Sunday, March 20, 2016

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (2008) by Michael Chabon

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (2008) by Michael Chabon, containing the following essays: "Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story"; "Maps and Legends"; "Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes"; "Ragnarok Boy"; "On Daemons & Dust"; "Kids' Stuff"; "The Killer Hook: On Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!"; "Dark Adventure: On Cormac McCarthy's The Road"; "The Other James"; "Landsman of the Lost"; "Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner"; "My Back Pages"; "Diving into the Wreck"; "The Recipe for Life"; "Imaginary Homelands"; "Golems I Have Known, or, Why my Elder Son's Middle Name is Napoleon"; and "The Single Unitard Theory."

Enjoyable decades-worth of essays from American writer and Pulitzer-Prize-winner Michael Chabon. Throughout and even in the title, Chabon wears his affection for popular culture openly and proudly (the title comes from an R.E.M. song). He also discusses his time in an M.F.A. program, his childhood love of Norse mythology, the genesis of his first and second published novels, the Yiddish language, the history of golems, his family history, and the planned community he grew up in.

Along the way, Chabon will also express his love for Sherlock Holmes, H.P. Lovecraft, Howard Chaykin, M.R. James, Philip Pullman, and a host of other popular characters, writers, artists, and writer-artists. 

The history of the American comic book informed much of Chabon's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Chabon has written for comic books. And he discusses them here, their modern faults (a need for entry-level comics for kids) and successes (the work of Howard Chaykin, especially his 1980's science-fiction series American Flagg!). 

There's a peculiarly American moment in which Chabon goes on at length of his admiration for comics legend Will Eisner because of Eisner's business savvy as well as his work. It's not something I would think of as a plus or minus except insofar as, you know, good on Eisner for making a better living at comics than a lot of his contemporaries. I suppose it's also a peculiar section because the Eisner section pretty much ignores the studio aspect of Eisner's comics work in the 1940's -- which is to say, the fact that much of it was written and drawn by other people. It feels a lot like congratulating Henry Ford on building all of his cars by hand personally...

For the most part, though, this is a fun and occasionally thought-provoking book. I've generally found Chabon's fiction to be about 5% too glib and/or too arch, a problem that essays can live with better than fiction. There's a weird moment in which Chabon seems to be suggesting that ghost stories aren't written any more (hunh?) which may simply be a result of space considerations in the original publication of the essay: for a space, he seems even dottier than Susan Hill on the topic of the contemporary ghost story. So it goes. Recommended.

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