Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf: The Final Solution

In the on-going effort to add more material to the Curious Mechanism, we’re presenting a review. We’ll do stories from an era, of anything length (and, potentially, written in several languages), and we’ll publish our two cents upon them whenever we’ve read them. Hopefully, the bookshelf will get another addition every week or so, but if we get around to reading Les Miserables (1779 pages), War and Peace (1500 pages), or In Search of Lost Time (a mere 1.5 million words) you’ll forgive us if we need more than 7 days. Actually, if we read that last one, we’ll probably just review the sections as we go along.

Furthermore, if you have any suggestions for books that we simply must read, either email us or leave a comment. We’ve got a really sweet Amazon account that’s just itching for more use, and genuine love for all kinds of fiction, and most kinds of non-fiction (though the over-wrought, over-long biography is a point of frustration, that kind of thing can always be passed of on Mrs Thursday). Though, if you recommend us anything written in another language, we ask that you provide your favorite translation. We’ve got some knowledge of other languages, but we’re not about to pick up Dutch just because you think we should read Soren Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Though, seriously, anyone who recommends something like that is probably a sadomasochistic jerk. Have you read that? It’s insane. Remarkable, but, come on. Like you want us to start writing about dialectics here. Do you know how much philosophy the people responsible for this blog have read? Really. Recommend to us fiction and history books. Please. Be kind.

After the break, our first book, Michael Chabon’s detective story, The Final Solution. Yes, it’s 2 years old, and yes, it’s only 131 pages, but we’re easing into this thing.

As I talked about a couple of weeks ago, Michael Chabon has become interested in genre storytelling. Or, rather, he’s become vocal in what has probably been a lifelong interest in genre writing. Genre writing is, obviously, writing that conforms to a set mode. You know them extensively in movies: the Western and spaghetti western (1/2 of John Wayne’s movies), the heist flick (Ocean’s 11, The Sting, The Italian Job), war movies (Saving Private Ryan, the other half of John Wayne’s movies). Now, in writing, the complaint from the critics about the so-called genre stories is that they lack “literary merit”. Literary (or artistic) merit is a nebulous term that is used to distinguish art that is ephemeral from that which is lasting. More famously, it’s used to distinguish pornography from Art.

So, quick examples to sum-up: Ulysses, The Beatles, and Gone With the Windhave artistic merit, despite being salacious, violent, and crass. The Notebook, Dr. Demento, and Debbie Does Dallas do not have artistic merit, despite being salacious, violent, and crass. Also, almost anything funny does not have artistic merit. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, so I don’t want your examples of funny pieces of art. I’m just saying, there’s a trend.

Anyway…

Chabon loves the genre fiction. He’s tired of “literary fiction”, which is fiction without a plot. Stories without plot frequently have artistic merit. He received acclaim for his novels which have both plot and merit, and so struck out to write things are distinctly “genre”. The Final Solution is a detective story. In fact, it’s a Sherlock Holmes story.

The story takes place in the 1940s, nearing the end of World War II, in the English countryside. An old man comes across a young, mute boy, and his remarkable African grey parrot with its expansive memory and a nearly uncanny voice for mimicry, and constant habit of rattling off mysterious strings of numbers. Shortly thereafter, the bird is stolen, and a corpse is found. The wiry old man agrees to leave his hobby (beekeeping) to help the boy recover the bird, and if they happen to solve the murder mystery along the way, so much the better.

Chabon’s writing is stripped down throughout much of the novella. By keeping largely away from flowery passages, flashbacks, and conventional asides, the story is streamlined and quickly paced. There’s a usual assortment of false leads and dead-ends, but Chabon keeps them at bay, for the most part.

I really think this is a kind of hinge novel for Chabon. As he moves away from stories like the sprawling and brilliant Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and into distinctly genre novels, this short piece shows the turn well. Despite the brevity of The Final Solution, as well as its largely stripped down language, he still manages to find some room for that merit the critics are always looking for:

The application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings — the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life. And yet he had always been haunted — had he not? — by the knowledge that there were men, lunatic cryptographers, mad detectives, who squandered their brilliance and sanity in decoding and interpreting the messages in cloud formations, in the letters of the Bible recombined, in the spots on butterflies’ wings.

The conclusion, especially important in mystery and detective stories, is, in itself something of a dead-end. The aged Sherlock Holmes never quite finds out what the parrot’s numbers mean, even as they are revealed to the reader, and so for one of the first times in his career, Holmes finds success, but probably not satisfaction, at the conclusion of the tale.

It’s not remotely Chabon’s best, but it’s an enjoyable and interesting novella, and it shows promise for what Chabon can do in the future with this kind of writing.

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