Heavy on the Castanets

holmes.jpg
Michael Chabon frustrates me. He’s obviously talented, smart and knows how to tell a good story in the old school way. Even if he suffers from the classic problem of providing his stories with endings as memorable as what went before. (I remember a lot of cool things about Kavalier and Clay, but how did it end, again?). What I have a problem with, however, are certain mannerisms in his fluid, elegant language that have always been there, but which one hoped would dissipate, rather than consolidate themselves, with experience.

Let’s take an example. This is from the introduction of the protagonist of Yiddish Policemen’s Union:

“According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy. But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead. Meyer Landsman is the most decorated shammes in the District of Sitka, the man who solved the murder of the beautiful Froma Lefkowitz by her furrier husband, and caught Podolsky the Hospital Killer. His testimony sent Hyam Tsharny to federal prison for life, the first and last time that criminal charges against a Verbover wiseguy have ever been made to stick. He has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket. It’s like there’s a film score playing behind him, heavy on the castanets. The problem comes in the hours when he isn’t working, when his thoughts start blowing out the open window of his brain like pages from a blotter. Sometimes it takes a paperweight to pin them down.”

This is a very impressive piece of prose, but just too much. Yes, it’s part of a novel trading in noir tropes and thus appropriate to an extent. But I’ve never seen the masters of that form go this far with metaphor and simile — it’s as if every time Chabon makes a statement, it has to be backed up with a clever comparison with something else. It’s distracting and at times even confusing — exactly what kind of soundtrack ‘heavy on castanets’ are we supposed to imagine, especially in this cacophony?

He is so good at turning a phrase, at providing simile, at working metaphor, that he lets himself get seduced by it, which results in prose that, rather than supporting what he is trying to accomplish, often works at cross-purposes to it. A lot of the time it’s at least inventive and funny, as in the paragraph quoted above, but at other times it just gets tired — there’s nothing particularly evocative or even artful about a cel phone ‘chirping like a robotic bird’ (later in the book). Why not keep the metaphor and throw out the simile, and just write ‘chirps’?

Another round of examples. Even I can’t resist the charm and humour of this passage from the great opening essay, on the modern short story, in Maps and Legends, in which Chabon mounts a rousing defence of entertainment as a vocation:

“An entertainer is a man in a sequined dinner jacket, singing “She’s a Lady” to a hall filled with women rubber-banding their underpants up onto the stage.”

As a description of the common high-culture notion of entertainment as antithetical to art, this is just hilarious. I love the verbing of ‘rubber-band’, and the use of ‘underpants’ rather than, say, ‘underwear’ or ‘knickers’. That’s entertainment!

On the other hand, in the essay about the comic book, there’s this description of the popular conception of the form in American culture:

“For at least the first forty years of their existence, from the Paleozoic pre-Superman era of Famous Funnies (1933) and More Fun Comics (1936), comic books were widely viewed, even by those who adored them, as juvenile: the ultimate greasy kids’ stuff. Comics were the literary equivalent of bubble-gum cards, to be poked into the spokes of a young mind, where they would produce a satisfying — but entirely bogus — rumble of pleasure.”

Never mind the slightly off dating of the comics cited, but this paragraph is just too impressed with itself to do much good. I like the part with the ‘entirely bogus’ ‘rumble’ — it made me laugh — but what exactly does the analogy with bubblegum cards accomplish? First, there’s the problem of recognising the practice amongst kids of yesteryear of sticking these cards between the spokes of their bike wheels. Second, mixing up two pop cultural products, comic books and bubblegum cards; calling one of them the ‘literary equivalent’ of the other, is confusing when they were basically regarded as equivalents in the most basic sense of the word. ‘Literary’ only serves to set up the following metaphor, the funny one with the rumble. Hardly argument enough for including it. Third, how — exactly — does the idea of ‘inserting comics between the spokes of a child’s mind to produce a bogus rumble’ help us understand the cultural reception of comics? Is it there to help carry Chabon’s point, or to show off his cleverness?

I suspect the latter, which is all the more the pity, because Chabon is plenty clever without having to resort to these kinds of literary pyrotechnics — Maps and Legends offers fine insights into the arts of popular culture, and Yiddish Policemen’s Union is an evocative exercise in world building, in addition to being a gripping detective novel.

To end on a positive note, I would therefore like to demonstrate this by quoting the following characterisation of the Sherlock Holmes stories from Maps and Legends. A good example of clever metaphor/analogy and analytical insight working in synthesis, the former enhancing the latter:

“In fact, the classic detective story is a device that, with all due respect to Poe and Chevalier Dupin, Conan Doyle invented. This is less a matter of intent, ideology, or effect than of technique. Stories have always manifested a twofold nature, deriving their impact and pleasure in part from the difference between the chronology of the story to be told and the ordering and presentation of that chronology. Conan Doyle took those two elements — in the form of the crime and the reconstruction of the crime — and completely reengineered them. Like the builder of Skibladnir, the sailing ship of the Norse gods that could be folded up to fit into your pocket, or an engineer packing an extra million transistors onto a 3 mm chip, Conan Doyle found a way to fold several stories, and the proper means of telling them, over and over into a tightly compacted frame, with a proportionate gain in narrative power. “The Speckled Band” and “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” are storytelling engines, steam-driven, brass-fitted, but among the most efficient narrative apparatuses the world has ever seen. After all these years, they still run remarkably well.”

Illustration: Sidney Paget, for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Yellow Face”, 1893. Thanks to Emma F. for input.

0 Responses to “Heavy on the Castanets”


Comments are currently closed.