The realization that Michael Chabon’s Summerland was his latest novel kind of knocked me off my socks. While it contains the same quality of character and plot development as his earlier, much more fabulous, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, (which I totally lurved, which is why I took a risk and bought this book sight-unread [blessedly, second-hand]) it has the feel of an earlier work, one written before the author had tightened up his laces, so to speak.
Summerland is, admittedly, a book written for children. The characters are children; it is peopled with fairies, talking animals, sasquatches, and midget giants; the plot is action-packed and a bit simplistic. It falls a bit short of that L’Engle-ian, Lewisian, Tolkienian (rest their merry souls) sphere: a book written for children but meant for adults. Summerland is meant for children, but adults can read it if they want. There are a number of themes valuable to adult and child alike (teamwork, believing in one’s self, etc.) that are not so obvious as to be insulting, but not so deep as to require a serious analysis. Let’s just say you won’t be proud of yourself for having figured them out.
Where it works: the plot, despite being a fantasy, is remarkably plausible. Whether it is the intermingling of various existing mythologies (Native American predominately, but also Greek, Norse, and Irish) or the surprisingly credible character motivation, Summerland comes across as a story that just might have happened, if you believe in that sort of thing. Each of the characters is given a distinct and powerful reason for joining this quest to save the world from the Coyote, who looks to put an end to it. Ethan has been ‘called’ by the fairy-prophet, but his father has also been kidnapped by the Coyote, lending force to a beckoning that offers no real reason to accept it in itself. Thor (yes, Thor) is a complete misfit, convinced that he doesn’t belong on earth. The quest offers him an opportunity to find his true place of origin. Cinquefoil is the last of a batch of fairies killed by the Coyote’s destruction, and is bent on their restoration. It is not only a vague, sky-is-falling call to save the world (which often tends to elicit the question: ‘Why him/her/me?’) but a set of distinct, intensely personal desires that bring this rag-tag bunch together and send them on their way.
Where it falls short: not in plot or characters, but in Chabon’s actual choice of words and sentence structure. The knowledge that Summerland is a later effort is so surprising because he makes a number of mistakes that weren’t made in Adventures. Perhaps because he is writing something of a fairy tale, Chabon tries to inject his story with a bit of an archaic feeling, something old and other-worldly. He tosses in the odd ‘Alas’ and phrase such as ‘must we,’ but without any real consistency. This voice doesn’t appear to belong to any one or few of his characters. It seems more that these segments were written when Chabon was in a folksy mood, and weren’t edited out or smoothed in elsewhere to create coherence. Chabon also suffers from a touch of wordiness. Actions are frequently presented in the passive tense, creating weak and round-about sentences (like this one); adjectives and adverbs abound. It isn’t fatal, Banville-esque wordiness, but it’s enough to water things down. What does bring the story to the occasional halt is Chabon’s tendency to use ‘thesaurus’ words. Whether it is, again, to add a scholarly, wizardly tone, or simply to prove that his novel is meant for adults as well as children, Chabon throws in words like ‘inordinately’ when they are completely unnecessary, and (more importantly) unlikely. Charles Dickens, it might be argued, would also use a word like ‘inordinately,’ but he would do so in a novel filled with ‘inordinately’s’ and ‘cantankerous’s’ and jolly old gentlemen, so it flows rather than jars. In Chabon’s hands, these words make you stop and go ‘hmmmm,’ and not in an awesome, C&C Music Factory sort of way.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Summerland are both long books. Nothing is more satisfying than getting several dozen pages into a long book and realizing, as I did with Adventures, that it is going to be great. Unfortunately, Summerland is simply good.