Some time ago we covered Michael Chabon’s wonderful book of essays, Manhood for Amateurs. As a professed Chabon devotee, it is with some surprise that I confess disappointment at his earlier essay collection, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (2008).
Chabon (born 1963) is one of our most interesting, contemporary literary writers. He is one of a small number of literary writers who still care about craft, construction and well-made stories, as well as the expansive humanity found in the best fiction. He also has a more-than-healthy respect for quality genre fiction. His books, though, have largely been hit-and-miss affairs. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one of the most remarkable books of its decade, and Wonder Boys, Werewolves in Their Youth and The Mysteries of Pittsburg are all equally fine. He floundered terribly with the unreadable The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and Gentlemen of the Road (his sword-and-sandal tale) and The Final Solution (his poor rift on Sherlock Holmes) are perhaps, if anything, worse.
And yet I both like and admire Chabon. He is a critic of remarkable sensitivity and his prose style is fluid, descriptive and often achingly beautiful. No post modernist, Chabon values human beings, human interactions, and the deep and vital connection people have with art. We need more like him.
That is one of the reasons I was so disappointed in Maps and Legends – many of the essays are almost brilliant, but they never quite take off. Also, the essays here are often so disjointed, with too many disparate elements almost connected by a central argument, that they never feel organic or honest. These are largely essays as performance art, with Chabon seeing what he can get away with. He could do better.
However, we must congratulate Chabon on his fearlessness. Many serious writers would dread losing membership in that august body by admitting to a passion for comic book artist Howard Chaykin, or admiring Cormac McCarthy’s sole foray into science fiction, The Road. Chabon is determined to find art in all manner of places, and that is a gift.
As with all essay collections, this is a mixed bag. Many of the essays are only interesting to those already familiar with the genre he addresses: his thoughts on Howard Chaykin and comics legend Will Eisner are really only meaningful to the already-initiated, and one feels that Chabon missed an opportunity to make larger points. He almost scores high with his essay on Sherlock Holmes, but, as with many essays here, Chabon introduces so many side issues (pastiche, genre-fiction in general and detective fiction in particular, the sinister nature of secrets) that one nearly forgets his central point, if he ever had one. (And Chabon and his editors should both know better – it’s Professor Moriarty, not Dr. Moriarty…)
In “Imaginary Homelands,” Chabon details how a Yiddish phrasebook inspired The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and the essay is infinitely more amusing, interesting and moving than anything found in his novel. Also excellent is his discourse on the ghost stories of M. R. James, and in “My Back Pages,” Chabon describes, with great wit and depth of feeling, his struggle to write his first novel.
Chabon’s three greatest strengths are his great empathy, his expansive feelings toward literature and the human spirit, and a limpid prose style. Here is Chabon writing about Philip Pullman’s series of fantasy novels:
Like a house on the borderlands, epic fantasy is haunted: by a sense of lost purity and grandeur, deep wisdom that has been forgotten, Arcadia spoilt, the debased or diminished stature of modern human-kind; by a sense that the world, to borrow a term from John Clute, the Canadian-born British critic of fantasy and science fiction, has “thinned.” This sense of thinning – of there having passed a Golden Age, a Dreamtime, when animals spoke, magic worked, children honored their parents, and fish leapt filleted into the skillet – has haunted the telling of stories from the beginning. The words “once upon a time” are in part a kind of magic formula for invoking the ache of this primordial nostalgia.
Equally fine is Chabon writing about the Norse mythology he read as a boy: Loki never turned up among the lists of Great Literary Heroes (or Villains) of Childhood, and yet he was my favorite character in the book that was for many years my favorite, a book whose subtitle might have been “How Loki Ruined the World and Made It Worth Talking About.” Loki was the god of my own mind as a child, with its competing impulses of vandalism and vision, of imagining things and smashing them. And as he cooked up schemes and foiled them, fathered monsters and stymied them, helped forestall the end of things and hastened it, he was god of the endlessly complicating nature of plot, of storytelling itself.
Throughout Maps and Legends, Chabon has wonderful things to say about the adventure of childhood, the even-greater adventure of adulthood, genre fiction and fine art, and his identity as a father, a husband and a Jew. The essays may not all hold together in any organic way, but there are treasures strewn throughout.