Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon
Is it any secret that I adore Michael Chabon? As I was telling a friend of mine recently, I’m terrified that I’ll one day attend a reading and, meaning to tell him that I want to live in his imagination, end up saying something like “I WANT TO WEAR YOUR BRAIN AS A HAT”. After reading the brilliant Manhood for Amateurs, I put down Chabon’s earlier collection, Maps and Legends down on my list. I had to have more of my favorite stylist defending and celebrating “genre” fiction. …y’all know how I feel about that word. Maps and Legends was less of what I had in mind, but still astonishingly wonderful.
Maps and Legends collects essays concerning fiction, Jewish identity, and their intersection that Chabon has published in places as varied as The New York Review of Books, Architectural Digest, and Swing. Here, Chabon examines the success and fandom of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, discusses Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, defends popular fiction, and explores the line between reality and fantasy.
I picked up Maps and Legends because a.) I want to read everything Chabon has committed to paper and b.) I wanted more of his nonfiction focused on literature. While Manhood for Amateurs, as a collection, has more pieces exploring fandom, it, naturally, also has more pieces exploring family. His piece about how cooking connects him to the female tradition in his family is so wonderful—but I’ve already written a review of Manhood for Amateurs! Suffice it to say, it was awesome. But Maps and Legends has more of a focus on writing and “genre” fiction, and that’s what I wanted to read.
It kicks off with the wonderful “Trickster in a Suit of Lights”, which examines the denigration of entertainment which, Chabon argues, “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” (17). “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes” is a glorious piece, examining both Doyle’s writing and the interaction between canon and fandom. As confident and open as I am about fandom, it’s sometimes an uphill struggle when dealing with non-fans who immediately dismiss it out of hand. (Come to think of it, asexuality is like that too…) To see intelligent, thoughtful writing about fandom written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author in print is so incredibly validating.“Of Daemons & Dust”, which examines His Dark Materials works along the same lines, although Chabon is more critical of the series and glosses over the fandom. Chabon is at his best in his nonfiction work writing about, well, writing, literature, and fandom; I could go on, but I’ll leave with what is now currently my favorite Chabon quote from, of course, “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes”—“All novels are sequels; influence is bliss” (57). Dreamy.
The eponymous “Maps and Legends” explores the fertile ground for imagination that maps provide, be it for the planned community Chabon lived in as a child or for Middle-Earth—it went farther into Chabon’s personal life than I was expecting here, although he’s almost bewilderingly frank in Manhood for Amateurs; I just wasn’t expecting it, I guess. In fact, I was thrown for a loop by the more personal essays in this collection, which I thought was more focused on literature and writing. It starts off slow, with “Maps and Legends”, “My Back Pages”, and “The Recipe for Life” keeping one foot firmly in the world of literature, but “Imaginary Homelands” is a beautiful piece about Jewish identity and heritage that sticks out like a sore thumb among pieces examining the intersection between reality, fiction, and creativity. Even the heartily titled “Golems I have Known, or Why my Elder Son’s Middle Name is Napoleon, A Trickster’s Memoir” focuses on fiction. However, it stick outs as well—as Chabon explains in a small addendum to the piece, it was originally performed as a spoken piece to point out the nebulous barrier between fiction and reality, and it loses that immediacy and good-natured gullibility in print. It’s just the nature of the medium, I suppose, but it suffers for the translation into print. They’re both beautifully written—Chabon is, perhaps, the only author I will read solely for his immaculate writing style—but they just don’t connect with the rest of the collection. I’d expect to see that in an arbitrary collection of an author’s writings, but not on a collection that bills itself as focused wholly on reading and writing.
Bottom line: In Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon proves himself to be, as always, an incredibly gifted stylist, as well as a thoughtful writer and, perhaps more importantly, reader, examining the legacy of the Sherlock Holmes canon, His Dark Materials, and the trickster archetype shrewdly. However, while the last two pieces are beautifully written, they seem out of step with the focus of this collection on reading and writing. Still, a fantastic read.
I rented this book from the public library.
- Chabon, Michael. Maps and Legends. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2008. Print.