I finally wrote up my review of “Maps and Legends,” Michael Chabon’s essay collection — it’s in today’s edition of Solares Hill (which is a PDF online) and on The Citizen’s website (you can find the past few weeks’ SH reviews there under the Arts & Entertainment tab, then select book reviews). I liked it. Here’s the review:
From Michael Chabon’s first novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” it was obvious he was the real thing — and what a relief that was if you were a young person with literary aspirations in the 1980s. Previously, I feared that my generation was going to be led by the likes of Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz. This was not a good feeling.
Reading “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” on the other hand, gave me a very good feeling. It was the same feeling that helped make me an addicted reader in the first place, of not wanting to put a book down, refusing to set it aside for a meal or sleep. Chabon has since gone through the usual stations of literary establishment — a book made into a movie (“Wonder Boys”) and a Pulitzer Prize (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay”). Now, two decades into his writing career, he has come clean with his real literary love: What is condescendingly called genre fiction, otherwise known as stories people actually want to read.
This is in contrast to the higher brow reading matter that often feels like the literary equivalent of vitamins and wheat germ. You know it’s supposed to be good for you, but it’s not much fun to take in.
Chabon reveals that when he started writing, he wanted to write science fiction. But he learned in college that to be a Serious Writer he had to go “literary.” “A good science fiction novel appeared to have an infinite reach — it could take you to the place where the universe bent back on itself — but somehow in the end it ended up being the shared passion of just you and that guy at the Record Graveyard on Forbes Avenue who was really into Hawkwind.”
In fairness, Chabon acknowledges here and in interviews, a lot of genre fiction is crap. But, he points out, so is a lot of literary stuff.
“Maps and Legends” is not a manifesto. It’s an essay collection. But it has a common thread running throughout: Chabon’s love for the written word and defense of forms that have been dismissed into genre ghettoes not worthy of the attention of our finest writers.
It wasn’t always thus. That school anthology stalwart Edgar Allan Poe, remember, wrote horror stories — and the plots of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” have stuck with me far longer than those of any number of Hemingway fishing stories. What is “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson if not horror? Literature didn’t start out as fodder for academics to tear apart and dissect, looking for various forms of social oppression. And it didn’t start out as a way for middle class people to describe their discontents ad nauseum. It started out as entertainment with occasional flashes of enlightenment. For some of us it still works that way.
Or, as Chabon writes, “all literature, highbrow or low, from the ‘Aeneid’ onward, is fan fiction.” I knew I wasn’t the only kid who invented sequels or alternative endings for my favorite books, imagining the continuing adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder or the characters from Narnia.
Chabon does fear, though, that we might be the last generation of kids who were free to compose such sequels on our own (if only in our heads). How many children today run around unsupervised in backyards and barns, ride their bikes on streets and through towns? Wouldn’t we arrest their parents if they did? And the adults — that’s us, I’m afraid — have appropriated our favorite childhood totems, as the recent explosion in graphic novels demonstrates. “Some people,” Chabon writes, “have been wondering: what if there were comic books for children?”
Of course, kids today have all sorts of amusements we didn’t when we were reading Richie Rich and Batman comic books. So we pore over the Watchmen and read “Persepolis” while young Madison updates MySpace via Twitter and Tyler plays GuitarHero or whatever kids do. Even by 1996, Chabon found that reading comics in the daily paper was, “for those of us who still bother, half melancholy habit and half sentimental adherence to duty, a daily running up of a discredited flag in a forsaken outpost of an empire that has collapsed.” (A completely tangential rant: Why don’t comic strips die with their creators? I agree Charles Schultz was some kind of genius at the time, but unless strips move aside no new blood ever gets any ink and we’re stuck with Beetle Bailey’s 1940’s gender and racial stereotypes well into the new millenium — it’s not natural.)
Because this book is a collection of essays written for different occasions and differing publications, it varies quite a bit but it’s all pretty easy going down (did I mention Chabon is a damn good writer?). I liked his essay about golems, but it didn’t resonate for me nearly as strongly as his piece about “Norse Gods and Giants” — now known as “D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths” — which Chabon loved as a child. My sister taught me to read from that book and I can still see the illustrations of the cow licking the universe into existence, and the three Norns, who are sort of like fates, spinning strands of yarn that represent human lives. I won’t even go into the trickster god Loki and his repellent ship covered in toenail clippings.
Other pieces in “Maps and Legends” point to new reading opportunities currently buried in old anthologies, particularly a ghost story writer named M.R. James, whom Chabon refers to as “the other James.” Henry gets all the love now but back in the day it was M.R. who got the readers and Chabon thinks he should get some back. “For the central story of M.R. James … is ultimately the breathtaking fragility of life, of ‘reality,’ of all the structures that we have erected to defend ourselves from our constant nagging suspicion that underlying everything is chaos, brutal and unreasoning.” That sounds like real literature to me.
As a still-recovering English major I particularly appreciate smart, appreciative, nonturgid literary criticism. I still don’t get why anyone wants to spend her life in the field of literary studies merely to tear apart her subject. Chabon not only loves literature, he wants to be read and understood and not just by a few PhDs who have learned a particular, incomprehensible, ugly jargon. For that, I thank him. And I hope he helps a new generation love their literature without shame. I’m going to do my part by looking up the works of M.R. James.