(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

This collection by novelist Michael Chabon draws together sixteen nonfiction essays that explore the reading and writing of what is generally known as genre fiction. The book’s title (sharing, but perhaps not taken from, a 1980’s song by the rock band R.E.M.) evokes mythology and adventure, a sense strengthened by the unusual three-layer dust jacket with illustrations of sea monsters, giants, mystics, spies, and other characters. In essence, Chabon explores the geography and terrain of genre fiction through a piecemeal travelogue, taking time along the way to uncover various tales that spring from the landscape. Perhaps the legends are not so much stories as the cartographer’s device of the same name, helping to explain the symbols on the literary map. Either way, the maps and legends promised in the book’s title are delivered to the reader. (The acknowledgments page provides a literal example, employing a form of scatterplot map to show the relative contributions of “inspiration, opportunity, editing, and help” by twenty-two individuals.)

Collectively, the essays reveal the author’s philosophy of writing, with particular attention to the relationship between the author and the reader. The pieces range from academic discourse to the somewhat more effective autobiographical narrative. Most of the essays were previously published, often in the pages of The New York Review of Books or as commissioned introductions to other volumes. As such, the collection lacks the degree of coherence and integration that one might assume from a book billed as Chabon’s “first book of nonfiction.” Nevertheless, the essays, which follow no clear ordering principle, make recurring visits to several broad literary themes.

The title’s themes are most explicitly addressed in the first two essays. The first, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story,” is derived from an introduction Chabon wrote for a collection of short stories. In it, he holds up the short story as an especially effective category of maps for transporting ideas from the writer to the reader, but he protests that these maps are used too selectively and conventionally by readers and writers alike. He argues, then, against the strict compartmentalization of fiction into distinct territories, as most graphically revealed in the floor map of a modern bookstore. He celebrates instead writing that exists at “the boundary lines, the margins, the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore.” Above all, he defends genre fiction as a legitimate form of literature, a theme that is taken up in later essays as he celebrates horror stories, science fiction, detective fiction, comic books, and other genres.

The second essay, from which the book’s title is drawn, describes how a map depicting the then-unbuilt housing development in Columbia, Maryland, an idealistic experiment that would contain Chabon’s childhood home, could convey ideas and values and promises and dreams. On its surface, the essay is not explicitly about writing (except that the various neighborhoods of the housing development happened to be named after writers and poets). However, the underlying themeabout “the power of maps to fire the imagination”clearly reinforces the idea of stories as maps and of maps as stories.

From there, the theme of maps becomes less prominent as the volume turns to an essay, part literary history, part appreciation, on the Victorian-era writer Arthur Conan Doyle and his famous literary creation, Sherlock Holmes. (In a subsequent essay, Chabon reveals his abiding affinity for Doyle and Holmes and his dedicated effort as a young man to copy Doyle’s literary “voice.”) The essay reveals an intimate familiarity with the Holmes stories, and it provides a brief but compelling assessment of why they have remained so well-loved more than 120 years after they first appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. The so-called detective fiction genre may have been invented a half-century earlier by Edgar Allan Poe, but it was Doyle who popularized it and outfitted it with the iconic persona of Holmes. Beyond this, Chabon credits Doyle with “completely reengineering” the short story’s presentation of chronology, and with emboldening the coy, implicit assertion of verisimilitude that accompanies all fiction.

Another genre that Chabon both analyzes and celebrates is the comic book. Though not perhaps a conventional form of genre fiction, Chabon makes a compelling case for its rich storytelling potential. The topic featured prominently in Chabon’s third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), which centered on a fictional pair of young cousins who conceived, wrote, and drew a number of commercially successful comic book series during the medium’s heyday in the 1940’s and 1950’s. A quarter of the sixteen essays in this collection center on comic books. One is based on a keynote speech Chabon delivered at a comic books awards ceremony, urging practitioners of the craft to reorient comics in a way that recaptures children as readers. Another focuses on the comic book series American Flagg and its creator, Howard Chaykin. Another features a postmodern newspaper comic strip by Lawrence Weschler, and a fourth describes comic book impresario Will Eisner, whom Chabon studied and interviewed as part of his research for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Together, these essays offer a warm, enthusiastic, nostalgic celebration of a medium that is seldom discussed alongside the likes of Doyle and F. Scott Fitzgerald (the latter figuring notably in Chabon’s essay about authors who captured his imagination early on).

It is the autobiographical information Chabon provides that holds together the various essays into a partly coherent collection. Revelations by Chabon about himself, appearing here and there throughout the volume, help to connect disparate topics and moods. For example, the importance of Chabon’s intimate familiarity with Doyle’s Holmes stories (illustrated in the third essay) is illuminated a dozen essays later when Chabon explains that he was “born a second time [at age ten] in the opening pages of [Doyle’s] ’A Scandal in Bohemia.’” This remark, in turn, is better understood when, in the final essay, Chabon reveals that at age ten he wrote his “first sustained work of fiction” that featured a meeting between Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo and Doyle’s Holmes, in which Chabon consciously tried to adopt Doyle’s literary style and ended up virtually channeling the Victorian writer. Similarly, the genesis of the author’s sixth novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007), is finally revealed in the penultimate essay, “Imaginary Homelands,” which bemusedly speculates about the kind of nonexistent land that could justify the existence of a Yiddish phrase book he happened upon in a bookstore. In addition, the influence of Chabon’s two marriages (one failed, one successful) becomes clearer with the cumulative information revealed by the autobiographical essays.

Jewishness is another theme that suffuses these essays. The motif of Chabon’s and others’ Jewish heritage, of the shared history of a lost promised land, of golems, of the Holocaust, is neither smug nor especially self-deprecating. Instead, the theme simply seems to exist, organically, in the soil of Chabon’s literary world. At times this is used to especially powerful effect, as when Chabon uses the metaphor of the Jewish golem (a mystical being created from clay by man) to explain the process, joys, and risks of creating stories to be read by others.

Of particular interest is Chabon’s repeated references to the boundary between truth and lies. He introduces this theme in the first essay, asserting “just because you have stopped believing in something you once were promised does not mean that the promise itself was a lie.” The theme is explored implicitly and explicitly throughout the essays, and by the final essay Chabon, returning to the image of maps, concludes that “it is along the knife-narrow borderland between those two kingdoms, between the Empire of Lies and the Republic of Truth, more than along any other frontier on the map of existence, that Trickster makes his wandering way . . . .” Chabon frequently identifies with the Trickster, admitting in essence that his job as a novelist is to present fiction as fact, so that by the end of this “nonfiction” volume, when Chabon asserts that “naturally, I’m still telling lies,” we are not sure what to believe. Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps Chabon’s coyness in matters of separating fact from fiction is not merely impishness, but rather a manifestation of the belief (not unique to Chabon) that fiction holds its own kind of truth and facts their own kind of fiction.

Taken together, these essays reveal an author who is a highly literate and expressive master of the language; who is observant, insightful, and thoughtful; and who is remarkably self-aware. This last point, which is least evident simply from reading his novels, helps to explain much of Chabon’s writing. He worries, for example, that readers will assume he shares the characteristics, such as homosexuality, of characters in his novels, and this might explain the extraordinary care that Chabon takes in describing such characters. As another example, he admits to worrying about employing the proper pronunciations of words that are typically mispronounced, that proper diction might result in being scorned as a pedant or, worse, being mocked by those who mistakenly think his is the wrong pronunciation. Such must be a common worry for one with a vocabulary as extensive as Chabon’s. Evidently he tends to come down on the side of grammatical integrity, misguided critics be damned. The few times that he strays from his master-of-the-English-language approach to employ the occasional vulgarity or slang term comes across as an awkward, forced pose.

Taken as a whole, the collection serves best to illuminate the background, beliefs, experiences, philosophy, and purposes of the author, and only secondarily does it provide instruction on literary history and criticism. This will be of interest to readers who have enjoyed Chabon’s novels. Those who approach this collection more for its insights into genre fiction may be less satisfied. In the end, however, this is an engaging and entertaining book about reading and writing by someone intimately familiar with both.

Maps and Legends Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, no. 13 (March 1, 2008): 28.

Library Journal 133, no. 5 (March 15, 2008): 72.

The New York Times Book Review, June 29, 2008, p. 21.

O, The Oprah Magazine 9, no. 4 (April, 2008): 188.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 3 (January 21, 2008): 163-164.