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December 06, 2010

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

CoverBetter known for his literary fiction in more or less contemporary settings, Michael Chabon is a writer I have often been curious to try, but previously have not had the time or motivation to read. I was excited recently when I happened upon an audio version of Gentlemen of the Road

This story turns out to be a calculated departure from the "literary fiction" of his existing canon. For those of you who may not be familiar with the lingo from within university writing programs, "literary fiction" is a term reserved for the work of writers striving to create serious art, whereas "genre fiction" of "commercial fiction" is the derivative and formulaic claptrap written for the mindless public... in other words, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, adventure, etc. You know, all the books we enjoy reading. After all, books with swords, sorcery, space travel, other planets, etc. can't possibly be serious art. But I digress.

It turns out Chabon is similarly skeptical about this artificial division between the literary and the "not so literary." In his afterword to this novel, he discusses his desire to write a rousing tale in the tradition of adventure fiction. I certainly applaud his motivation and his effort. That's why I read and write fantasy. However, while I admire what Chabon was trying to do, to break free of the constraints of his literary background for a rip-roaring adventure novel, I think he only partially succeeded.

Old habits are hard to break, and I think Chabon brings a lot of his literary breeding into this novel, and that is in places good and bad. I generally do prefer an economical writing style, and his is crisp and clear with strong verbs and nouns. However, in his effort to be elaborate in his writing, perhaps to hearken back to the florid prose of genre forebears, the vocabulary ends up being a little too dense. I, of all people, plead guilty to using too many million dollar words, but with so many vivid words in so economical a style, I felt like the audiobook narrator barely had time to breath, let alone the reader. Chabon's economical literary styles comes into play with his use of plot elements, as well, including characterization and world-building. The problem is that in literary fiction, one can pay very close attention to character and plot without necessarily worrying about world-building. Since literary fiction is often set in the contemporary world, the writer can do double duty with many plot details, evoking what the reader already knows about modern life or recent history to set a scene while with the same detail developing character or scene. For this reason historical fiction writers and fantasy fiction writers typically have to spend more time separately on both. In this way, pacing has become a very important part of the genre. Don't get me wrong, it is a delicate balance, and many genre writers do go over the edge with too much description and too meandering a path on their way to the plot, but I feel Chabon has erred in a different direction. This book seems simply too short to me for a proper adventure tale. Part of getting into the other-worldly setting of a historical or fantasy adventure is spending time with it. A large part of what the reader enjoys is spending time with the characters, spending time in the world, watching the characters interact, feeling the wonder or hardships of the setting. Chabon's economical style may work well for literary fiction, but I felt like the time we spent within his story was just to brief to get absorbed by the world and the characters.  

I found this novel to be too suffuse with the author's literary writing habits to be as rip-roaring as I would have hoped. Certainly a worthwhile read, though, and since it is so short, most adventure/fantasy readers should be able to fit it easily into their reading lists.

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