Michael Chabon: Maps and Legends

Maps and Legends is Michael Chabon’s love letter to the genres and works of popular, non-realistic fiction that he’s loved all his life – Sherlock Holmes, comic books, Norse myths, ghost stories. Chabon is the Pulitzer prize-winning writer of novels including The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

The wonderful thing about book is hearing Chabon read his favorite tales, with the enjoyment of a fan, the perspective of an attentive reader of the narrative forms, and the technical eye of a good professional writer. Chabon unpacks the rhetoric of ghost and horror stories, where the narrator tone is confessional, testimonial – telling the reader in confidence that the story they are about to hear, and the shocking fact they are about to discover, is observed truth. He demonstrates these techniques later on in the book, in a tour de force “memoir” disclosing his personal encounters with golems in Flushing, LA and Seattle. He reads Cormac McCarthy’s The Road against the traditions of post-apocalyptic science fiction; the blasted landscape, the brutalized survivors, the ambivalence toward technology; and against the genres of Jack London, Robinson Crusoe survivalist adventure and Gothic horror, in which things get progressively more horrific in increasingly shocking ways.

He writes nicely, and occasionally can’t restrain himself from using his decorative chops – this is how he describes the world of Norse myths, which “begins in darkness, and ends in darkness, and is veined like a fire with darkness that forks and branches. Everything that is beautiful, in the Norse world, is something that glints, sparks from ringing hammers, stars, gold and gems, the aurora boealis, tooled swords and helmets and armbands, fire, a woman’s hair, wine and mead in a golden cup.” And this on a comic book distopia by Howard Chayken: “above all with its accumulated history of stale, outmoded, and rotting bright futures, the comic book was perfectly suited not mearly to adapting but in some measure to embodying the hybridized, trashy, garish future of simulacra and ad copy that comics had been hinting out over the past decade.”

Chabon makes it clear that he experiences these works of popular genre fiction as a fan. The introductory quote for the book is Melville writing about his love for whaling, and the attribution reads “Herman Melville, on the writing of fan fiction.” This is the book’s point of view throughout. One example among many – Chabon describes the attraction of the believability of ghost stories: “We love [ghost stories], if we love them, from the depth and antiquity of our willingness to believe them.” He uses the second person plural pronoun – he includes himself among the fans.

Chabon writes interestingly about how the Sherlock Holmes stories served as an early catalyst for a culture of fan fiction. For nearly a century, Holmes has gathered an army of pseudo-scholarly fans who assiduously fill in the backstory and the gaps of the arch-detectives universe. The genres and traditions of contemporary fan fiction communities, which use internet forums and wikis to elaborate upon the fictional worlds of television shows, movies, and books, have been popularized and facilitated by the internet, but preceded the internet.

The pre-socialmedia, pre-blog genres of review and critique pretended to objectivity – the professional reviewer has an obligation to deliver his informed opinion to consumers in need of guidance; the academic critic provides a purportedly objective reading of a text, in the service of advancing some greater esthetic, theoretical, or historical argument. Even (one might argue) critics who demolish claims of objectivity still purport to do so in a manner that pretends disinterest in the text itself – a politically oriented critic, or a literary theorist would not pretend to take on the text out of love.

By declaring his love for works of genre fiction, Chabon joins the post-Cluetrain throng, carrying the banner saying “transparency is the new objectivity.” In this cultural norm, one’s voice is more credible if one discloses one’s point of view, than if one pretends to have a neutral point of view. But unlike the cultural followers of David Weinberger, who carry the banner proudly, Chabon is reluctant to admit to being a fan.

Instead, the book is a long apology for the author’s fandom. As a defense, it gives the presumed attackers more power than they deserve, and reveals much about Chabon’s cultural identity in the high-culture literary establishment. The first chapter of the book is a defense of artwork that comes from the domain of popular entertainment. It identifies pleasure and passivity among the attributes that taint works of entertainment. Chabon agonizes about his attraction to these declasse forms, using the language of class – “Duly I had written my share of pseudo-Ballard, quasi-Calvino, and neo-Borges. I had fun doing it. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t stop preferring the traditional, bourgeois, narrative form.”

Chabon’s esthetic superego is partly the academic establishment, and partly the publishing establishment. He writes about internalizing the esthetic hierarchy of literary academia. “As a young man, an English major, and a regular participant in undergraduate fiction-writing workshops, I was taught– or perhaps in fairness it would be more accurate to say I learned–that science fiction was not serious fiction, that a writer of mystery novels might be loved but not revered, that if I meant to get serious about the art of fiction I might set a novel in Pittsburgh but never on Pluto.” His point of view in part internalizes the point of view of the literary publishing establishment: “over the course of the twentieth century the desire of writers and critics alike to strip away the sticky compound of Orange Crush and Raisinets that encrusts the idea of entertainment, and thus of literature as entertainment, radically reduced our understanding of the kinds of short stories that belong in prestigious magazines or yearly anthologies of the best American short stories.” Chabon resists the prejudice, but accepts the established hierarchy of prestige. He cites his own Pulitzer prize as the thing that gives him the courage to publicly discuss his love of genre fiction.

Another sign of Chabon’s establishment identification – in an article on comic books, Chabon laments the fact that publishers have cultivated the market for graphic fiction for adults, while abandoning comic books for kids. He encourages publishers to once again publish well-done comic books for children. In his plea to the publishing industry, Chabon has the demeanor of a musician who was signed by a major label before the industry imploded – he is looking to the industry to create something, instead of acting as an artist or impresario and doing it himself. One wants to urge Chabon to DIY! – and have dinner with Cory Doctorow sometime.

In the way that it frames the disclosure of the author’s love of genre fiction, Maps and Legends is also a coming out story. Michael Chabon comes out of the closet with his unacceptable loves and shameful predilections. I’m not making up this analogy between gender & sexual preferences and genre, Chabon goes there himself. “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…” “A lonely business, transgressing”.

Chabon’s discomfort with the esthetic “coming out” process is paralleled with discomfort with sexual identity. When he wrote “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”, which includes a love affair between men (disclosure, I haven’t yet read that novel) he was acutely self-conscious that people would think he was gay. And in “Maps”, he discloses that he had a sexual relationship with a guy, though he’s currently on his second (and longterm, and presented credibly as happy) marriage with a woman.

Now, Chabon is well within his rights to self-identify as not gay. And I can very easily how one might notice and need to negotiate a non-gay identity. Personally, I’ve been politically active for gay rights, keep my hair short, don’t paint my nails or wear heels, and my circle of friends is diverse in sexual and gender identity. People sometimes think I’m gay (which would be very cool, but I’m not.) I need to politely and gently give them accurate information. It’s a little awkward, but not that big a deal to come out as not gay. As someone involved in an artistic subculture in the Bay Area – of all places, here! – why is Chabon so uncomfortable with the fact that some people might think he is gay?

In “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union“, Chabon commits the now-obsolete homophobic cliche in which the characters who are gay or gay-seeming die alone, their identities unrevealed, their love lives stymied – a cliche that has been out of style for 30+ years now. I wondered, in a blog post on that book, how Chabon could be quite that dense. Unfortunately, based on this book, he really is that obtuse – he hasn’t quite got the point that people with identities off the center of the bell curve aren’t doomed or shameful – he lives in Berkeley – it doesn’t take much!

The political obtuseness regarding sexuality carries over into other sociopolitical domains. Chabon reads Sherlock Holmes in the context of adventure fiction, and adventure fiction in the context of empire, without regard for the seemingly obvious impact of colonialism.

Empires are built, however, by laying the groundwork for their own destruction. Subject peoples are educated, organized, given national identities. Any colony made strong enough to survive and flourish becomes too strong to remain a colony

I doubt there’s a South Asian who could read that paragraph without blood pressure medication.

The paragraph in the Holmes chapter proceeds to lament the diminishment of undiscovered territory. “The great explorations undertaken by the Empire, the surveys and royal expeditions of the previous few centuries, had done grave harm to the atlas of adventure.” Ulp. Chabon is not seeing how much the perspective of this “adventure fiction” comes from the viewpoint of the colonizer – the territories being “explored” were plenty familiar to the people who happened to live there, and the perspective of “savage wilderness” comes from the insular perspective of the explorers who saw their own culture as the only possibility for civilization. There is post-colonial speculative fiction where Chabon could learn perspectives about “exploration” and “adventure” from the perspective of people whose cultures were being “explored.”

In summary: I enjoyed this book, and recommend it, mostly for Chabon’s readings of his favorite works, and also in part for the biographical chapters that shed light on the author’s creative process and artistic identity. Unfortunately, “Maps and Legend” also reveals Chabon to be un-admirably obtuse about the social/political/economic contexts of his writing and esthetic preferences. I wish he would take advantage of the wealth of role models around him to gain more comfort with sexual and gender diversity, worry less about status hierarchy of the academic/publishing establishment, and realize the cultural biases of the colonialism-influenced “tale of adventure.”

Now, as a fan of literary interpretation, I enjoy readings that dive into the work, and have theory and politics as background not foreground. There’s a reason I got a degree in English, where classes read literature, rather than in Comp Lit, where the classes focused on theory and political analysis, and barely read any literature itself – I loved the literature and wanted to read it – I took theory classes as icing on the cake. But the meta-analysis has its lessons to teach.

6 thoughts on “Michael Chabon: Maps and Legends”

  1. hey — actually found this because i was looking for another article about chabon’s pseudo-gayness, but to be fair, he’s never really been freaked out about people thinking he’s gay; in fact, he’s said over & over & over that he really appreciates his gay readership, is glad the confusion happened, & is honored by how loyal his gay fans are – he just doesn’t want to give a false impression. i think he could stand to do a lot more to emphasize the ongoing fluidity of sexuality (vs, “i used to sleep w/ dudes but now i’m married”), but he has done an impressive job of staying honest while keeping his sexuality from overshadowing his writing.

    also, re: yiddish policeman’s union — dude, he portrayed a gay man as a FLAWED MESSIAH! he’s no rufus (a bad joke, as this is obviously for the best, but, yknow, messiah, “lol”), but i think he provides a number of different fairly well-rounded gay characters.

    honestly, what i find more interesting is that most of his hetero-normative female characters seem more like lesbians or transgender characters (see, particularly, YPU & gentlemen of the road), & he seems to have a lot of trouble offering female characters depth… *unless* they’re basically written as men w/ breasts.

    anyway i haven’t finished maps & legends yet, but i do agree w/ most everything you said regarding colonialism / imperialist-tinted sunglasses, establishment fear, etc… but telling him to go write kids comics seems a bit demanding when he’s already taken on sci-fi, thriller, mystery, & fan fic. give the boy a break! 🙂 at the end of the day chabon’s a major force in deconstructing both the pretention & the absolutist gay/straight categorization of the literary establishment, & i love that shit; for a mainstream pop fic author, he’s doing a damn good job.

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