Saturday, July 26, 2008

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

Briefly, this is the story of two con men who get up to trouble somewhere in Europe, some time in the Middle Ages. One is an enormous African armed with a Viking axe; the other a pale skinny Jewish doctor whose only weapons are his surgical instruments. That alone is funny enough.

Observant readers of this blog will note that I am a big fan of Michael Chabon. But even I could barely get through this mess. Chabon likes to be clever, and this time he’s gone too far. This book is so clever it’s unintelligible. I admit to enjoying the first half – it’s witty and original, to say the least. But as you go deeper into the book, the plot gets more convoluted, more and more characters appear, everyone has multiple monikers (based on names, nationalities, and physical traits), place names are unfamiliar (and missing from the map), and it all just falls apart into one big confusing muddle about two thirds of the way through.

I sometimes think that when a writer achieves a certain level of success, his or her editors pull back and give greater creative license. (I don’t know whether or not this is true, it’s just an impression I’ve had with other writers before.) Someone needed to say to Chabon “wait a second, this book is a great idea, but it’s way too confusing as you’ve executed it.” But obviously no one did. I’m saying it now, but it’s a bit late. (Do most of my blog readers know that in my day job I’m an editor? Though unfortunately, not Michael Chabon’s editor.)

(Book 28, 2008)


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to read your take on this. I love Chabon, but I had not read this particular book; nevertheless, I gave it to my son (14) as a Christmas present. He read it but basically said what you did. I wondered if my kid lacked discernment, but now I know he was right!

I've promised to read one he gave me -- they read it in 8th-grade honors English this year and Mark says it's one of the best novels he's ever read: "Octavian Nothing." I trust the boy's judgment and figure I will enjoy it. Mark says a sequel to it is coming out this fall and he can't wait to get it.

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