Friday, February 14, 2014

Review of Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

Despite being on multiple bestseller lists, despite winning the Pulitzer prize, and despite being a writer of “literary training, generation, and pretensions”, Michael Chabon is a genre proponent.  (Read the afterword to his 2008 The Yiddish Policemen’s Union for more info.)  Literary fiction aficionados lauding Chabon’s talent—for talent it is, The New York Times Magazine, one of the bastions of American literature which lets speculative fiction play on its margins, contracted the author to write a serialized genre story.  Published over the course of five months, and collected in a single volume in 2007, Gentlemen of the Road is the result.

In the time honored tradition of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Elric and Moonglum, and all other fantasy adventure pairs, Chabon adds Zelikman and Amram to the mix.  The former a scarecrow-thin physician of Frankish descent who wields a blood-letting lance as a sword and the latter a strong-as-an-ox African who carries a Viking axe into battle, the pair get themselves into one scrum after another as they cheat, cure, assist, and fight their way across the lands of Kazaria (what is today the Caucus region) in one adventure after another.

Gentlemen of the Road opens with the duo pulling a ruse on the followers of a caravanseri.  Everything going as planned until its time to collect the night’s earnings, a silent murder finds the two with an indignant prince on their hands, but gold on the horizon if they are able to return him to his rich father in one piece.  The plot developing quickly in the aftermath, it isn’t long before even that objective must be modified.  All manner of bandits, assassination attempts, executions, horse thieving, and tricks upon tricks entering the scenes thereafter, Zelikman and Amram have to be on their toes every step of the way if the prince is to remain alive and the breath in their lungs.

Dedicated to Michael Moorcock but likewise possessing a strong flavor Fritz Leiber given the picaresque, fantasy adventure pair elements, Gentlemen of the Road is pure genre backed by research into the Medieval-esque history of Judaism in the north Middle East.  Story tried and true, Chabon even writes in an archaic style in an attempt to make proceedings feel more ‘epic’.  The following is par for the course:

For a moment after the insult was hurled, the African went on eating, without looking up from the shatranj board, indeed without seeming to have heard the remark at all.  Then, before anyone quite understood that calumny so fine went beyond the powers of even the myna, and that the bird was innocent, this once, of slander, the African reached his left hand into his right buskin and, in a continuous gesture as fluid and unbroken as that by which a falconer looses his fatal darling into the sky, produced a shard of bright Arab steel, its crude hilt swaddled in strips of hide, and sent it hunting across the benches.”

Knowing Chabon, this is probably also his way of paying tribute to the genre authors he adores—Leiber, Moorcock, and others. 

In following with this ideal, there is nothing truly fresh or original about the plot of Gentlemen of the Road.  Given the story was serialized, each chapter ends on a ‘note of interest’ to keep the reader tuned in next week.  Moreover, all of the standard tricks of the trade are in place.  There are ruses, near deaths, exciting rescues, plot twists, big battles, jaunty banter—nothing that hasn’t been done in fantasy adventure before save the Jewish/Khazarian backdrop.  It is thus quite humorous to read cover copy.  That from Time is the tip-toeing best:

“Chabon is still a literary novelist, but he’s having a hot, star-crossed flirtation with the ‘popular’ genres.  He riffs on them, toys with them, steals their best tricks, passes them notes in class, etc.  In Gentlemen of the Road… he achieves something like the consummation.  He goes all the way.”

In the end, Gentlemen of the Road is genre literature done right, but still mainstream genre.  As is the want of Chabon, a high degree of research into the history of Jewish ‘sword and sorcery’ went into the writing—which does make for interesting reading, but it doesn’t mean the novel escapes the label.  More homage than original material, readers with only fantasy backgrounds will probably find many of the flower’s petals still possess color, while those who approach the book from a literary perspective are likely to have the same reaction as Time.   For people looking for a writer seeking to break the mold of epic fantasy/adventure in more bold fashion, I would seek out M. John Harrison’s Viriconium (particularly The Pastel City), Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine Pontifex, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, and Gene Wolfe’s TheWizard Knight.

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