Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

In my opinion, Michael Chabon is one of the elite writers of our time. I buy his books as soon as they come out, and usually I get very sad as I near the end, because he writes so well that I just want the story to go on forever. Maps and Legends is a collection of mostly previously published nonfiction that covers a whole range of ideas and topics. And it serves as a reminder of what good prose can do, no matter the genre.

The initial piece is likely the most famous, the strident defense of genre fiction that first appeared in issue 10 of McSweeney’s. While I agree with much of Chabon’s assertions about genre fiction, both in this essay and others, I think what seems to be missing is the obvious: good writing will/should trump genre conventions. While the writing of China Mieville may not be quite mainstream, it has a chance to break through because he writes so well. The reason that a lot of the pulp fiction of which Chabon is so fond gets no respect is because it honestly isn’t all that good. However, his appeal that divisions in genre be eradicated and all fiction in the bookstore be shelved together makes some sense to me, and it is welcome to read.

Insightful essays on Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, M.R. James, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have stuck with me, and I will have to read more by these authors in the near future. His review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road does so much more than review the book; it offers a perspective on apocalyptic fiction, and its place within literary fiction as opposed to science fiction.

In ‘Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner,’ Chabon shies away from listing accomplishments and hagiography, and instead focuses on the more overlooked aspect of Eisner’s work: his savvy as a businessman. And his personal history with his first novel and his unfinished second novel make for compelling reads. In each case, his sharp and melodious prose make these essays seem like stories, yet one never gets the sense that Chabon’s actual voice is lost to the voice of Chabon the narrator.

The book itself is beautifully produced as well. The cover contains a large gold ‘X’ with the title printed across it, and Chabon’s name sits at the top with the ‘O’ a moon. Three dust jackets, each with a different magical scene are layered, creating a provocative scene individually and collectively. And the pages are acid free and quite thick, as most of the books published by McSweeney’s are.

Though one may not always agree with the stances Chabon makes in these essays, Maps and Legends is required reading for any fan of genre fiction. Though he just published two novels last year, I can hardly wait for the next. If you haven’t sampled his fiction, please do yourself a favor and pick up Wonder Boys, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, or Kavalier & Clay the next time you are at a bookstore. You won’t be disappointed.


valevitt said...

When Chabon calls M.R. James the writer of "one of the finest short stories ever written," do you know which M.R. James story Chabon is referring to? I don't have Maps and Legends but I'd love to know which story he mentions. Thanks!

Jon Polk said...

The story is entitled "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad." I still haven't gotten around to reading it, but I will before too long.