Michael Chabon has long championed the adventure story, though it seemed to take an inordinate amount of time for him to get around to writing one. Gentleman of the Road is a tribute to the 19th-century historical potboiler, but with a different focus: instead of white European heroes with flowing blonde hair, this is instead subtitled “being an adventurous tale of Jews with Swords”. Our heroes here are a Frankish and an African Jew, who travel through the Jewish Khaganate of the Khazars (I should note that the Khazars were not ethnically Semitic, Khazar ways are just as alien to our heroes as their own contrasting looks and personalities). You can trace an obvious influence from Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s The Long Ships in the chosen sense of humour.
However, I’m here to make a note on style, not to write a review of a book I read over a year ago.
The novel opens thusly:
For numberless years a myna had astounded travellers to the caravansary with its ability to spew indecencies in ten languages, and before the fight broke out everyone assumed the old blue-tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the giant African with such foulness and verve.
Which isn’t what you expect from Michael Chabon from his usual run of fiction. This long-sentenced, rolling style continues throughout the book. However, Gentlemen of the Road is anything but turgid. My copy is all of 206 pages, including illustrations and the author’s afterward. It also sports very large type. The whole things has an almost beautiful economy about it that I’m not used to seeing these days.
Taken by itself, you might call that above opening sentence overwrought, but I would never label Gentleman of the Road badly written. In fact, quite the opposite. Chabon’s chosen style sets up a specific dynamic, a certain atmosphere evident from that first sentence onwards. By using a detached, 19th century romantic style, Chabon manages to insert an element of subversiveness that wouldn’t have been quite as effective otherwise (or even present, come to think of it). There’s little in the way of exoticism, or orientalism, or the other hallmarks of a traditional historical adventure in far-off lands. Historical difference is itself a source of strangeness. What could be a bog-standard historical novel becomes a clever commentary of the historical adventures of yesteryear as well as a successful example in its own right—and the reason this works lies in Chabon’s use of language, the choice of words and style, and the connotations style can raise in a reader’s mind.
On a side-note, I was mightily amused by Chabon’s afterward, where he attempts to explain why he would embark on a sword-and-sandals tale: “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.”
As he describes it, his stories beforehand…
featured unarmed characters undergoing the eternal fates of contemporary short-story characters—disappointment, misfortune, loss, hard enlightenment, moments of bleak grace. Divorce; death; illness; violence, random and domestic; divorce; bad faith; deception and self-deception; love and hate between fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire; divorce—I guess that about covers it. (199)
Divorce, divorce, divorce. After that, I don’t find it at all surprising that Chabon went out in search of a little adventure. Chabon echoes similar sentiments in his introduction to McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, and his short story “The Martian Agent” is another experiment in style, more H.G. Wells than Harold Lamb. It’s nice to see someone of Chabon’s calibre spread out into the oft-derided tale of high adventure, and succeed so well in doing so. While I didn’t find Gentleman of the Road quite lived up to the promise raised in the first few chapters, Chabon still gives a good example of how a skillful author can smoothly move between different styles to create a desired effect. More on that later, I’m sure.
(Did I mention the illustrations are kind of awesome?)