№ 2

Maps and Legends

Michael Chabon Read­ing and Writ­ing Along the Borderlands

—The Globe and Mail

This review ran in the Globe and Mail’s Sat­ur­day Books sec­tion under Mar­tin Levin.

A Fer­ris wheel of obses­sions fuels Michael Chabon’s fic­tion: comic-book myths, Holme­sian who­dunits, frac­tured father-son rela­tion­ships, writ­ers’ lives, Jew­ish lore. His most ambi­tious nov­els, The Yid­dish Policemen’s Union (2007) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Amaz­ing Adven­tures of Kava­lier & Clay (2000), turn these fas­ci­na­tions into full-scale, could-this-be-true real­ity, the for­mer with its Jew­ish colony in Sitka, Alaska, post-Holocaust, sans Israel; the lat­ter with its comic-book cre­ation tale, The Escapist, seam­lessly woven into mid-20th-century New York.

It’s a recipe Hol­ly­wood admired straight away. Chabon wrote an unused screen­play for Spider-Man 2. His sec­ond novel, Won­der Boys, mor­phed into a film star­ring Michael Dou­glas and Tobey Maguire; oth­ers are either on the cusp of release (Mys­ter­ies of Pitts­burgh) or in pre-production (Kava­lier & Clay).

Enter­tain­ment has a bad name,” Chabon writes at the start of Maps and Leg­ends: Read­ing and Writ­ing Along the Bor­der­lands, his exhil­a­rat­ing first book of non-fiction. “Seri­ous peo­ple learn to mis­trust and even to revile it. The word wears span­dex, pasties, a leisure suit stud­ded with blink­ing lights. It gives off a whiff of Cop­per­tone and drip­ping Cream­si­cle.… Enter­tain­ment, in short, means junk, and too much junk is bad for you — bad for your heart, your arter­ies, your mind, your soul.”

If Chabon’s work has been a 20-year proof against this line of think­ing, Maps and Leg­ends is its 200-page pré­cis. This man reads for enter­tain­ment. He writes for enter­tain­ment, too. End of story. He could, he admits, “decoct a brew of other, more impres­sive moti­va­tions and expla­na­tions,” but he won’t. When this pas­time (and pro­fes­sion) clicks, when the atten­tive mind encoun­ters the irre­sistible page, you feel “an answer­ing throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders.”

Call it what you will — Chabon’s “throb of delight” sounds very sim­i­lar to Nabokov’s “tell­tale tin­gle” at the top of the spine — but Maps and Leg­ends still pro­vides its own lit­tle buzz. This lithe lit­tle col­lec­tion — 16 loosely con­nected essays, speeches and remem­brances — becomes an unob­structed tour of Chabon’s art and inner life, his own deftly con­structed looking-glass anthology.

It is a dec­la­ra­tion of Chabon’s tastes and habits, his begin­nings and his imag­in­ings. Many of his real-life heroes are here, from authors Arthur Conan Doyle, cre­ator of Sher­lock Holmes, to M. R. James, the ghost-story master.

Chabon puts him­self under the micro­scope, as well, writ­ing openly about his early-20s angst (My Back Pages), his sec­ond, dead-end novel (Div­ing into the Wreck) and his lay­ers of Jew­ish iden­tity which, ulti­mately, led to the alter­na­tive uni­verse of The Yid­dish Policemen’s Union (Imag­i­nary Home­lands). The collection’s title piece is a remark­able exam­ple of con­ver­gence art: minute obser­va­tions from a child­hood moment in Colum­bia, Md., part urban his­tory, part mem­oir, part lit­er­ary criticism.

If Maps and Leg­ends has some­thing to declare, it also has some­thing to reclaim. To start, of course, Chabon wants enter­tain­ment put back into play (Trick­ster in a Suit of Lights); comic-book geniuses (Howard Chaykin) count, too.

And he’s drawn to all sorts of strange anachro­nisms, under-the-radar minu­tiae and seem­ingly van­ished delights. In an essay on car­toon­ist Ben Katchor, Lands­man of the Lost, Chabon laments the death of nos­tal­gia: “Those of us who can­not make it from one end of a street to another with­out being momen­tar­ily upended by some frag­ment of out­moded typog­ra­phy, curve of chrome fender, or whiff of laven­der hair oil from the pate of a semi-retired neigh­bor are com­pelled by the dis­re­pute into which nos­tal­gia has fallen to mourn secretly the pass­ing of a mil­lion mar­vel­lous quo­tid­ian things.”

Inevitably, it’s Chabon’s eye, his mas­tery of those mil­lion mar­vel­lous quo­tid­ian things, that makes so many of these pieces hum. Observ­ing, say, the union of art and com­merce: “the quick­en­ing force, neglected, derided, and denied, of money and the get­ting of it on a ready imag­i­na­tion.” Or his beloved comics: “the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent of bub­blegum cards, to be poked into the spokes of a young mind, where they would pro­duce a sat­is­fy­ing — but entirely bogus — rum­ble of pleasure.”

That the Berke­ley, Calif.-based Chabon is a man of McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers’s San Fran­cisco pub­lish­ing house, adds to the easy allure of Maps and Leg­ends. Chabon may be well into mid­dle age (he’s just turned 45), but it’s high sea­son for his tastes. Take the book itself, a buoy­ant prod­uct of cul­tural inter­mar­riage, with its nifty, faux-pop-out-book jacket over­top a series of pieces that, in many cases, first appeared in the august New York Review of Books.

In the end, it’s here where Chabon’s real virtue lies. The book busi­ness is sag­ging, web-based read­er­ship is explod­ing, but Maps and Leg­ends is, implic­itly, a clar­ion call back to the future, where seri­ous enter­tain­ments count, where the writ­ten word — framed by images or just plunked down, alone on the page — cre­ate what Chabon calls “a kind of midair trans­fer of strength, con­tact across a void, like the tan­gling of cable and steel between two lonely bridgeheads.”