29 September 2007

Chabon Legs It Out in Summerland

Both Michael Chabon's Summerland and Adam Gopnik's The King in the Window are fantasies written by established authors for adults and published by Miramax Books. Both are about boys who must rescue their fathers from being hollowed out by their work--psychologically in Gopnik's book, both psychologically and literally in Chabon's.

I found The King in the Window to be needlessly long and complicated, hobbled by an internal lack of logic, and too enamored with its own ideas. And for quite a while I worried that Summerland would sink into the same morass.

The book is 500 pages long, and the first hundred pages are a slow wind-up. Four different characters summon Ethan and his father to the fantasy world, where each is, in different ways, the Chosen One. (Later we learn that there was yet another messenger years before, a pixie with ideas of ballooning.)

Some logical glitches arise from a surfeit of Neat Ideas. For example, we watch the miniature ferishers communicate with their oracular clam using a scroll covered with mysterious letters. Yet when protagonist Ethan picks up a ferisher guidebook to playing catcher, it's written in English.

Giants have kept the smaller creatures of the fantasy world in fear for ages. But on page 427, a character named Cutbelly reveals that he can "scamper" into another dimension and return through a most terrible giant, killing her. Why did none of the many characters who can "scamper" do this to giants before?

And, as I wrote before, I don't understand the resolution of the book's cosmic conflict or how that fits with its stated themes.

Nevertheless, despite its stumbles right out of the box, Summerland gains traction and becomes a solid literary adventure, its heart and imagination lightening its weight. I thought the story took hold when Chabon turned from using wimpy, self-doubting Ethan as his only point-of-view character and started to follow his teammate Jennifer T. Rideout as well. She has fresher worries; more important, she tackles her problems, which Ethan must first learn how to do before he can really be a hero.

The narrative voice also comes into its own, turning more intrusive and even self-referential after sixty pages. It tells us, "This this were a work of fiction, the author would now be obliged to have Ethan waste a few moments wondering if he had dreamed the events of the past few hours."

Finally, I like Chabon's style. Page 6 mentions "a Rodrigo Buendía baseball card." That surname is, of course, an allusion to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Chabon eventually brings Buendía himself into the story, an aging, sore-kneed power hitter who needs the same magic as Ethan and Jennifer T. That could be a cheap literary/baseball stunt, but it works.


gail said...

I read Summerland around five years ago, so I'm speaking from memory here. The thing that I recall really bothering me about it was that the kid characters were bland compared to the adult characters. Most of the interesting fantasy characters were adults, even if they were tiny--as they were in some cases.

My recollection is that the father of the kid hero meets the bad guy (a coyote figure, if memory serves me) long, long before the kid hero does. For me, that really undercut the child. It undercut the narrative tension to have the protagonist and antagonist meet so late, anyway, and then when we've been seeing the antagonist with an adult character...well, by the time the kid came along the antagonist was old news.

If I remember the baseball player you mention correctly, he came into the story late. Again, I found him more interesting than the kids.

I felt this was a book by an adult writer who was accustomed to and comfortable with working with adult characters and didn't really understand that a children's book should be built around children's characters and stay with them. I think it's interesting that so far Chabon hasn't written another children's book. I do wonder if his comfort level and interests lie with adults.

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting take on the book. I don't think Summerland merited all the attention it received, but for a first novel in this genre it didn't seem bad.

I didn't think the adults' characters were more interesting than the kids', but I didn't think any of the characters were that intriguing. (The exception was Troy, and that was because I kept wondering if he was supposed to have Asperger's syndrome, a question that was never cleared up.) The greater world was what kept me reading.

There was definitely a problem at the start with the main kid character, Ethan, being so familiar: the boy who's no good at baseball. Been there, done that, learned to field and hit to the opposite side.

I didn't see a problem in having several (though not all) of the fantasy-world characters being adults. Part of the appeal of fantasy for kids, I think, is going to a place where a kid like Dorothy Gale is interacting with adults on a common level.

Chabon indeed followed Ethan's dad and some grown-up fantasy creatures for a while, separating the narrative from Ethan and his young friends. I guess that worked all right for me because it helped to build up the antagonist's threat. By the end, the dad was no longer a full personality, so he couldn't solve the problems for the family; it was still up to Ethan.

Then again, I'm not sure how Ethan did. That darn home run through the sky again.

Perhaps fantasy epics for children, because of their length and the way they upend the world, are a little more forgiving about the space they can reserve for adult characters. Corder's Lionboy series, Funke's Inkheart, and (further back) Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories all have major roles for not only adults, but parents.