Pop Goes the Literature

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In Michael Chabon's new mystery novel, The Final Solution (Fourth Estate; 131 pages)--hang on, let's back up. This is Pulitzer prizewinning Michael Chabon? Wonder Boys and Kavalier & Clay Michael Chabon? Byronic hair Michael Chabon? Why would an esteemed, respectable literary novelist like Chabon want to sully his fancy-pants reputation with a mystery novel?

One of the interesting things about the present moment in U.S. literary history is that the tough, fibrous membrane that used to separate literary fiction from popular fiction is rupturing. The highbrow and the lowbrow, once kept chastely separate, are now hooking up, which is why we have great, funky, unclassifiable writers like Margaret Atwood, Neal Stephenson, Susanna Clarke and David Mitchell. And like Chabon, who in addition to writing The Final Solution has edited an anthology of hybrid highbrow-lowbrow tales, McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (Vintage; 328 pages). And like Jonathan Lethem, who has just published Men and Cartoons (Doubleday; 160 pages), a collection of highly literary stories about, among other things, superheroes.

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The detective in The Final Solution is almost certainly meant to be our old friend Sherlock Holmes, although Chabon never names him. Chabon's Holmes is long past his Baker Street prime: at 89, he has become a frail, eccentric, beekeeping retiree. Mystery comes looking for the aging detective in the form of a mute boy, 9, and his pet parrot (the symmetry is neat but not too: a boy who can't speak and a bird that can). Before long, the parrot is missing, a man is dead, and Holmes is back in the game.

It's instructive to watch a literary writer operate in a genre environment, where plot and pacing trump beautiful writing, where the thrill of what comes next is more important than the nuance of the now. When Chabon gets a little flowery, instead of marveling at his elegant prose, one makes mental let's-hurry-it-up-already gestures. But he has clearly mastered a basic truth about the mystery genre:it has an expressive power beyond the uses to which it is generally put. Solving mysteries has an existential meaning for Holmes. To him, it's the "essential business of human beings — the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life."

The no-man's-land between popular and literary fiction is fertile, but it can be perilous. Lethem is no stranger to it. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award for Motherless Brooklyn, which is basically a hard-boiled mystery retrofitted with great writing and highfalutin themes. Most of the stories in Men and Cartoons play in the nerdier realms of comic books and science fiction — one revolves around a mysterious aerosol spray that reveals lost belongings and lost lovers; another recounts the sad, seedy later life of a retired comic-book hero named Super Goat Man. But while Chabon builds his book on the sturdy narrative architecture of the mystery novel, Lethem's stories stay literary in their bones, maybe too much so. They eschew the satisfying finales of commercial fiction in favor of tremblingly ambiguous, go-nowhere nonendings that are either ineffably poignant or maddeningly pointless, depending on your tolerance.

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