Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review - Michael Chabon's The Final Solution

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
Published by: HarperCollins
Publication Date: November 9th, 2004
Format: Hardcover, 131 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Sherlock Holmes is retired to the South Downs where he doesn't concern himself with more than his bees and not falling over some detritus in his house and dying ignominiously. But one day he is intrigued when he sees a young boy with a parrot on his shoulder walking down the railway tracks. He observes the boy is about to urinate on the third rail and rushes as fast as his feeble frame will allow him to stop this dangerous pursuit. The boy doesn't answer to his shouts, yet the parrot does, issuing a long string of numbers in German. Curiouser and curiouser. It turns out that the young boy Linus is a Jewish refuge living at the Vicarage, which the Panickers also run as a boarding house. There the parrot has excited some of the residents and his strings of numerals are believed to be more than random. In fact the parrot's abilities are of interest to more people than just those in the South Downs... could the numbers in fact mean something to the war effort? When one of the Panickers's lodgers is brutally murdered and the parrot goes missing with young Reggie Panicker as chief suspect, the local police think perhaps it is time to consult the great detective himself. Holmes agrees to help. Not out of concern for Reggie Panicker or for the war effort or to stop a murderer, his bees are all that he really cares about. He agrees to help to reunite the young boy with his parrot. Because if ever there were two creatures more in need of each other it is this young boy and his bird. If he happens to solve the murder and the mystery of the numbers along the way, well, that's why he was at one time the greatest consulting detective in the world. A world which has now radically changed.

I'm fairly confident that The Final Solution became the "must read" book for me almost ten years ago because of a really good blurb in the Bas Bleu catalog. The problem with the Bas Bleu catalog is that they are masters of writing the perfect precise that makes you not just want to, but need to read the book they are selling. I have had Bas Bleu backlash many a time, most memorably with Agatha Christie's Endless Night. Yet the Endless Night debacle was in my future at this point, and so I excitedly curled up on a summer's day on my side porch to delve into The Final Solution; where I instantly felt I needed to be reading the book with a dictionary constantly open. My initial feelings were that Chabon was a little too self-impressed with his ability to obfuscate his story while simultaneously being a bit of a show-off. For some reason, despite what should be viewed as negatives, because a writer shouldn't try to make his book inaccessible, I was left with this impression that The Final Solution was a masterpiece that I just couldn't fully understand or appreciate. Flash forward almost a decade, with all the expanded knowledge and vocab that time can bring to a voracious reader and I now see the truth. This is a self-indulgent novella that exudes smug self-importance. Just because a book is dense and impenetrable to the point of incomprehensibility doesn't mean it's good and you are the problem in the equation. It means you need to look closer at the book and realize that the dense narrative might be hiding the author's smug self-satisfaction in plain sight. The purposeful use of obscure and highfalutin language combined with the "gimmick" to never actually state outright that this book is about Sherlock Holmes and only deal in allusions and asides makes this book smack of pretension and alienates the reader. A book should service the story NOT the ego of the writer, and hence this book is a failure.

Finally being able to see beyond the veil of academic and writerly gimmickry you see that all it did was mask the problems of the story. The major problem is that this isn't an ode to Conan Doyle but more posturing by Chabon. The LEAST Chabon could have done is capture the essence of Holmes in the slightest. Instead this book seems to intentionally set out to be the exact opposite of all things Holmes and Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle is a writer that is only occasionally melodramatic when writing as Watson, but he is never superfluous. If he is writing as Holmes, as is the case in two of his short stories, the language is terse and to the point. The Final Solution, being in the waning days of Sherlock Holmes, would obviously be written from Holmes's POV, and therefore would necessitate Holmes's narration style. Yet here Chabon luxuriates in description and verbiage. The actual plot could be summed up by Holmes or Watson in a couple of sentences, but it's spun out for 131 pages! This wallowing in the unnecessary and insignificant might be a nice idyl for a writing exercise, but not for a story which suffers under these pretensions. Plus, I don't know if it's just me, but there's a reason Conan Doyle didn't write Holmes into his dotage, aside from being sick of writing him, and that's because no one wants to see the great and mighty struggling to get out of a chair. Yes it might be interesting if handled properly, like the recent film Mr. Holmes, but here it isn't handled properly or reverently like it should be. It's all just Chabon showing off. But what got under my skin more than anything was that while he peppers the book with allusions to Holmes's great works at the end Chabon doesn't understand Holmes. He got him so wrong. "The business of detection has for so many years been caught up with questions of remuneration and reward that although he was by now long beyond such concerns he felt, with surprising vigor, that the boy owed him the payment of a smile." Holmes rarely took any form of payment! I can think of one, maybe two times that entered into it, in ALL of his adventures. All SIXTY of them. As for a reward? He liberally gave all the credit away to different police officers. Gaw! Just SO WRONG!

The Final Problem could have been a sweet little story about a boy and his parrot, but the need to make the story ostensibly about Sherlock Holmes, though remember he's never directly named, derails the tale and drags it out. To make a book of only 131 pages seem overly long is a true talent that Chabon should be congratulated on. Instead of focusing on the relationship of the boy and his bird, we suffer through long reminiscences of what it is to be old and dying. Oh, and not just dying, but to die in an ignominious way. To die sprawled out in an inglorious way that would be very embarrassing for one's reputation, though technically you shouldn't care because, you know, you're dead. The reason I think The Final Solution would have been more successful concentrating on Linus is that you forge a connection with the boy. You never really make a connection to Holmes. Holmes is a character of wonder and magic, and to make him old and feeble, it stripes the character of what connection the reader had. Dwelling on his various daydreams of death doesn't help us connect either. There is only one time you feel a connection to Holmes and the man he was and that's when he journeys back to London in search of Linus's bird. London was the epicenter of Holmes's world. This is a city that bowed down to his greatness and the villains were in constant fear of him. Now London is no longer the place he rules but a place he no longer recognizes. With the onslaught of the Germans he expected to see the city in ashes, and one wonders if perhaps he actually wished this to be true. That London, without the great Sherlock Holmes, had ceased to exist. That it's very lifeblood no longer flowed because of his exodus. Instead there is destruction, but more then that, new buildings, new life, all the new that he doesn't know. He knew this city like the back of his hand, every alley and every bolthole. To see that the city moved on, changed while his knowledge didn't, is the first and only time in the book you feel what it's like to be Holmes, the pinnacle of the previous discarded century.

Going back to Linus and his parrot, I can not express how much a story concentrating only on the two of them would have succeeded. Their relationship is a connection between two souls. When you are young and form a connection to an animal something magical happens. It's not that you're just kindred spirits, you are each others soul mates. Chabon so eloquently describes this connection with the looks exchanged between the two, the way the boy mummers to his parrot and the way the parrot ruffles Linus's hair, that it's almost painful in it's beauty. I had this relationship once with my little cat Spot. We met when I was only eight and we were together for twenty-two years. He was my best friend, my confidant, my better half. He was everything and I see that relationship mirrored in this book. This is the heart and while to an extent it is also the driving force of the narrative, it's too often relegated to the sidelines to actually keep your interest. But to look at their relationship further, I can't help but think about how this bird is truly a service animal. The boy is effectively a mute and is therefore viewed as developmentally disabled by many of the people in the community where he lives. So much study has gone into the aid animals can give to children who are autistic or have learning disabilities, and here we have a story that shows the depth of these connections and how they work yet it is constantly pushed aside. The most interestingly narrated chapter in the book is when the parrot's POV is explored. Here we get more insight into his relationship with Linus, but again this is second fiddle to the importance of the crime committed. Chabon, I am totally calling you out. You set this up so well and had such an opportunity and you wasted it time and time again to indulge yourself and not serve the story or the characters. Get with it already. Edit, rewrite this and get back to me.

Yet the biggest flaw in the book has nothing to do with the story, it has to do with the illustrations. Jay Ryan created a memorable and unique cover, but his interior illustrations leave something to be desired. They feel unfinished and childish, which is the exact opposite of the story whose language is so polished it almost blinds you and is very adult in nature. Seriously, only an adult could have the vocabulary to get through this book not to mention the themes of aging, persecution, espionage, and murder. I am a graphic designer and have done many illustrations. Illustrations are different than regular drawings, they are there to accompany and add insight to the text. They REFLECT the text. Image and words in a symbiotic relationship that is balanced. Here it's not balanced. Stupid childish drawings that you could argue were to capture the childishness of Linus, but I refute that argument. Linus doesn't live in the world of a child and the things he's seen make him unique. Therefore dumbing down the illustrations doesn't enhance his viewpoint, it harms it. While the style of writing and the narrative annoyed me to no end, there is a beauty in the images that Chabon conjures up. There is a lushness in the text that is completely derailed by these technical and awkward images. This isn't how the words make this world appear. If anything these images are 100% the exact opposite of what I see in my mind's eye while reading this book. While most people will probably just flip to the next page ignoring the images, I can't. They are a stumbling block that brings down the book even lower in my estimations. Quite literally you start the book thinking it will be amazing, a five star tour de force. Then Holmes is introduced and mishandled, then the drawings start showing up, then this, then that, and you are left with a book that could have been something magical, but isn't. Not in the least.


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