Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Maps & Legends by Michael Chabon

I work part-time at a Barnes & Noble in Yonkers. I actually enjoy the job a lot; it gives me more than enough free time to finish my undergraduate work at SUNY Purchase, while being surrounded by books and scoring me a nice discount to boot. Since I'm in the store about three to four days a week, I'm around the same books each and every shift. Seeing ten or so copies of Michael Chabon's new collection of essays, "Maps and Legends" laid out in a stack on the New Releases table with their handsome Jordan Crane cover was probably what spurred me to read one. Since the company provides a Hardcover book loan program, I figured there was no harm in borrowing a copy.

I don't mean any of that as a slight to Chabon, but simply as an admission that a good deal more whim went into the decision to read this book then usual. "Maps and Legends" was my introduction to Chabon. I bought his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" a couple years back as a gift for a girlfriend, but we broke up before I could actually give it to her, so I decided to hold onto it. Since then, I've done just that, hold onto it. It sits unread in my storage closet along with a collection of ghost stories I nabbed from Baltimore's Book Thing, an anthology of the "Earliest English Poetry," some wrapping paper, and a yoga mat my dad gave to me, which sees about as much use as the above-mentioned novel. I've certainly expressed curiosity for a while now as to what Chabon is like, considering his popularity and widespread praise. But until now, I've always seemed to have an excuse as to why I couldn't find the time to read something by him. I figured him to be a talented enough writer who most likely didn't exactly fit in with my own personal interests.

Chabon writes in a breezy and comfortable style; he's less a literary theorist and more the enthusiastic friend who eagerly needs to tell you about so-and-so author or such-and-such a book. This aided a swift and effortless reading of the collection. I was occasionally tempted to put away the book during the first half, for reasons I'll get into further down, but all in all it was an easy book enough to delve into. I started the book sometime after midnight last night, and finished a little before noon today, all while getting a healthy eight-hours of sleep in-between. That the majority of the book dealt with a topic pertinent to me, genre fiction, certainly abetted my interest.

Chabon's essays focusing most explicitly on genre fiction, the loose framework of the collection, were actually my least favorite in the book. Chabon tackles Sherlock Holmes, the comic book "American Flagg!," and "His Dark Materials," making a case for genre fiction as serious fiction. That is a worthwhile fight he's entered into. I personally respect him for it, but as Chabon himself intimates regarding graphic novels literary institutionalization, "the battle has now, in fact, been won." A look at the new crop of Lit. Crit. considering graphic novels, notably "Tin-Tin and the Secret of Literature," attest to that.

Still, Chabon shows admirable spirit and conviction. He bravely fights against the marginalization of genre work, time and time again referencing "…Borges to Calvino, drawing heavily on the tropes and conventions of science fiction and mystery, to Anita Brookner and John Fowles with their sprung romance novels, from Millhauser and Thomas Pynchon to Kurt Vonnegut, John Crowley, Robert Aickman, A.S. Byatt, and Cormac McCarthy…" Chabon astutely refers to the illusory nature of genre or literary distinctions, but he spends a good portion of the book approaching and then creeping away from the monolith of literary criticism. If such work is as worthwhile as he argues, which I personally would second, then it deserves, no, demands serious analytical appraisal without any hemming or hawing over academic pretension.

There is no question Chabon is earnest and observant in his claims for genre fiction's relevance, but he shirks away from any rigorous analysis, almost as if such activity is anathema from a work's approachability. His personal assertion that "…Harold Bloom's notion of the anxiety of influence has always rung so hollow to (Chabon)," is an interesting one which could have potentially lead to Chabon intelligently and unpretentiously reacting to (and against!) a particular established theoretic stance. Instead, and he does repeatedly throughout the book, Chabon goes for a gut reaction that uncomfortably approaches sentimentality, "…influence is bliss." The problem is that he too often simply leaves it at that basic bliss, with only superficial attempts to delve deeper into the matter.

That is my issue with Chabon and many of the writers who frequent McSweeney's – a tendency to showcase, or even bandy about, their own intelligence while simultaneously stating that they're just homespun storytellers when you get down to the heart of the matter. Whenever the word "postmodern" crops up, the very text seems to recoil, as if a dirty word has been uttered. As a graduate from the Irvine MFA program though, Chabon can't escape that he is, in part at least, a member of the intellectual institution. Why does he often seem to take the tone of an apologist?

Chabon runs aground of discrepancies apparent in the critical work of other writers arguing for genre work's legitimacy. Chabon's writing alludes to the critical journalism of comic scribe Warren Ellis, sometimes directly such as in the introduction where he transfers Ellis' fantasy of a world where nurse comics take the place of superhero narratives to a world of nurse-based short stories and novels. Ellis writes about comics as "pure pop trash" while also espousing their craft and literary worth. Instead of taking a Situationist stance that utilizes the vagrancies of contemporary media and market needs, Ellis' "pop product" is still beholden to that same market mechanism. He has difficulty navigating the complex terrain that provides what is both legitimately attractive and repellant about genre fiction. Chabon also (though with valiant intentions) finds himself run aground on those same perilous beachheads.

The best writing in the book occurs, appropriately enough, when Chabon writes about writing. His accounts of writing his first two books, and a playful jaunt through a How-to Speak Yiddish instruction manual serve as the most inspired work within "Maps and Legends." Here Chabon approaches genre as a conceit providing a framework for these essays, instead of directly addressing genre. He comes through in the latter half of the book as a more honest writer, who admits complexities and contradictions in his personal character, as opposed to exhibiting contradictory arguments towards genre fiction, as he does in the first half.

The essays on particular genre works, such as "The Other James," or "Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner" feel more like heartfelt introductions which don't go much deeper than making certain everyone knows each other's names. The dilemma Chabon intimates between writing "…about a Holmesian detective investigating, on Earth and along the canals of the planet Mars, the disappearance of the great and greatly mistaken astronomer Percival Lowell..." and "…a straightforward narrative, equally influenced by Proust, Fitzgerald, and Phillip Roth, about summertime and sexual identity in the city of Pittsburgh," may well be referred to as such by the author, and while his fiction which I haven't read may reconcile these twin tendencies, his critical work so far has not. Chabon seems to be staked too firmly in the middle of the road and I yearn to see him take a more courageous stance, that he is unquestionably able to make, though he himself admits that Elizabeth Benedict's criticism of his first book, that he shouldn't "…worry so much about being nice," still holds true.

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