You know a novella reeks of importance despite its slim, compact size when the publisher delivers it to a reviewer in a box that could easily fit a couple of footballs. I found this in an auxiliary mailbox reserved for parcels, filled with all sorts of packing paper and air-filled plastic bags as though a precious jewel were encased inside. Considering the book in question lying in all the waste was Michael Chabon’s first adult book follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I naturally had my hopes up.
For those who haven’t heard or read any of the hype surrounding this short tome—originally published in a now sold-out edition of The Paris Review literary magazine during 2003—The Final Solution is the story of Sherlock Holmes’ last case as set in the English countryside during the dying days of World War II. (Though I should note that Holmes is never named in the book.) It involves a mute boy who can only communicate in gibberish through poorly scrawled handwritten notes, and his missing pet parrot, which has the bizarre ability to spew out random German numbers along the lines of that famous Conet Project box set of shortwave radio recordings Wilco once sampled.
Sounds fascinating, you say? Upon reading this thing in little over an hour, I say, “Thank the Good Lord that Chabon kept this story to 131 pages.” That said, the biggest disappointment of The Final Solution for me lied not in the snail’s pace plot, though, but in how many postmodern clichés Chabon piled on in such a short book. (At this point I would advise any readers who’re serious about picking this novella up to skip down one paragraph, for they will easily twig into the book’s final reveal.)
We’re talking major clichés in thematic like the insanity of war, or the impossibility of making sense of something that defies logic. That’s not to speak of the cliché of the book’s main conceit itself: of transplanting a fictional character from modernist fiction in some weird bid to score points with meta-fiction hipsters. All of this would have been something, if only Gravity’s Rainbow, Slaughterhouse-Five, Catch-22 and so on didn’t already exist. If you haven’t yet figured that ending out, let me spell it out for you: Chabon cribs one of the oldest tricks in the postmodern plot book, and that is “the unsolvable enigma.” I’m sure they teach that now in Grade Four narrative writing classes, along with the handy “it was all a dream” plot device used in po-mo movies like Vanilla Sky.
Ultimately, though, the book is a garbled mess, full of too many characters and too many characters that aren’t fully formed enough to care about. In fact, I’m really not sure what the point of this book was. If it was to write another Sherlock Holmes story, not only does it seem bizarre that Chabon chooses to never refer to the main character as Holmes but always “the old man,” he never brings up Baker Street or Moriarty or Watson or other signifiers of the Holmes world. There’s also not enough mystery or clues within to allow readers to deduct what’s going on. In fact, if you think about the goings-on of this book for any extended period of time, you may find they don’t make too much sense. Not that this matters too much in the mystery genre: The Big Sleep comes to mind as a book where the events of the plot fail to line up properly vis-à-vis the case being solved.
Still, you have to have something else going on either in the characterizations or writing quality, and this is what Raymond Chandler brought to the table in Sam Spades through the persona of Philip Marlowe. Not so here. Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will probably throw the book across the room upon reading its final denouement.
On the other hand, the novella is far too compact to offer much amusement to those seeking any literary thrills. Chabon seems to be going somewhere by giving the title of his book some allusion to Nazi Germany and its horrific treatment of Jewish peoples, but this thread doesn’t really develop in earnest. At which point, again, one has to wonder what exactly the point of this exercise was, to write a book about nothing.
The whole point of storytelling, assuming you’re not out to prove your mettle to an audience of academics (which conversely nips the idea your work is going to be read by the public-at-large anyway), is to power communicate something to an audience, whether it be an emotion, an image or an idea, and so on.
Well, after reading this novella, I had to wonder if Michael Chabon has finally run out of things to talk about. I even had to wonder if this was his way of either fulfilling a contractual obligation to his publisher. Or perhaps he had something he wanted off his chest, but wound up being simply too hell-bent on impressing a tiny circle of friends and admirers with his genre skewing and impenetrable, show-off-y prose full of $50 and $100 words to care. After all, the book is dedicated to the memory of author Amanda Davis, and if you search the memorial at the McSweeney’s website - www.mcsweeneys.net/davis.html - you can draw your own conclusions about the incestuous nest the New York literati have made for themselves.
Speaking of connections, readers who agree with all of these assertions might want to wonder how this thing wound up winning an Aga Khan Prize for fiction in 2004, considering that it’s the award The Paris Review gives to the best story it publishes in any given year. Well, not me. After reading this and his rather unexciting Escapist comic book project in the wake of Kavalier and Clay‘s success, I actually wonder about something completely different: is Michael Chabon only interested in treading water after winning the Pulitzer?
Now there’s a mystery worth solving.