Maps and Legends, the first book of nonfiction by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, bears the intriguing subtitle Essays on Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. Comprised of 16 short pieces, many of which have been published previously in periodicals or as introductions to other people's books, the collection nonetheless has a cohesive and persuasive through-line. The essence of Chabon's message is found in what he means by "Borderlands": the ghettoization of genre fiction - science fiction, fantasy, mystery, Westerns - to a region beyond the pale of "literature."Anyone who has enjoyed Chabon's marvelous fiction (and I use that adjective in its root sense) knows that here is a writer given to playing fast and loose with the conventions of genre fiction. Fans of such recent books as The Yiddish Policemen's Union, The Final Solution and thePulitzer ring-grabber The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier ∧ Clay, will learn what inspired Chabon to write them. For instance, after stumbling upon a curious little book called Say It in Yiddish, Chabon wrote a magazine piece (which he integrates into a larger essay here) that brewed a tempest in the small but vehement teapot that is the community of Yiddish preservers. It ultimately led him to write his brilliantly imagined detective novel about a Jewish homeland in Alaska after the Second World War. His unabashed reverence for Sherlock Holmes (used to great effect in Final Solution) and comic books (Kavalier ∧ Clay) comes into play again and again in these essays.
Chabon's always impressive, always flexible use of language is in full force. Consider this evocative sentence on what he learned about literature as an English major: "A detective novelist or a horror writer who made claims to artistry sat in the same chair at the table of literature as did a transvestite cousin at a family Thanksgiving. He was something to be allowed for, indulged, pardoned, excused, his fabulous hat studiously ignored." Any writer who has been pigeonholed as merely a writer of science fiction or crime novels will applaud this sentiment I'm sure, as would the handful of "literary" writers - Pynchon,Vonnegut, Chabon himself - who have managed to transcend such narrow categorization.
Maps and Legends is not autobiography per se, yet it contains enough charming details of Chabon's childhood to often read as such. We repeatedly meet the little boy the writer was, escaping from domestic turbulence and the mild angst of a mid-century suburban upbringing through reading and, later, writing. The writer's coming into his own as a Jew is also a dominant theme, whether Chabon is ruefully remembering a review of an early book that suggested he might do well to take a page from Philip Roth's more rebellious fiction, or exploring his lifelong fascination with golems, the mythic (though Chabon says they're real) men of clay brought to life to serve, yet who sometimes take control of their creators - an apt metaphor for the process of writing fiction.
There are a few missteps here. For one, Chabon spends too much time thrashing through the plot particulars of The Golden Compass, making an essay on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy feel longer than it is, and the brief celebrations of cartoonists Howard Chaykin and Ben Katchor don't go far enough in offering proof to the uninitiated of these men's alleged genius. But a piece on SherlockHolmes, about whom it would seem nothing new could be said, is a delight, and another insightful essay on Cormac McCarthy should hold the interest even of readers who might not share Chabon's taste for this fellow Pulitzer winner's dark literary vision (seemingly so diametrically opposed to Chabon's own).
Can Michael Chabon's eloquent, single-minded crusade make a dent in that impenetrable fence erected by the self-appointed border guards of the literary canon? Lovers of comics, pulp fiction or Westerns set on Mars can dream. But there are obstacles. For example, though Chabon only makes passing mention of it, the sorry truth is that much science fiction is plagued by bad writing. If only the writers of the innovative space operas Chabon so admires could write as well as he, there might be a chance. Still, Chabon fights the good fight, and Maps and Legends is an affectionate, pleasurable tour across the bumpy literary outback.