I had The Final Solution on my shelf for less than a week before deciding it would be the perfect book to bring with me to Seattle for our anniversary weekend with friends. I was right; it was just what I needed, except for the fact that it was such a quick read I finished it on the first day while waiting for my friend to get her baby ready for sightseeing. And then, I admit it, I was a little mopey it was over so quickly.
I haven’t read any other books by Michael Chabon, although years ago I saw and loved the film adaptation of Wonder Boys (which, of course, is not at all the same thing, but it does provide some insight into his style). I had no idea what to expect, although I loved how my friend Ruby had described the book in her recommendation (A boy, a beekeeper, a parrot, and a mystery – what’s not to love?) I’ll tell you what’s not to love – nothing. This book was lovely. The plot is simple – is, in fact, secondary to the enviable emotional depth Chabon manages to plumb in a mere 131 pages. I do admit to having a soft spot for short stories, flash fiction, and novellas, but it’s been awhile since I picked up one as fine as this.
A profound reservoir of poise, or a pathological deficit of curiosity, Parkins supposed, might explain the near-total lack of interest that Mr Shane, who gave himself out to be a traveler in milking equipment for the firm of Chedbourne & Jones, Yorkshire, appeared to take in the nature of his interlocutor, Mr Panicker, who was not only a Malayalee from Kerala, black as a boot heel, but also a high-church Anglican vicar. Politesse or stupidity, perhaps, might also prevent him from remarking on the sullen way in which Reggie Panicker, the vicar’s grown son, was gouging a deep hole in the tatted tablecloth with the point of his fish knife, as well as the presence at the table of a mute nine-year-old boy whose face was like a blank back page from the book of human sorrows. (pg 12)
I admit I typed that whole paragraph out (ah, Kindle books, how you have spoiled me with your cut and paste) just to share with you that last line “the presence at the table of a mute nine-year-old boy whose face was like a blank back page from the book of human sorrows.” I keep repeating it in my head, luxuriating in it, wishing I had written that phrase instead (although if I had, I might never have finished the book, as I surely would have been too enamored with myself to go on).
Beyond his ability to turn a the simplest of ideas into elegant prose, Chabon also has written a short novel that feels as though it must have books on both sides of it. What I mean to say is that, ideally, when writing short fiction, the story should feel as though it has been taken out of a larger tapestry, that if only the reader looks hard enough, she will find a few more chapters – a story about the protagonist’s life twenty years before perhaps, or a reflection on how a German Jewish child has come to live in Yorkshire during World War II. Chabon writes as though he knows exactly what has happened to every person in his story from their birth onward; he holds back more than ninety percent of that information, but I never doubted for a moment that it was there in his head, tantalizingly out of reach.
He writes the way I wish I lived. I’m the kind of person who tends to hold back between thirty and fifty percent when talking about myself. Certainly I have humiliations and histories I keep quiet about, but by and large, I tend to be straightforward (I would even go so far as to say tactless) in what I share with others. I don’t think about it all that often, but when I read a story like this, I can’t help but admire the elegance of the unspoken. I long for his ability to pause and allow a scene to speak for itself, to watch fools and cretins spill out into the empty space while the wise wait patiently by.
Chabon also manages to stand back while his characters reveal their solemn wit or hasty conclusions in turns; I’m not distracted by him as a writer at all, as I am in many stories when I read authors who (like myself) put a little too much of themselves into the characters to remain unseen. I’ve already picked up Summerland, his Young Adult novel, and The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how they compare to this little gem.
For more about Michael Chabon, check out his homepage.