Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Casual Disregard for Borders

Michael Chabon
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Final Solution

Michael Chabon wanders back and forth across the boundary between SF/fantasy and mainstream fiction as if he doesn’t care that it’s there. What’s wrong with the man? Hasn’t he heard about niche marketing? Someone put him in his place and make him stay there!

Those disposed to draw such lines may have to resort to the book-by-book approach with Chabon. Certainly Summerland qualifies as a classic fantasy: a group of children goes on a quest to restore peace and harmony to a magical realm contiguous with our reality. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Wizard of Oz both come immediately to mind. Summerland lies closer to Oz than to Narnia, in being a rather self-consciously American fantasy—the Other Realm, it turns out, is built around baseball. Chabon is a good enough writer that this premise doesn’t feel forced or hokey. It’s clear he has a lot of affection for baseball both as an activity and as an icon, and he actually got me to share it for the duration.

Kavalier and Clay is the life story of two Jewish boys, one American-born, the other a refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. They get their start as artist and author on a superhero comic, partially inspired by family tales about the golem of Prague. There are some potentially fantastic elements here, but Chabon uses them as metaphor rather than fact for the most part. Again, what shines through is his intense affection for comics and the culture surrounding them.

If Summerland is definitely fantasy, and Kavalier and Clay is definitely not, Final Solution falls somewhere in between. The setting is wartime England, a somewhat remote rural area. The characters include a mute Jewish refugee boy, a grey African parrot who talks enough for both, and an eccentric elderly beekeeper who used to be a famous detective. Yes, that famous detective. Okay: a story in which one of the main characters is drawn from another piece of fiction has to qualify as at least nominally fantastic. But the Great Detective is so quintessentially British (at least to an American eye) that his presence in this landscape seems completely unremarkable, whereas the boy and his parrot appear alien and surreal.

In Chabon’s writing, the emotional weight carried by people and objects matters far more than the factual meaning (if any). Baseball and golems are important, not for what they demonstrate about the material reality we inhabit, but for what they suggest about the emotional realms in which we live. In Final Solution, much of the action swirls around the strings of numbers recited by the parrot, which are variously supposed to be the keys to a German military cipher or to a Swiss bank account. In the end it turns out that they mean nothing to anyone except the boy Linus—and what they mean to him is simple and terrible.

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