The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
As ideologically mixed as I am on How To Be Gay, it’s nonetheless provided me with some fresh analytical lens. I knew what a subculture was, of course, but had never thought of it in context of its relationship to the culture at large. (It’s hard to take a step that far back to get a better vantage point.) A subculture requires a culture to be sub to. It can only be understood in the context of that grander culture, which it reacts, negatively or positively, to. Of course, this is getting complicated as the (American) monoculture continues to splinter, but the point remains.
Obviously, this made me think of fanfiction. Is it not inherently subfiction, in the sense that it must always be in dialogue with and understood through the original text, whether positive or negative? Even the most tenuous alternate universe fanfic still insists on being seen through the lens of the original text. Fanfiction doesn’t reintroduces you to the characters you’re reading about, because you already fell in love with them in the original text. That’s why you’re there, sifting through fifteen open tabs of Captain America: The Winter Soldier fanfiction.
But it’s important to note that fanfiction and fiction hardly constitute a binary. Like most supposed binaries, it’s actually a spectrum. Authors are always in conversation with other authors; texts are always in conversation with other texts. “All novels are sequels,” Michael Chabon says. “Influence is bliss.” (I should get that hennaed on my back for a summer. Just typing it out gives me chills.)
It’s simply a matter of degree. Some conversations—or intertextual discourse—require more context than others. One can get settled into Star Trek: The Next Generation without ever having seen Star Trek: The Original Series, but it’s a richer experience when you see how the former reacts to the latter. But you can’t properly comprehend The Wide Sargasso Sea without reading Jane Eyre first. Oh, you’ll understand the story, of course, but you’re reading the dialogue with a main participant on mute. Fanfiction is reaction. (As is all fiction, of course, but fanfiction is an extraordinarily pure and direct reaction.) You have to know what’s being reacted to to get the entire picture.
Which brings me to The Final Solution by Michael Chabon. Chabon is one of my favorite authors, as my desire to dye some of his literary criticism into my skin evinces. He’s a champion for blurring the lines between genre fiction and literary fiction, and he’s part of the reason I no longer put those two phrases in quotes when I talk about them. (I am, however, frowning at their semantic redundancy.) I adore The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; his nonfiction works, even more. But The Final Solution reminds me of another Chabon novel, Gentlemen of the Road. (Talking about novels in conversation with each other…)
You see, Chabon is a remarkably good mimic. Gentlemen of the Road bored me to tears by its careful simulacrum of nineteenth century adventure literature, because it lacked the fire found in Alexandre Dumas’ work that burns through the centuries to connect the reader and text. The Final Solution is Chabon’s take on Sherlock Holmes, from the short format to the mystery with a hook to the man himself. Although much more wistful and, of course, lacking the now deceased Watson as a narrator (steady, steady, feels), it’s got the same mouthfeel as Doyle’s work. Although it does lack the bloody tang of, say, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” the finest short story in the canon.
But The Final Solution doesn’t work for me for two reasons: firstly, because I adore Chabon’s own voice and eye for detail to a degree that I’m not particularly interested in him parroting someone else. (Although, of course, if the exercise helps him as a writer, I’ve nothing against it.) And secondly—it never owns up to being a Holmes pastiche.
It does take a certain level of dashing panache to own up to your fanfiction, even if you do play in genre waters. (Chabon’s a weird case; because he’s a mainstream critical darling, I’m not sure if he’s exactly on the genre shores proper. Where the genre kids are all, of course, lovely merfolk. This metaphor has gotten away from me, but it has mermaids in it, so I’m happy.) But the reason I just said Holmes pastiche instead of Holmes fanfiction is because pastiche is a nonloaded and acceptable term for fanfiction these days. There’s no real reason, legal or otherwise, for Chabon to not simply come out and identify Holmes.
What it does is force Chabon to tap dance around the subject into a tragically framed but rather bland mystery. (Well, two mysteries, but the hook mystery is, frustratingly, the one that is not solved.) There are moments of gorgeous characterization here; specifically, the elderly Holmes realizing that he loves his bees because they lack the selfishness and brutality almost inherent to humanity. But these moments go no further, because Chabon’s hesitance to name him prevents the author from answering the questions about how Holmes took Watson’s (presumed) death or the world’s moved on in any great detail since his retirement.
This all goes back to context. I’m coming to The Final Solution from a place where I have ready and easy access to stories that do answer these questions and many more, with often delightfully contradictory and poignant results. (I mean, Holmes outliving Watson? Come on!) Without needing this particular angle of The Final Solution, I find the other angles of the story—despite a very welcome kind mien towards all its characters and a fascinating insight into the mind of the parrot—less than satisfying.
Bottom line: The Final Solution never owns up to being a Holmes pastiche and spends its time awkwardly tap dancing around itself as a result. For completionists only.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.