Gentlemen of the Road

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Gentlemen of the RoadGentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Published: 2007
Length: 204 pages

I’ve been wanting to read a Michael Chabon novel for quite a while now, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in particular, and just haven’t gotten to it. At the book sale last month, I found this and thought it might be a good introduction to him, mainly because it’s nice and short.

Those were the longest 200 pages of my life. My god. The concept was great. The cover promises an adventurous tale of Jews with swords, and I’m always up for some swashbuckling. The two main characters are a giant man with an ax and a quick wit and a skinny physician with a rapier and an equally dark mood and sense of humor. They are ‘gentlemen of the road’, and at the beginning of the novel we find them faking a brawl outside of a tavern to scam some bet winnings. Great so far. They are hired, with promise of a reward, to deliver a young man to his relatives, and they set off on their journey.

To be fair, it was obvious from fairly early on that this novel wasn’t working out for me, and I really should have just dropped it. I keep telling myself I’m going to get better at giving up on books, but I was about halfway through when I came out of denial, and I seemed so close to the end. The last hundred pages of this felt like a sprint through molasses.

His writing was so convoluted that it was just a pain to read. The occasional passage would jump out at me as actually being beautifully written, and there were some great bits of humour throughout, but it was all drowning in self-conscious, overwrought prose. I had to keep re-reading paragraphs to try to piece together what he was actually trying to say. It read like he was on a misguided mission to elevate genre fiction, and decided to do this by making liberal use of a thesaurus and the Wikipedia entry on the Khazars (which he cited, along with a Geocities page, under his research) while completely forgetting that a compelling plot might help as well.

The problem seems to be that he is deeply embarrassed to be writing genre fiction. He included an afterword, and it only confirmed any suspicion I had. It’s an essay that is, partially, how it may seem unusual for someone of his “literary training, generation and pretensions to be writing stories featuring anybody with swords”, and while he writes this in a way that suggests he just wants a little more adventure in his life and isn’t personally disparaging genre fiction, I still couldn’t help think that he really needs to get over himself.

Finally, at the very end of this book, he takes a couple of pages to explain the elaborate research that went into this. Normally I would welcome a list of further reading, but with the aftertaste of his apology essay still lingering, it just felt like more posturing. Fantasy writers have been researching their stories since the genre began. It’s not uncommon, and they actually manage to turn that research into a readable story with substance.

I finished the novel disappointed, but I finished the afterword actually a little annoyed. It’s possible that I’ve gotten a completely wrong impression of him from this novel, as this is really the only exposure I’ve had to him, so I’ll try to keep an open mind. People do seem to love him, so there must be something there I haven’t seen yet, and this particular novel was obviously an experiment. I can’t say I’m excited to pick up another of his books after this, though. Never say never, but it’ll take some convincing.

3 thoughts on “Gentlemen of the Road

  1. Ruthiella

    “His writing was so convoluted that it was just a pain to read”. I have only read The Wonder Boys (which I barely remember, just that it was entertaining) and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I do remember reading and enjoying. However, based purely on my memories of TYPU, I believe that Chabon’s writing style is probably always fairly ornate and a little showy.

    I do have a copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay on my shelf which I will get to one of these days.

    Reply
    1. Rob Post author

      I think it’s the ornate writing mixed with him assuming you’ve done the same research as he has, as he fills this story to the brim with Khazar and ancient Jewish history, two things I know very little about. Annoyingly, I would have enjoyed learning more though this story, but that just wasn’t really possible.

      I usually like a bit of what many people would consider purple prose, but this was just not worth the effort.

      Reply
    2. Rob Post author

      Good to hear that you found his other novels entertaining, though! I’m not writing him off completely. This one just clearly rubbed me the wrong way, hehe.

      Reply

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