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Maps and Legends

by Michael Chabon

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Maps and Legends
Entertainment has come to be thought of as a passive inducement of pleasure - an evening at the movies, a day at the game, reclining on the sofa before yet another episode of "American Idol." As an opener to Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon's slim book of sixteen linked essays celebrating reading and writing, the author proposes that we expand our notion of entertainment to include the reading of literature.

And Chabon means "literature" in the broadest sense of the word. He bemoans the artificial barriers constructed between genre fiction (science fiction, detective fiction, horror, etc.) and "serious" literature. He calls our attention to the risks taken by a writer of "serious" fiction when he or she dabbles in the genres, though he does admit that it can be done by certain writers and in certain realms, citing Cormac McCarthy's The Road as an example in which McCarthy pulled off a masterwork of post-apocalyptic sci-fi with little or no damage to his reputation as a literary author.

It's well known that Michael Chabon is a celebrant of the genres. Wonder Boys was a fantasy novel; he explored detective fiction in both The Final Solution and The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, he celebrated his love of comics. In Maps and Legends, he explores these forms of genre fiction and more.
In the essay "Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes," Chabon delivers a brief biography of Arthur Conan Doyle and the forces in his life that shaped and influenced the writing of the Sherlock Holmes canon; "Ragnarok Boy" is an ode to D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, tales of Odin, Thor, and Loki that lit eight-year-old Michael Chabon's captive imagination; and in "On Daemons and Dust," Chabon applauds Philip Pullman's masterworks in they way they rode the borderlands between the literary and the fantastic.

The best essays in this small collection however are not these academic wanderings through the world of literature but the ones in which Chabon reveals how he came to write. These include the title essay, "Maps and Legends," wherein the author recalls a map of an experimental utopian suburb that elicited in his six-year-old mind notions of exploration and adventure in uncharted lands. "My Back Pages," tells the story of Chabon's first attempt at a novel in a cramped and cold workshop in his mother's Oakland house. Only by propping a folding chair on a black steamer trunk, could the young author correctly reach the keys of his Osborne 1a word processor, which sat atop an old wooden workbench. It is the story of Chabon's having written The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and he follows up with "Diving Into the Wreck," about his five-year attempt at a second novel, which he eventually abandoned for an entirely different story, one that became Wonder Boys.
In the book's final essays, Chabon, in his discovery of a traveler's phrasebook called Say It In Yiddish, characteristically examines his own "Jewishness." He also intricately delves into the creation of a golem, an artificial being molded from clay and brought to life by magic, as a metaphor for novel-writing:

"The adept handles the rich material, the rank river clay, and diligently intones his alphabetical spells, knowing full well the history of golems: how they break free of their creators, grow to unmanageable size and power, refuse to be controlled. In the same way, 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 life."

Maps and Legends is not for everyone. Chabon devotees will, naturally, be delighted at the author's first book of nonfiction, but I found the author's academic perambulations through criticism far less engaging than his novels. The gems of this collection came when Michael Chabon dispensed with the lecturing and turned autobiographically to what he is really good at - storytelling.

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