Wednesday, December 14, 2005

51. The Final Solution

by Michael Chabon

The first thing that drew me to The Final Solution, aside from the fact that it was written by Michael Chabon who I’ll read regardless of the topic (including Summerland one day), was the cover art. This gorgeous teal and blue and orange amalgamation of numbers drawn up inside this bird, composed by none other than my city’s own Jay Ryan. When I realized the artist I thought, I should have known. It was a good pick because, much as I hate to admit it, I do somewhat judge books by their covers. Not that I would have skipped this novella had it been nothing more than plain black print on white background, but such stunning dust jackets do tend to draw my fingers to open the pages therein. Case also in point: Tom de Haven’s It’s Superman! with cover art by Chris Ware. Sure, I’d read it anyway because it’s about Superman, but would it have been the first thing I reached for during a routine trip to the bookstore if the cover were different? Probably not.

As I said, I’ll read anything Michael Chabon writes. I could ensconce myself in his words. I sometimes have to pause and just inhale the twinings of his letters, admire the way he creates such vibrant portraits in sentences and paragraphs. The Final Solution is no exception to what I’ve come to expect from Chabon, but even more impressive is that this entire book is written in the parlance of a nineteenth century British mystery. It’s an ode to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and readers his Holmes books, of which I am, admittedly, not, will surely recognize the infamous detective in the central character referred to as nothing more than “old man.” Fan of Holmes or not, Chabon crafts a story whose telling is remarkable in its ability to transport the reader to an entirely different place and time. At one point I actually had to stop and think, Michael Chabon is American…right?

At the heart of the story is a man’s murder and a parrot’s disappearance. In addition to providing a perfect mimicry of the voices it hears, the parrot has also been known to recite a series of German numbers whose significance are unknown to all but Linus Steinman, the mute boy to whom he belongs. When the bird goes missing and a man is found dead in relation to the theft, only the once famous detective can hope to uncover the crime’s details. What those numbers mean is another story unto itself.

That’s a pretty trite summary because, well, the book is only 131 pages and the story is less about an intricate mystery and more about Chabon’s mastery of the English language. Take, for example, this passage where Mrs. Panicker describes a viewing of the old man: “This as a whippet…with something canine, or rather lupine, in the face as well, the heavy-lidded eyes intelligent and watchful and pale. They took in the features and furnishings of the platform, the texts of the posted notices, the discarded end of a cigar, a starling’s ragged nest in the rafters of the overhanging roof. And then he had trained them, those lupine eyes, on her. The hunger in them so startled her that she took a step backward, striking her head against an iron pillar with such force that she later found crumbs of dried blood in her hair.”

Lupine eyes…crumbs of dried blood…people just don’t write like that anymore. So rarely do authors take the time to fully investigate their settings and describe their characters’ features in such detail that the reader feels as much shock at seeing those animalistic eyes as Mrs. Panicker must have. Even a simple sentence such as this: “Mr. Shane looked at the boy, who looked down at his soup, dipping the merest tip of his spoon into the thick pale bowlful,” renders the reader capable of experiencing the trepidation with which Linus approaches his meal of cold cucumber soup.

Now, don’t misunderstand and believe me to imply that most writing is sub par. The fact that I read in such volume can attest to my belief that there’s plenty of good writing out there. But rarely is that writing so…what’s the word?…exquisite. I know it must sound as if I’m writing a love letter to Michael Chabon, but it’s really not so much that as I’m simply in admiration of his talent. That, and I’m insanely jealous. Would that I were one of those gifted few.

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