Jan 27, 2009

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

Maps and Legends is a collection of essays about things like the preconceived notions about genre fiction, writing, His Dark Materials, comics, The Road, Will Eisner, Sherlock Holmes, Norse mythology or M.R. James, among others. For those who know me, this list will be enough to give you an idea of just how much I loved this book. But even when Michael Chabon was writing about things I never thought I was particularly interested in, I remained absolutely fascinated. His writing is a pleasure to read, and he makes everything sound interesting.

Maps and Legends is not quite a book about books in the same sense that Nick Hornby or Michael Dirda’s essay collections are, because Chabon does cover other topics. But the majority of what we find here is indeed essays on reading, writing or particular authors, genres and mediums. And like the two aforementioned essayists, Michael Chabon is someone with whose views I fully identify.

My very favourite essay was “Trickster in a Suit of Light – Thoughts on the Modern Short Story,” which isn’t just about the modern short story. It’s also about genre fiction, the reason why the concept of entertainment has become disreputable, and connecting with other human beings. Just look at this passage:
The original sense of the word “entertainment” is a lovely one of mutual support through intertwining, like a pair of trees grown together, interwoven, each sustaining and bearing up the other. It suggests a kind of midair transfer of strength, contact across a void, like the tangling of cable and steel between two lonely bridgeheads. I can’t think of a better approximation of the relation between reader and writer. Derived senses of fruitful exchange, of reciprocal sustenance, of welcome offered, of grasp and interrelationship, of a slender span of bilateral attention along which things are given and received, still animate the word in its verb form: we entertain visitors, guests, ideas, prospects, theories, doubts and grudges.
At some point, inevitably, as generations of hosts entertained generations of guests with banquets and feats and displays of artifice, the idea of pleasure seeped into the pores of the word. And along with pleasure (just as inevitably, I suppose) came disapproval, a sense of hollowness and hangover, the saturnine doubtfulness that attaches to delight and artifice and show: to pleasure, that ambiguous gift.
Yet entertainment—as I define it, pleasure and all—remains the only sure means we have of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else. The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience, and the universal hunger for connection
Isn’t he brilliant? Just one more:
And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre—one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious—is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently, debased, infantine, commercialized, unworthy of a serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult reader only as “guilty pleasures” (a phrase I loathe). A genre implies a set of conventions—a formula—and conventions imply limitations (the argument goes), and therefore no genre work can ever rise to the masterful heights of true literature, free (it is to be supposed) of all formulas and templates.
Haha, yes. Because, as he goes on to say, realistic fiction follows no conventions at all, oh no. This is actually pretty similar to that passage from an essay by Ursula Le Guin I posted just the other day, I know, which goes to show that great minds think alike. You’re all probably tired of me borrowing someone else’s words to make this point again and again by now, but I just love seeing authors I so admire articulating everything I've always thought and felt about literature in such brilliant ways.

A few words on some of the other essays: “Of Dust and Daemons” is – you guessed it – about His Dark Materials, and while I disagree with some of what he says (namely that the third book sacrifices character for the sake of plot and theme), it was fascinating to read. “Golems I have known, or why my elder son’s middle name is Napoleon” is a fake memoir, which I guess makes it a short story, and a great one at that. “My Back Pages” is about how he began to write his first novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I’ve had that on my tbr shelf for a few months now, and I want to read it more than ever.

“Kids’ stuff” was another favourite of mine. In it, he argues that in their quest to become Respectable, comics have become almost exclusively adult, and that unfortunately you don’t see all that many quality comics for kids anymore. This reminded me of something I sometimes wonder about. I wonder if some of the regard for comics like Maus and Persepolis, especially in academic circles, doesn’t come from the fact that they deal with such unarguably serious issues. And while a novel, because its status has been established for a couple of centuries now (though not as long as we tend to think. All this hullaballo about whether or not comics are "real literature" often reminds me of the debates people were having about whether anything other than poetry should be considered " true art" a few centuries back), is allowed to be playful or light or cheerful, a comic’s status is still too fragile. Therefore, if it wants to be taken seriously it has to be Very Serious Indeed. I’m really just thinking out loud here. Obviously I like seeing Maus and Persepolis being appreciated because they are indeed wonderful books. But it’s not like the only worthy novels are, say, Beloved and The English Patient. And the same goes for comics.

Anyway. I’ll shut up now. One last thing: this book has one of the coolest covers I have ever seen. See the three different colours? They’re separate overlapping dust jackets. How cool is that? And look! J.S. Peyton has detailed pictures.

A few more brilliant bits:
And yet there is a degree to which, just as all criticism is in essence Sherlockian, all literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeneid onward, is fan fiction. That is why Harold Bloom’s notion of the anxiety of influence has always rung so hollow to me. Through parody and pastiche, allusion and homage, retelling and reimagining the stories that were told before us and that we have come of age loving—amateurs—we proceed, seeking out the blank spaces in the map that our favourite writers, in their greatness and negligence, have left for us, hoping to pass on to our own readers—should we be lucky enough to find any—some of the pleasure that we ourselves have taken in the stuff we love: to get in on the game. All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.

We all grew up—all of us, from the beginning—in a time of violence and invention, absurdity and Armageddon, prey and witness to the worst and the best in humanity, in a world both ruined and made interesting by Loki. I took comfort, as a kid, in knowing that things had always been as awful and as wonderful as they were now, that the world was always on the edge of total destruction, even if, in Maryland in 1969, as today, it seemed a little more true than usual.

For the central story of M.R. James, reiterated with inexhaustible inventiveness, is ultimately the breathtaking fragility of life, of reality, of all the structures that we have erected to defend ourselves from the constant nagging suspicion that underlying everything is chaos, brutal and unreasoning. It is hard to conceive of a more serious theme, or a more contemporary plot, than this. (…)
Ultimately all stories—ghost stories, mysteries, stories of terror or adventure or modern urban life—descend from the fireside tale, told with wolves in the woods all around, with winter howling at the window. After centuries of refinement, custom fittings, and mutations introduced by artistry and marketplace, the short story retains its fundamental power to frighten us with its recognition of the abyss at our backs, and to warm us with its flickering light.
Other Blog Reviews:
Madness Abides
The Bluestocking Society

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. This sounds interesting. I haven't read Chabon - where do you think I should start?

  2. I haven't read Chabon either. One of these days I've got to get to Kavalier and Clay. I've never been a big reader of Essay collections, but I may make an exception for this one!

  3. sounds like an interesting collection, great review!
    that is a great book cover :)


  4. Oh gosh, I might just have to get this collection, and the Nick Hornby one. That cover is perfection itself.

  5. Brilliant thoughts on entertaining. I have beat that drum for years, especially when it comes to supporting reading for entertainment as a valid and worthwhile thing to do. It is nice to see someone with Chabon's cache saying the same thing so much more eloquently than I ever have or could. I can see just from that passage why you would like this book so much.

  6. This one sounds fantastic, and it's perfect timing since I'm working my way through the Essay Reading Challenge!! I have yet to read Chabon (bad me!) so I'm excited to dive in.

  7. "But even when Michael Chabon was writing about things I never thought I was particularly interested in, I remained absolutely fascinated."

    I had to point out this particular phrase you used - it's one of the most fabulous feelings in the world when this happens. And I strongly believe one of the most true signs of talent in writing.

    Anywho, great review! I haven't read anything by Chabon either. So I'd love to hear your suggestions too :)

  8. I love the cover!
    Like the others, I haven't read this either but would definitely love to read it one day soon! :)

  9. I want.

    No wonder you're in the lead over at Chris's Bad Bloggers contest.

  10. I haven't read Chabon, but that sounds so interesting. I don't read enough books about reading.

  11. I saw this book today, and I've even glanced at it, but now I want it! especially that last quote - he understands horror and ghost stories, for sure. Then again I have to read some of his fiction, too, none of which I've read yet. Thanks for the review, Nymeth, very well done. I'll let you know when you get your point!! :-P

  12. Interesting sounding book. I have never read any Chabon either but you have piqued my curiosity.

    There is an award for you waiting on my blog!

  13. Yeah, I'm going to have to get this one! I still haven't read anything by him. Can you believe that? I just shy away from him for some reason and I really don't know why. This is cool though...I love reading respectable people's views on stuff!

  14. Bad blogger! Now I'm going to have to get this. I have to admit that I haven't liked his fiction much, but I really enjoyed reading the passages you included here and I'm interested in the topics he covers.

  15. He wrote the screenplay for one of the Spiderman movies I think. This sounds like a very interesting read!!!

  16. I have a book by him on my TBR pile, but I haven't read it yet. I really must remedy that one of these days!

  17. "But even when Michael Chabon was writing about things I never thought I was particularly interested in, I remained absolutely fascinated."...Oh, I so love it when that happens!!! I think I learn some of the most interesting things this way, things I would have otherwise assumed "too boring" to spend my time on. This really does sound like a great read!

  18. Oh, I love reading essays where writers talk about books! I read one book by Michael Chabon and it didn't blow me away, but this sounds wonderful.

  19. I love Chabon's writing! He's got this fantastic way with language that just makes you sit back and go "Oh. Wow. I didn't know words could do that!" I have four unread books of his on my TBR pile, but sadly, this isn't among them, and I don't think I can justify adding *another* of his books to the pile until I read at least one of the ones that's already there. :)

  20. Chabon is one of my favorites! Maps & Legends is definitely going on my list!

  21. wow! very very cool.

    its so good that someone is out there writing intelligent essays about issues we feel passionate about!

  22. From your very first sentence I knew you were going to heap praises on this. You always say SO MUCH I want to comment on! First, that I agree with the idea that we have always lived in an evil and beautiful world - nothing new despited the TV commentary about how awful and scary the world is NOW - uh, always has been.
    and second, the beauty in the world is people like you who share what you love about books and words and life.
    and third, I'll meet you on that bridge of connection, of "entertainment."

    (this HAS to prove that I read every word, right?) You are indeed the leader of the bad bloggers...

  23. I love Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one of my absolute favorite books) but have been putting off picking this one up for a while. Maybe because it isn't his usual writing? Now that I've read your review I'm totally going to have to pick myself up a copy!

  24. Thanks for the review. This is sadly the only Chabon I've ever read. I've got three of his other books purchased and in the TBR stack. Anyway, I enjoyed this collection of essay, but I wished it was more focused.

    Here's a link to my review:

  25. Charley: I haven't read many of his books so far, but my favourite is Kavalier and Clay.

    Stephanie: I do think this one's worth an exception!

    Naida: Isn't it? The book is a thing of beauty.

    Cath: Both are well worth it!

    Carl: He says it all and he says it perfectly!

    Andi: I should probably join the Essays challenge too...I've been discovering how much I enjoy them lately.

    Joanne: It is a great feeling! And I wholeheartedly recommend Kavalier & Clay. I thought it was an amazing book.

    Melody: I hope you enjoy it when you do!

    softdrink: lol :P It's not my fault that the book's so good :P

    Kim L: I'm kind of addicted to them lately, and I blame Nick Hornby. He started it all.

    Susan: He definitely does! The whole essay on M.R. James was brilliant. And lol :P

    Kim: Thank you again :D

  26. Chris: Don't be intimidated by him! He's our kind of guy :P And I think you'd enjoy Kavalier & Clay. I love the fact that even though the Pulitzer makes people who normally wouldn't respect him shut up he doesn't shy away from saying what he has to say about comics, fantasy, sci-fi, etc.

    Lenore: I think some of his fiction can be love it or hate it, but this has very wide appeal!

    Ladytink: I didn't know that! How cool.

    Kailana: Which one is it? If it's Kavalier & Clay, I say move it up the pile :P

    Debi: I love it too! He did a whole essay on a writer I had never heard of before and I read it as if were about one of my favourite authors.

    Jenny: I love it too! It would be so cool if Neil Gaiman did a book of this sort.

    Fyrefly: I know just what you mean! I love what he does with language too. And yeah, I try to avoid getting more books by an author if I already have a few unread ones. It's hard, though, because especially when i know I'll like them my tendency is to hoard, hoard, hoard.

    Jenclair, I really think you'll enjoy it!

    JP: It is!

    Care: You always leave such sweet and thoughtful comments! Thank you SO much. And yeah, that's the way I've always felt. Yes, things are bad now and by all means we should fix them but in social terms and environment-wise...but I don't believe in a lost "golden era".

    Matthew: I loved Kavalier & Clay too! You really should get this one!

    Jessica: Sorry, I'd forgotten about your review and for some reason Google Reader didn't find it. Added it now! I know what you mean about the lack of focus, but I guess that's because it collects essays he had previously published in a number of different places. Still, as the topics generally interested me I was very happy.

  27. I agree that we tend to forget that novels haven't always been around. I took a 18th century British Literature course a few years back and was amazed to learn of some of the first novels (including Robinson Crusoe! which doesn't seem so old). I haven't read anything by Chabon, but I think I might own a book by him. I'll have to move him up on my list.

  28. No, it is The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

  29. The cover is pretty cool indeed, but I'd rather start with his fiction. I'm not an essays girl:P

  30. Trish: I came across a quote by Thomas Hardy some weeks ago that I wish I'd saved. It was about how he didn't really think much of his novels because for him only poetry was "true" art. It's funny, because these days he's remembered primarily as a novelist.

    Kailana: I haven't read that one yet, but I've heard very good things about it.

    Valentina: I didn't use to be either, but they grew on me :P

  31. Alex loves him. I got him Cavalier and Clay after reading your review which he had been meaning to read for ages (hopefully I will find time to read it this year too). It's his birthday at the end of March and I am so getting him this! I will have to steal it at some point to read more in the graphic novels and Pullman sections. Loving the cover too :)

  32. Wow, thanks for sharing all the nice bits with us! I've not read anything by Chabon before and this one sure sounds good. Thanks for the review!

  33. I just reviewed Chabon's discussion of the concept of entertainment in today's podcast


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