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire; divorce”—to a tale about, well, Jews… with swords.

To longtime Chabon readers such as myself, his position on genre literature is well known, and in large part responsible for his appeal; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is as seminal a defence of escapism as one is likely to find anywhere. I have long been suspicious of the privilege the literary establishment confers on “serious” literature; in the dominant paradigm, there’s a critical undercurrent that believes literature can’t serve its socially transgressive purpose (a broad assertion of a mission statement in its own right) if you are having fun, or if you dare to edge closer to the mythic than the workaday. Oh, sure, they don’t mind the odd sparkle of magic realism, but if swashes and buckles are involved? That’s second-class.

But as he explains in his afterword, Chabon’s attraction to the social project of reimagining a Jewish mythos of Golems and Khazars is perfectly sensible:

In the relation of the Jews to the land of their origin, in the ever-extending, ever-thinning cord, braided from the freedom of the wanderer and the bondage of exile, that binds a Jew to his Home, we can make out the unmistakable signature of adventure. The story of the Jews centers around—one might almost say that it stars—the hazards and accidents, the misfortunes and disasters, the feats of inspiration, the travail and despair, and intermittent moments of glory and grace, that entail upon journeys from home and back again.

Chabon’s writing about writing (metawriting?) is a consistent pleasure to read, and I wish the novel itself lived up to its conceptual promise. Gentlemen isn’t at all bad, mind you—it’s an enjoyable yarn that usually overcomes the odd discontinuity from one episode to the next, full of the narrative legerdemain we have come to expect from a writer known for his glorious singsong prosody. As is the case with his previous novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon’s storytelling acumen tends to waver in clarity when he overindulges in a lexicon of loan-words with no modern English equivalents, but never mind what’s going on when every sentence has such an exquisite rhythm.

Gentlemen of the Road is not among the best works in Chabon’s oeuvre, but it is in many respects his most cinematic piece. His demonstrable interest in board games, in the spirit of Vladimir Nabokov, is of particular interest to me: the novel prominently features shatranj, a Persian ancestor of the game that organizes The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, chess. Finally, there’s something admirable about the story’s relentlessly escapist abandon; if you insist on examining it with the eye of a scholar, you could probably say something about the ubiquitous presence of elephants, but for the most part you won’t even bother. But you can read the first chapter (or listen to it, if you are so inclined) and decide for yourself.

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