Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends
Publisher: McSweeney’s Books
2008, 222 pages, hardcover, $24
for a writer like Michael Chabon, whose 1988 The Mysteries of Pittsburgh catapulted the then twenty-five year old into instant literary stardom, his new collection of essays Maps and Legends comes almost as an inevitability to the author whose writing philosophy seems to have finally caught up with his eclectic novels such as Wonder Boys (1995) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000). Such a collection also comes to the enjoyment of readers wanting to know more about the man who shunned People’s “50 Most Beautiful People” list, and who, despite his Jewish heritage, has never shied from integrating compelling gay and bisexual characters in his work. Like the acknowledgment page map suggests, this book traverses the large “map” of the genre fiction that has influenced his writing, and is at once self-revealing and academic.
Ultimately, this balance between nonfiction memoir and academic essay results in both success and shortcoming because the book is most memorable and insightful when it is the most personal. For example, while the first essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story” introduces the reader to the importance of genre-writing, it isn’t until the second essay “Maps and Legends” that Chabon discusses growing up in the developing city of Columbia, Maryland, and the events that shaped his personal life and literary career. About this time, he states,
Childhood, at its best, is a perpetual adventure, in the truest sense of that overtaxed word: a setting-forth into trackless lands that might have come into existence the instant before you first laid eyes on them. How fortunate I was to be handed, at such an early age, a map to steer by, however provisional, a map furthermore ornamented with a complex nomenclature of allusions drawn from the poems, novels, and stories of mysterious men named Faulkner, Hemingway, Frost, Hawthorne, and Fitzgerald! Those names, that adventure, are still with me every time I sit down at the keyboard to sail off, clutching some dubious map or other, into terra incognita.
Though Chabon is more than adept at exploring the “maps” and “legends” of various genres, reflections such as this resonate on a very human level. Unfortunately, it is not until the end of the book when Chabon devotes several more chapters to his own life and writing process. “My Back Pages” is a notable example, detailing the events that lead to the writing of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Humorous and approachable, this essay ends with Chabon writing in a small crawl space in his mother’s home in Oakland, California. After falling from his makeshift desk, his mother calls to him. Chabon writes, “I clambered back up from the floor, palpating the tender knot on my skull where the angel of writers, by way of warning welcome or harsh blessing, had just given me a mighty zetz. I hit the combination of keys that meant Save. ‘I’m writing a novel,’ I told her.”
From this point, the book follows Chabon’s literary success and frustrations with his second novel. He also dives into the Jewish legend of golems, clay figures that can come to life, and relates them to the act of writing. “In the same way,” he writes, “the writer shapes his story, flecked like river clay with the grit of experience and rank with the smell of human life, heedless of the danger to himself, eager to show his powers, to celebrate his mastery, to bring into being a little world that, like God’s, is at once terribly imperfect and filled with astonishing light.” Well-crafted insights such as these have the power to make fellow writers both weep with envy and yearn to emulate.
That said, his more academic essays aren’t to be entirely avoided. The third essay, “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes,” delivers both personal stories and an interesting history of Doyle’s most famous literary creation. Likewise, “Kid’s Stuff” is a brief, yet entertaining, examination of the comic books that have influenced Chabon’s life and novels, with the obvious inclusion of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Readers who are more interested in Chabon’s life might tire of this peripety while seeking to uncover the small bits of reflection, but the mastery of the writing ultimately makes for an easy route to follow.
Introducing different genres to a reading public who may never have appreciated fiction aside from the type featured in most literary journals is no doubt important, and a goal Chabon successfully meets, but knowing how these genres have affected Chabon’s life and career is all the more inspiring not only to writers but also to those whose lives have been shaped by their own maps and legends.
– Ben Engel