Review: ‘Maps and Legends’ by Michael Chabon
Maps and Legends
By Michael Chabon
McSweeney’s Books, May 2008, $24.00
Michael Chabon has had the good luck to be writing in an era when it’s possible to both be a respected, bestselling literary writer and have a public, abiding love for some of the more disreputable genres. His best-known novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, is not only a fictionalized story of the fledgling comic-book industry during World War II, but also has a very definite fantasy element. And his latest novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is a detective story set in an alternate history – tying it into two types of genre fiction.
If he’d started writing twenty years earlier, or even ten, he probably wouldn’t have been able to do that; only in the last decade or so have writers like Chabon (and Jonathan Lethem, who transitioned from genre science fiction straight into the “literary novel”) been able to admit to their love of genre. Previously, literary writers could go slumming and use genre ideas once in a while – think Doris Lessing with the “Canopus in Argo” series, or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – but they could never admit to reading or liking books actually published in that genre. Kurt Vonnegut, after all, was only taken seriously because he ritually denied being a SF writer every day before breakfast.
But Chabon goes even further than his pop-culture-loving compatriots do; he doesn’t just admit to liking science fiction and detective stories – he’s even willing to claim that comics can be pretty damn good, and that some of them have influence him.
Maps and Legends is Chabon’s first collection of essays; it mostly assembles occasional pieces – those written for a specific purpose, like an introduction or a review – from the last decade. For our purposes, the most interesting essays are the ones about comics.
There are four of them, out of sixteen essays total. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to some of the others later.) In “The Killer Hook” – a piece with no prior publication listed, so Chabon may have had it spiked somewhere – he extols the virtues of Howard Chaykin’s groundbreaking American Flagg! series, proving that he’s been paying attention to comics for quite some time. “Landsman of the Lost” similarly lauds Ben Kachor’s very odd strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer – I admire Chabon’s love of it, and somewhat understand that love, though Kachor’s strip has always been opaque to me. The third piece is an appreciation of the work and life of Will Eisner, published as the introduction to a biography of Eisner. And then there’s “Kids’ Stuff,” an adaptation of his speech at the 2004 Eisners, where he called for the comics industry to get back to making great stories that kids could read and love.
Moving outward to the pieces about genre fiction, [[[Maps and Legends]]] opens with Chabon’s notorious introduction to [[[Best American Short Stories 2005]]], where he declared – and complained – that literary short fiction had been taken over entirely by “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.” Chabon doesn’t dislike that kind of story, but he wants to see more variety: mysteries like [[[Sherlock Holmes]]] (“[[[Fan Fictions”]]]), ghost stories (“[[[The Other James]]],” about M.R.), Philip Pullman’s “[[[His Dark Materials]]]” trilogy (“[[[On Daemons & Dust]]]”), and even the I’m-not-really-writing-SF-really-since-I’m-a-serious-writer novel [[[The Road]]] by Cormac McCarthy (“[[[Dark Adventure]]]”). Nearly all of these were originally reviews, and all are genre books. There’s also a piece on one of the favorite books of his youth: D’Aulaires’ [[[Book of Norse Myths]]].
The rest of Maps and Legends is made up of essays about Chabon’s writing life – how he came to write his first novel, [[[The Mysteries of Pittsburgh]]]; how he had to abandon what would have been his second novel after five years of solid work; about golems he has known and lies he has told; about the death, or not, of Yiddish.
Maps and Legends is a miscellany; there’s no getting around that. Don’t come to this book expecting a coherent argument, or deep consistency – these works were written over many years, and circle around the same ideas, but were never conceived as a single work. But, if you’re interested in some of the things Chabon is – comics, gods, stories, myths, mysteries, lies, novels, great stories – you’ll find much to interest you in these pages.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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