By Rich Horton
There’s been much talk in all kinds of circles about Michael Chabon’s appreciative stance on genre fiction. Last year there was even more talk about his most recent novel, Gentlemen of the Road, amongst fans of fantasy, and, more particularly, readers of heroic fiction. The talented Rich Horton decided to take a look for himself, and share his opinion with you.
Gentlemen of the Road
By Michael Chabon
Del Rey, ($21.95, 207 pages, Oct . 2007)
Michael Chabon has become noted in recent years as a literary writer eager to defend the merits of traditional genre fiction – most obviously, plot, but also colorful and exotic settings, and different times (both future and past). He has not shied from using genre elements in his own fiction. His most recent novel (besides the one at hand) is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which can quite plausibly be called a leading contender for the Hugo, Edgar, and Pulitzer this year (certainly it is my favorite 2007 novel.) His other recent books include a novella about an aging Sherlock Holmes, The Final Solution; a Young Adult fantasy about baseball, Summerland; and of course his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a pair of comic book creators: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. No lack of genre credit there.
Chabon’s arguments in favor of genre values invite comment. Probably it will not surprise anyone that I endorse his views. I am writing, after all, for Black Gate, a full-throated purveyor of Adventure Fantasy, about as “genre” as genre gets. We do need the fun offered by what we are calling genre values. We do need plot, and color. But perhaps what excites me most about Chabon’s writing is the promise he offers of combining these values with literary values – fully realized characters, and outstanding prose, mainly. I read every issue of the New Yorker, and I actually enjoy a lot of the fiction. Some of it I love, but some strikes me as beautifully written, and perceptive – and incomplete. The writers seem almost afraid, at times, to allow anything to happen. At the same time, much of the SF and Fantasy I love is also incomplete – because insufficient care has been devoted to prose, or because the characters are simply types. It may be that these elements are not always wholly compatible. Algis Budrys has argued that some SF needs less realistic characters – because SF characters sometimes need to be larger than life to carry the world-changing themes. And even prose needs to be sensitive to, for instance, pace. Which means, I think, that readers and critics need to accept that not all books are good in the same way – that what is a virtue in one novel may not be a deficiency if it is absent in another.
Chabon’s new book, which was originally a serial in the New York Times Magazine, is in some ways his most overt genre piece yet. And in fact it does share some weaknesses – necessary ones, perhaps – of “genre.” The prose is fine, but not so breathtaking as in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The action is great fun – but, no, I didn’t always quite believe it. (Though really on the whole the book is not too terribly unrealistic for its type.) And yes, the characters are larger than life – but usefully, and not cartoonishly so. The thematic content is in all honesty not so weighty, so resonant, as in Chabon’s best work. This is not by any means a great novel – and I believe that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union are both great novels, or likely to be seen as such over time. (For one thing, it is quite short, less than 40,000 words.) But it is a fun novel.
Gentleman of the Road, Chabon tells us in his Afterword, had the working title Jews With Swords. It is set in the empire of Khazaria, which was located around the Caspian Sea, in parts of what is now Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The Khazars were Jewish, and the history of their empire is fascinating in itself. This book is set in the 10th Century. It opens with our heroes, Amram, an African Jew, and Zelikman, a Frankish Jew, fighting a mock duel for money. Their fakery exposed, they flee, but not before they have reluctantly taken on a burden: Filaq, a prince of Khazaria, indeed the younger son of the just-deposed Bek, or secular leader of that empire. (There is, we learn, also a more spiritual leader, the kagan.) Amram and Zelikman are to deliver Filaq to an uncle who will keep him out of trouble. But Filaq desires nothing more but to return to the Khazar capitol and exact revenge against the man who deposed his father and killed the rest of his family. So their journey is complicated from the start by the difficult of controlling Filaq. And things get worse when it transpires that the Rus are savaging the Caspian, and Filaq schemes to raise an army to take back his empire.
There are more surprises in store – some quite delightful, some bloody, some amusing. The book is plenty of fun, full of adventure as promised, and quite true to its characters. There are some implausibilities – but good ones, and true to the spirit of the story. And the main characters are quite well drawn – each melancholy in his own way, each a good man but not unwilling to be as violent as need be to survive. I should also mention the illustrations, by Gary Gianni – a very pleasant addition to the book. As I said above, not a great novel, but a good one – a fun one.