Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Final Solution

I've only read a few mystery books in my time.  Of course as a kid I read the Hardy Boys, but I couldn't tell you now what they were like.  I imagine that they were rudimentary, which is funny, because the featured character of any good mystery ought to be able to make anything rudimentary.  That's the whole point, right?

Well, the central character of Michael Chabon's The Final Solution is an old man who's good at making things rudimentary.  Perhaps elementary.  He's never named, but the strong implication is that the old man is in fact Sherlock Holmes, still the most famous investigator in fiction after more than a hundred years, currently enjoying a screen renaissance both in film and television.  The setting is 1944 England, and the old man in question spies a curious boy and his parrot outside his window.  It's the parrot the old man is most curious about, which is appropriate, because in the midst of this short novel a murder is committed and the old man deduces that the real interest in this game is the parrot and not the victim.

What Chabon never does is make anything explicit.  He follows the old man around and explains the perspective of a few of the key players (in a later chapter and in fact the most memorable one from the parrot itself), but leaves the bigger picture up to the imagination of the reader.  A lot of writers when they're trying to impress the reader spend the early pages of their story overwriting with copious amounts of details.  That was my first impression of Solution, since indeed the whole of the literary community seems to have decided that Chabon in the wake of his great success with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has let his reputation go to his head.  Instead of being a good little American writer bound to the things he knows he's gone off and become expansive.  He begun to examine the greater world and wider patterns, which of course began in Kavalier & Clay, which was as much about the creation of comic books as the lives of a couple of Jewish boys.

It does strike me that the more emphasis Chabon puts on his Jewish heritage the more suspect he becomes as a talent.  In 1944, it wasn't a great time to be Jewish, certainly in the boy's experience just outside of the story in Solution.  "Final Solution" itself is the phrase the Nazis used in their bid to solve their scapegoat dilemma.  In the years since Jews have become famous for two fairly diametric developments, the founding of the modern Israeli state and the rise of Hollywood as purveyor of the popular imagination.  Where they were once pariahs, they have since become tyrants (if you still believe in the independent existence of Palestine) and titans (if you believe they control the movies with an iron grip).  Certainly they've given us a good number of comedic individuals to enjoy (Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld).

The boy, who is to all appearances (except the parrot) a mute, survived Nazi Germany and can only be described as remarkable in his proximity to his curious pet, who does all his speaking, although even that appears to be riddles, repeating things Bruno (the parrot) has learned in all the places he has lived.  It's the old man who realizes that the parrot ultimately prevents all manner of explanations from being discovered.  Our culture's love of mysteries is a strange one, because we're taught that every mystery has a solution, and that it's easy if you know how to look at the problem.  I assume that the real point of mysteries is to help people figure out how to do this for themselves, but as with every such attempt to improve ourselves we're taught how to trivialize it rather than take it seriously.  Chabon takes the form so seriously that he discovers the solution isn't the answer itself, but rather the journey, the method, an old message worth repeating since it's so hard to learn.

Michael Chabon is indeed a treasure.

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