Review: The Final Solution

The_Final_Solution.largeThe Final Solution is classic Michael Chabon, but appetizer-size. It’s a fair introduction to his writing though it lacks his usual humor. Some writers are fun to hate, but Chabon is one that I try so hard to like and come up short. Each of his books (even the Pulitzer winner) share a flaw: he can’t edit himself. His meandering tone saps energy and his writing is often unappealingly pretentious. He writes as though his adjectives and parenthetical remarks are more important than the development of plot and characters.

Block quotes make people glaze over, but I can’t say “this man TALKS” and not back it up. In this early passage (page 3), an old man watches a young boy walk along the train tracks. He realizes the boy may step on the third rail and tries to stop him:

 “Even on a sultry afternoon like this one, when cold and damp did not trouble the hinges of his skeleton, it could be a lengthy undertaking, done properly, to rise from his chair, negotiate the shifting piles of ancient-bachelor clutter—newspapers both cheap and of quality, trousers, bottles of salve and liver pills, learned annals and quarterlies, plates of crumbs—that made treacherous the crossing of his parlor, and open his front door to the world. Indeed the daunting prospect of the journey from armchair to doorstep was among the reasons for his lack of commerce with the world, on the rare occasions when the world, gingerly taking hold of the brass door-knocker wrought in the hostile form of a giant Apis dorsata, came calling. Nine visitors out of ten he would sit, listening to the bemused mutterings and fumblings at the door, reminding himself that there were few now living for whom he would willing risk catching the toe of his slipper in the hearth rug and spilling the scant remainder of his life across the cold stone floor. But as the boy with the parrot on his shoulder prepared to link his own modest puddle of electrons to the torrent of them being pumped along the conductor, or third, rail from the Southern Railway power plant on the Ouse outside of Lewes, the old man hoisted himself from his chair with such unaccustomed alacrity that the bones of his left hip produced a disturbing scrape. Lap rug and journal slid to the floor. He wavered a moment, groping already for the door latch, though he still had to cross the entire room to reach it. His failing arterial system labored to supply his suddenly skybound brain with useful blood. His ears rang and his knees ached and his feet were plagued with stinging. He lurched, with a haste that struck him as positively giddy, toward the door, and jerked it open, somehow injuring, as he did so, the nail of his right forefinger.
‘You, boy!’ he called, and even to his own ears his voice sounded querulous, wheezy, even a touch demented. ‘Stop that at once!’” (3-4)

This is brilliant—it’s visceral and tangible and far beyond my own skill-set, but awful in context. Chabon puffs every detail to this proportion. Similar passages interrupt the flow of dialogue and confuse the plot. What irritates me about Chabon is that a skilled editor could increase his readability tenfold. He needs someone to say: “You’ve described this thing five ways and all five descriptions are beautiful…now, pick two.”

The old man is an aged Sherlock Holmes (circa 1944); this is implied with references to his best known cases: “the tales, the legends, the wild, famous leaps of induction pulled off by the old man in his heyday, assassins inferred from cigar ash, horse thieves from the absence of a watchdog’s bark.” (25) If you’re a Holmes fan (which I am), you’ll appreciate the little nods and insinuations, but the close of the novel lacks the satisfying moment of reduction/reveal, because Chabon provides full closure to the wrong mystery.

From the book jacket:
In deep retirement in the English country-side, an eight-nine-year-old man, vaguely recollected by locals as a once-famous detective, is more concerned with his beekeeping than with his fellow man. Into his life wanders Linus Steinman, nine years old and mute, who has escaped from Nazi Germany with his sole companion: an African gray parrot. What is the meaning of the mysterious strings of German numbers the bird spews out—a top-secret SS code? The keys to a series of Swiss bank accounts perhaps? Or something more sinister? Is the solution to this last case—the real explanation of the mysterious boy and his parrot—beyond even the reach of the once-famed sleuth?

Maybe I ruined this book for myself with my expectations. But as you can see from the given synopsis, it looks like the bird is the mystery, not a murder. I like murder mysteries, but not when there is a far more interesting parrot on the loose. The old guy (I refuse to call him Holmes, Holmes-lite?) prefers to spend his last remaining brain cells on the murder, and I would prefer to read about the parrot. Not to be petulant, but if you’re going to do a bait and switch, the switch needs to be as good as the bait. Holmes-lite is flat, his supporting cast is flat, and it was a strain to focus on the murder. Linus, the boy, is far more interesting, but the best section of the book is the bit from the parrot’s perspective. There’s something good here, but it’s buried deeper than I’m willing to dig. Is that lazy?

We get an answer to the numbers and it’s depressing (as expected), but what I did not expect is the way this resolution is heavily implied, but left unconfirmed. Different book sites offer different rationales for the numbers according to how highfalutin they want to sound. I’m going to be lowbrow and call the ending rubbish. Not for its openness, but for the way Chabon imparts his tiny clues with stunning pomposity. There’s a word for his style here, but I’m going to err on the side of classy and not say it. This is a dry, little book, and Chabon’s self-indulgent writing makes it all the drier.

Overall: 1.5 (out of 5). Some of Chabon’s other books may find a place on this site and I’ll be nicer.

Translation: Skip this one. Read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay instead. Everybody likes that one. Even me.