Michael Chabon charts an entertaining trip with Maps and Legends
Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands
By Michael Chabon. McSweeney’s, 200 pp, $26.50, hardcover
It’s a rare writer who can surprise readers with every new book. For a writer to do so with the frequency of Michael Chabon is remarkable indeed.
Chabon’s ability to shift between styles and genres, and his interest in a wildly divergent range of subjects, has resulted in a career as impressive as it is eclectic. It hardly seems credible that the man who wrote perhaps the finest, funniest novel about writer’s block (Wonder Boys) also wrote an impressive young-adult fantasy rooted in Norse mythology and baseball (Summerland), a strong Sherlock Holmes pastiche (The Final Solution), the ultimate novel of comic books and their creators (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), and, in the last year alone, a stellar noir mystery in which, post–Holocaust, the new Jewish free state is established in Alaska rather than in Israel (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) and a gleeful swashbuckler (Gentlemen of the Road). This flexibility places Chabon squarely at odds with the majority of his colleagues.
With his first collection of non-fiction, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, Chabon examines not only the distinctly different roles of the traditional storyteller and the contemporary writer, but also the roots of his own work in the joy of reading and writing he found in childhood—a joy he clearly has not lost.
“I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain,” Chabon states, perhaps a shade defensively, in the first essay in Maps and Legends, a compendium of essays, speeches, reviews, and occasional pieces. “Period.” It’s not, of course, that simple, and the bulk of the collection is devoted, however loosely and elliptically, to exploring Chabon’s work, his desires as a writer (often frustrated), and the drives that fuel him. There are loosely autobiographical pieces exploring his childhood, and pieces which, using traditional techniques and feigned disclosure, overturn the very nature of autobiography. There are examinations of trickster figures and other mythologies, and reviews of work by fellow writers (including particularly astute dissections of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy). But no matter the ostensible subject, the real topic at hand is Chabon himself, and the thrill of watching a masterful writer taking a long, introspective look.