Swords and sorceries…well, swords and apologies

During my trip home — actually on the final plane trips back — I had a chance to read and enjoy Michael Chabon‘s most recent work, a wonderful little fillip of a short novel called Gentlemen of the Road. Originally published last year as a serial in the New York Times, it has the episodic feel of such a thing down — indeed, perhaps more than most anything else he’s done, this is a clear tribute to an established form, in this case the rollicking adventure as broadly described, though with an emphasis on land-based swashbuckling, if that makes any sense. Its appeal is manifest and its justification for being told in the first place is obvious and need not be stated — and yet that’s part of the problem I had, not with it, but with how he talks about it in a separate afterword done for the book edition. But more on that later.

To boil the book down to its simplicities, it’s a classic buddy story, in this case the adventurers Zelikman and Amram, roaming around a world of distant kingdoms on the steppe, raiders from foreign lands, revenge-obsessed scions of slaughtered families, mournful monarchs and bizarre landscapes. Said on that level one is practically invited to think about heroic fantasies in a Robert E. Howard vein — the jacket sleeve mentions Fritz Leiber‘s classic duo of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and it’s not a bad reference point at all in this case. The trick, though, is that this is in fact our own world about one millennium back, that there’s no magic at all at play — at least, nothing supernatural — and that the landscape they wander is a familiar one to us now but then was a borderland, the Caucasus Mountains and the lands on the Caspian Sea.

What actually really caught my attention when skimming the jacket copy was the mention that the main setting of the story was the Khazar Empire. To explain — ever since I read a fascinating (but heavily controversial) account of this empire by Arthur Koestler, The Thirteenth Tribe, when I was in high school, I’ve long had an interest in this simultaneously well-known and obscure nation, largely due to one salient fact that partially drives the plot of Chabon’s book. Unlike any other nation in recorded history, when the Khazars encountered the world of monotheism in the Eurasian/Near East context, they chose, not Islam or Christianity, but Judaism — and converted wholesale. And so for a stretch of time there was a thriving Jewish kingdom in what is now part of Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan — insert Borat joke here.

You can follow the links for more — there’s LOTS to talk about, believe me — but suffice to say this was enough for me to give this book some time. As both a stellar choice of setting and a further grounding for what Chabon briefly addresses regarding Jewish identity and life in that historical context in the afterword — he notes that his original plan for the story was to call it Jews With Swords — it’s welded perfectly, intrinsically with the model of heroic adventure he works with otherwise. His heroes — Zelikman, a pale, thin German Jew and Amram, a mighty, muscle-bound Ethiopian Jew — are at once perfect mismatched/in sync archetypes (the Fafhrd/Grey Mouser comparison once again at work) and people grappling with the effects of bigotry and the stupidities of the world in familiar ways.

With this at the heart, Chabon otherwise lets fly with his imagination and scores a bulls-eye. Not comfortably so at all points — no question it’s an accurate portrayal of the gender-biased times and societies, but that it’s very much a man’s tale in a man’s world, where nearly all the women are whores, wives and/or victims of assault, if in memory or offstage, makes for a disconcerting feeling overall. That the main female character (and the only one that the story dwells on in terms of any sort of detailed inner life) must disguise herself as a man to make her way in this man’s world is part of the classic arc of such a romp, but that she must suffer a brutal outrage at the hands of the villain when her secret is discovered is both wearily understandable and still not easily acceptable, even when she is able to see revenge meted out via an unexpected source. That Chabon is skilled enough of a writer to not let these points slow the breathless pace and feel of the story is to his credit, and again it’s hard not to say that this kind of thing doesn’t simply call the time as it was and the human species’s worst impulses as they are. Even so, it can’t and shouldn’t be simply ignored or explained away.

This major caveat noted, if you slip into the story in full it hits the ground running and doesn’t let up, a classic yarn that knows what it’s working at. The most telling part of the book might be Chabon’s dedication — ‘To Michael Moorcock.’ As a longtime fan of that writer I had to approve and there’s no question that the character of Zelikman, with his pale skin and hair, thin build and black outfit, and feels of anger and angst interspersed with tender care for others, not to mention a beloved sword, is an out and out tribute to Moorcock’s iconic literary creation, the albino warrior Elric, the tortured, self-exiled emperor wandering a collapsing world. But there’s also a lot of the tone of Moorcock’s wry narrators in Chabon’s own narrator as well, both of course drawing on similar sources of inspiration to tell a story in a way, say, that is miles removed from a narrator like Tolkien’s for The Lord of the Rings, all serious and, especially, free of irony.

In contrast the ironic, light touch permeates Chabon’s whole story, helps to take the sting off the rougher edges without losing its realistic kick. In this he’s helped by the book edition’s illustrator Gary Gianni, current artist for the long-running Prince Valiant strip and well-aware of his own visual forebears in heroic fantasy and adventure as Chabon is on the literary front. Contributing one visual per chapter in the serial style, Gianni’s black-and-white illustrations are classic pulp work in excelsis, capturing landscapes and characters just so. A great moment sums up how he and Chabon worked well together here — an action moment of our heroes and heroine charging a group of guards on a staircase when hopes of avoiding them had failed illustrates a bulls-eye laconic line of the narrator: “A commotion was therefore unavoidable.” Just PERFECT.

So this all said, why did I feel that this fine little story, even with the previously noted gender concerns, let me down at the end? Again, it’s not the end — which is just right, all in all — but the afterword, namely Chabon’s essay about the origins of the story, why he wanted to write it and so forth. If it was just that I’d have no problem, but as it turns out he does something which I seriously think he shouldn’t’ve had to do at all — namely, he has to apologize, indirectly, for the story’s existence to a certain literary audience that expects him to do other things, that would think that the existence of the story is a waste of their time and his.

That may sound extreme, but to quote the start of one paragraph shortly after the beginning of the afterword where he first speaks of the alternate Jews With Swords title, “I know it still seems incongruous, first of all, for me or a writer of my literary training, generation, and pretensions to be writing stories featuring anybody with swords.” Now Chabon knows his language, so he knows how this has to read, and his word choices aren’t lightly chosen either — but the implications are unavoidable: “Yeah, gee, isn’t it really odd that I, Mr. Serious Novelist, have gone ahead and written a full-on adventure story, rather than keeping themes of high adventure still grounded in the modern realistic world like my one comic-book-writer novel that won the Pulitzer? Sorry if that seems weird to you, do let me explain.”

Think I’m kidding? Hardly. Over the course of the next few pages, he references everything from the typical signifiers of the ‘serious’ fiction reader (talking of stories that appeared in ‘sedate, respectable…places like The New Yorker and Harper’s and featured unarmed Americans undergoing the eternal fates of contemporary short-story characters,’ for instance) to almost painfully self-conscious irony over his whole explanation. Consider this opening of a sentence, where all punctuation is as he has provided:

If this impulse seems an incongruous thing in a writer of the (“serious,” “literary”) kind for which I had for a long time hoped to be taken…

By the time he gets to saying the phrase, “…if there is incongruity in the writer of a piece of typical New Yorker marital-discord fare,” I about throw up my hands. Now, it needs to be made clear, as he rightly does, that he’s not simply disowning this work at all due to its subject matter — it’s part of what he has done, and in the same way that anyone creative looks upon past work, he singles out some favorite pieces, lets others quietly slip aside. Yet it is just so frustrating, so painful to read somebody having to constantly couch himself this way — but the thing is, as was also clear in reading it all, that he wasn’t talking to me and anyone who thinks like me in the slightest. We’re not the intended audience.

He’s talking to that ‘serious’ ‘literary’ audience he identifies, scare quotes and all, represented perhaps by an archetype apparently constructed of some combination of tweed, opera tickets and the collected essays of Edmund Wilson, dedicated to modernism, realism and nothing else — and maybe it is only a strawman construct in the end, who knows? Perhaps he’s just overly scared and concerned. Personally speaking, I would hope that is the case. All I know is that I don’t know anyone of my acquaintance who identifies him or herself as a serious, literary reader that doesn’t have at least an appreciation and at most an enthralling love of imaginative fiction, of adventure stories, of romps, whether they’re written or visual, TV series or movies, old classic pulps or retold myths, comic books or historical romance novels or mysteries.

There’s no artificial division there, no sense of slumming and wasting time with something not worthy. Sure, I do think sometimes there’s a lot of reverse activity going on which I haven’t been immune to either, a straining in trying to push for the exact relevancy to the workaday world of some stories or artificial universes or scenarios in order to justify the time and attention spent on them as creators, fans or obsessives, though I don’t think this is a unique flaw for the time or place. Speaking broadly and in terms of a different medium, regardless of whatever is thought individually about them now, Gene Roddenberry and Joss Whedon will both be seen by future generations as well-meaning types with incredibly clunky, embarrassingly-obvious-in-retrospect ways of making their Big Moral and Social Points in flashing letters — even while said future generations venerate someone else who supposedly shows a lot more sophistication.

Again, though, the point is, we’re not that audience — and if I were Chabon (and of course, I’m not), I don’t think I would have to have apologized for anything this way, for writing something that would apparently offend certain sensibilities by simply existing. That a certain kind of audience — not necessarily an academic one, but often identified with that mindset — demands generic elements in its tales as much as any other literary subculture does isn’t a surprise, and that they want it to be set in the ‘real’ world and have it be something which involves ‘real’ people doing ‘real’ things without exception is its own comfort food, its own fallback position. Mystery writer Bill Pronzini once claimed in passing a couple of decades back that ‘the self-styled “literary establishment” considers any prose that has a plot, makes a linear kind of sense throughout and does not involve suburban sexual angst to be trash, or at best subliterary,’ and while he was gleefully snarking on a strawman as well, when it comes to the subject matter he still cuts to the heart of what a presumed baseline should be in American terms, a ghost from the 20th century machine that hasn’t been fully exorcised. To exercise the imagination in such a way is to escape, it says — the eternal complaint, as tedious as it always was.

Yet perhaps because of the lingering power of the complaint, it did need to be said in this end, this explanation of Chabon’s, this apology. In its own overdetermined, overwrought way, it’s almost as if he’s boiling it down to a simple cry — “Look, could you people just all finally RELAX and let me write whatever the hell I want to rather than what I’m supposed to be writing? Especially since I am anyway?” It’s almost like the story of Wonder Boys, appropriately enough, but from a different angle — after Kavalier and Clay, after Summerland even more so, it’s clear that Chabon doesn’t feel much of a need to fit into the constricting box, to live up to the presumed expectations. But maybe by spelling it out so completely, those who still can’t get it might finally can.

The slyest observation — and the calmest in Chabon’s piece — almost passes one by on first blush. But in talking about his early stories in ‘sedate, respectable places’ and the forces his short-story characters dealt with, the ‘serious’ stuff, he runs off a list of subjects: “disappointment, misfortune, loss, hard enlightenment, moments of bleak grace.’ It was only after rereading the afterword that I realized something — each of those issues, along with others, had cropped up in Gentlemen of the Road, one way or another, sometimes to the fore, sometimes a calmly portrayed undercurrent. His characters had, in their ways and contexts, dealt with the ‘serious’ stuff, and had done so in ways that moved and connected while the story remained the quickly-paced serial it was — set in our world, no magic, no dragons, nothing fantasy about it.

An intentional point on Chabon’s part? I’d like to think so. Even if not, though, it’s as good a note to end on — here’s to hoping that as time continues the perceived need for this kind of explanation dies away, at the least bit by bit and at the most in a heap. There can be swords without apologies.