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23rd May
2009
written by Steph
Here's a solution: skip this one!

Here's a solution: skip this one!

The hardest books (or novellas, as the case may be) to write about are the ones that I feel completely apathetic towards.  There’s nothing ostensibly wrong about them that I can nitpick to high heaven, but there’s also nothing glimmering and wonderful to get me all worked up about, so I wind up simply feeling like all I want to write about them is one word: Meh.  That’s how I feel about The Final Solution by Michael Chabon.  Unfortunately, “meh” doesn’t really make for an interesting entry, so I will try my darndest to say something about this wholly unremarkable slip of a book. The story revolves around a mute Jewish boy who flees to England to escape persecution in Germany.  His only companion is an African parrot named Bruno, who trills out a mysterious stream of numbers every so often.  Many people are pretty interested in Bruno and what these enigmatic numbers might be the key to, so to make a short story even shorter, one day a guest staying with the family harboring the mute Jewish boy is found clubbed to death and Bruno is nowhere to be found.  Although the murder holds little enticement for him, an aged detective with a penchant for tweed and beekeeping decides he will take up the case of locating Bruno and returning him to his young master. Ok, so the story was pretty flimsy and not really all that intriguing.  There were only about four possible suspects who could have committed the murder (and one was an obvious red herring), and really only one of them could have done both crimes, so the mystery wasn’t exactly what you would call gripping.  The clues that allow our hoary sleuth to crack the case are kind of outlandish – not unbelievable per se, but just kind of ridiculous… but again, I wouldn’t recommend anyone read this for the mystery element anyway (also because one of the mysteries is never actually solved... and it's probably the one you, the reader, are most interested in).  The story felt pretty unremarkable and actually pretty uninspired, and there were a lot of storylines that were kind of danced around, and lots of threads are picked up only to be dropped or left loose.  This is a shame since clearly Chabon has a fondness for the detective genre, and it doesn’t take much deductive reasoning on the part of a reader to realize who the infamous detective on the case is. (Ok, fine.  It’s never said, but the crotchety old man is clearly Sherlock Holmes). But maybe mystery just isn’t Chabon’s thing.  He’s certainly better known for his more “literary” fiction, so let’s focus on the writing.  It was also… ok.  Certainly there are moments when his wending passages are punctuated by arresting turns of phrase or a deft arrangement of words that positively make you purr in satisfaction, but by and large I felt the writing was chaff rather than substantive.  I don’t mean the writing was careless or bad, just that it had a ring of artifice to it, like this wasn’t really how Chabon writes (I haven’t read his other stuff, so maybe I’m off base here), but this was instead him emulating or mimicking a style.  I think he embraced the tone he was going for, but was never able to fully embody it, if that makes any sense.  Clearly he wanted to pay homage to the Sherlock Holmes stories, so I think that’s why he adopted the tone he did, but I can’t say I fully enjoyed it.  As with Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, here again I felt that Chabon was encumbered by abstruse language that was overly elaborate, his sentences verging on the tendency of strangling one another.  I never found his word choices as offputting and jarring as Shriver’s could sometimes feel, but I also felt like there was less purpose behind the words he selected.  Shriver’s message came across loud and clear in spite of distracting writing, where as Chabon’s writing felt more like he was ambling about somewhat aimlessly.
Loved the illustrations!  Everything else?  Not so much.

Loved the illustrations! Everything else? Not so much.

In the end, I felt that the mystery element of the story is executed in a pretty unsatisfactory way, and characters are sketched rather than developed.  Unfortunately, the writing itself was neither sufficiently stunning nor impressive to carry the book in the face of this flaw. I didn’t feel as though I had been diverted or had taken much away from what I read.  In this sense, I am happy the book is but 135 pages; you can read it swiftly and not feel as though your time has been wasted.  Still, I feel like Chabon has probably written better books and there are certainly better mysteries for you to spend your time on.  The one thing I truly enjoyed about the book were the lovely illustrations peppered throughout (see right).  They were the one element where I felt a good deal of care and thought had been invested, but these are not enough to merit a recommendation. I end with two musings: 1) Is the use and frequency of the word “rectitude” (and any adjective or adverb variants thereof) my new litmus test for whether an author has a propensity for pretentious and overly-primped prose?  (Hurrah for alliteration!)  Shriver uses it at least three times in Kevin, and Chabon uses it thrice in this novella… of course, Shriver disperses her three uses over 450 pages, whereas Chabon shoots his load (pardon the expression) in a third of that length. 2)  What is with authors linking Sherlock Holmes with bees?  I don’t have nearly the background to know if he either had some phobia (or fascination) with them, or maybe just really liked honey… is there something in the original stories to suggest he was a non-ursine counterpart to Winnie the Pooh?  Chabon has him as a beekeeper in this story, and if I’m not mistaken, the Mary Russell mysteries by Laurie R. King (which I need to get to soon!) also place him in that role.  Does the final Sherlock Holmes story have him ride off into the sunset only to open an apiary? Rating: 2 out of 5

13 Comments

  1. 05/23/2009

    I agree with you about the mystery in this one. It seemed kind of far-fetched. I actually listened to this on audio, and it held my attention well enough, which is all I ask in an audiobook. (Is is better than drive-time radio? If so, it’ll do.) The writing did seem awkward in places, but I can never judge those things when I’m listening to a book.

    I did really like how Chabon handled the Holmes part. Not saying it outright kept in from feeling like a gimmick to boost sales, and not revealing it at the end kept it from seeming like he thought his readers weren’t clever enough to figure it out. Still, Kavalier and Klay is much, much better.

    And yes, I believe one of the Holmes stories says that he retired to the country to work with bees. (There are huge gaps in my own Holmes reading but I’ve seen Laurie King has mention that fact in a couple of interviews.)

  2. Eva
    05/23/2009

    Is this your first Chabon? I just read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay earlier this year, and it blew me away with how good it was. Have you read that one? If so, how does it compare?

    As to Holmes and bees…here’s a quote from the last Holmes story “His Last Bow”:
    “But you have retired, Holmes. We heard of you as living the life of a hermit among your bees and your books in a small farm upon the South Downs.”

    “Exactly, Watson. Here is the fruit of my leisured ease, the magnum opus of my latter years!” He picked up the volume from the table and read out the whole title, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. “Alone I did it. Behold the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days when I watched the little working gangs as once I watched the criminal world of London.”

    So there you go! You can read the whole story for free.

  3. 05/23/2009

    @ Teresa: I didn’t know this was going to involve Sherlock Holmes until I started reading it – if I had, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up, as I generally don’t like things that take other people’s characters and extend on the “canon”. It’s one of the reason I can’t deal with any of the many Jane Austen sequels out there.
    I guess I was just expecting this to be a fun little mystery read, but it was pretty weak, so while I’ll read more Chabon in the future, this was disappointing.
     
    @ Eva: Thanks for clearing up the bees thing! I’m going to work my way through the Sherlock Holmes stories, so I’ll get there one day, but I’m glad to know all this bee stuff actually came from somewhere!
    I haven’t read Kavalier and Clay (though I have a copy that is waiting to be read!), but based on Teresa’s comment above, I think it sounds like that’s the better Chabon book to read!

  4. 05/24/2009

    The only Chabon book I have read is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which I did enjoy, although it was definitely a “wordy” read!

  5. 05/24/2009

    I have a copy of Kavalier and Clay so I need to get around to reading it at some point. Almost everyone I know who has read it enjoyed it, so it’s just getting into the right mood for it, I guess. I’ll be interested to see how the style in this book translates into a lengthier read!

  6. 05/25/2009

    I’ve only read Chabon’s The Wonder Boys and I remember liking it, not loving it. But everyone raves about Kavalier and Clay, so I’ll probably end up reading that some day. I hadn’t even heard of this one…

  7. 05/25/2009

    I had always been intrigued by “The Wonder Boys” as well, though I haven’t even seen the movie version (mostly because I am stubborn and won’t watch a movie if I know it’s based on a book and I haven’t read the book already…). I think I will read Kavalier & Clay as my next Chabon, and go from there… If I like that, I will likely try more Chabon. If not? I’ll probably categorize him as an author that just isn’t for me!

  8. 05/26/2009

    I read this a little over a year ago and, while I found it enjoyable, I have to agree with you – it was pretty forgettable. I love everything Sherlock so I may have given more a benefit of a doubt that it deserved. I read Caleb Carr’s Sherlock story, The Italian Secretary, which left a much better impression.

  9. 05/26/2009

    Perhaps some of my issues with this did stem from the fact that my familiarity with the original Sherlock stuff is cursory at best… but I’m going to rectify that! I’ve read that there have been some successful throwbacks to the series by modern authors, but there was just something about this that I found lackluster.

  10. 05/27/2009

    I don’t really like any of the Chabon that I have read. Though The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was praised up and down, I still remember it being one of the most painful reading experiences I have ever had. I kept glancing to the back of the book, and trying to estimate just how much more was left and hoping that it would be over soon. I also read Wonder Boys, and thought that the movie was a lot better than the book. I don’t think I will ever read another book by this author. Sorry that you didn’t like this one, but at least it was short!

  11. 05/27/2009

    Oh no! I can’t think of what I would have done if this had been a full-length novel, so I’m sorry you felt K&C was a slog. I secretly worry that I will find it dry, but I am going to try it (given that I already own it). I hate when I’m working on a book but can’t shake the page countdown in the back of my brain. Here’s hoping I enjoy my next Chabon (whenever that might be), because otherwise I won’t be going back for more.

  12. Brian Marshall
    11/04/2011

    Why am I supposed to be interested in your opinion? You don’t seem to know anything about the writer, or Sherlock Holmes, and ask questions in your review that you obviously can’t be bothered finding out before posting it. The style of writing (‘pretentious’ as you say) is apt for the style of the story and the inspiration for it. Fair enough criticising Shriver however. By the way, ‘abtruse’? ‘per se’? (ugh). I think you should question your own pretentious pomposity before attacking someone elses. Sloppy and uninspiring review. I’m not saying it’s a fantastic book but put a bit of effort in love.

  13. 11/06/2011

    @ Brian: You don’t have to be interested in my opinion, but I am perfectly entitled to write about my own reaction to books in this space. Certainly not everyone will agree with those opinions, as our reactions to literature and art are subjective. If you are looking for write-ups about books that are as objective as possible, you’ll find this space maddening… and if you want to read reviews with which you always agree, then you should probably write your own and read no one else’s.
    I will also say that since writing about this piece of fiction, I have since read more of the original Sherlock Holmes as well as other works inspired by him, and while that background might increase my appreciation of certain allusions in this book, I still think the overall mystery and writing were ill-conceived and simply didn’t have the ease or appeal of the material to which it pays homage.
    Perhaps the way I wrote my review was somewhat overblown, but given that you apparently enjoy that style of writing (or so I suppose, given your rather cantankerous response to my stating that I found the writing was pretentious), I would think that might actually be a point in my favor in your book! Either way, I doubt I’m the one and only pretentious or pompous person who keeps a blog on the internet (I think we all must be to some extent), so you might want to steer clear of such beasts in the future.

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