Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands
By Michael Chabon
McSweeney's, 222 pp., $24
There's stability in being a regional novelist, a role supported by a steady source of inspiration and a steadier fan-base. So why would Michael Chabon, a University of Pittsburgh alumnus who grew up here in part and set two successful novels -- The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys -- quite vividly in Pittsburgh, relocate his fiction to places like Alaska (The Yiddish Policemen's Union), Central Asia (Gentlemen of the Road), and Antarctica (part of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay)?
Those moves seem particularly interesting in light of Chabon's new book of collected essays, Maps and Legends, where a fascination with setting determines the tenor of his ideas. These short pieces of criticism and memoir are, if not explicitly about places, frequently reinforced by elaborate geographical metaphors, with figurative maps and borderlands standing in for fictional settings as well as the zones between literary genres.
One autobiographical essay, in fact, narrates the genesis of 1988's Mysteries in terms of the settings. The piece explains how leaving Pittsburgh, and a subsequent aching nostalgia for the city, fueled, started and steered Chabon's writing. Having left here after college, he recounts the decision to return through fiction, to see whether his "sense of wonder" could be situated "along the banks of the Monongahela River."
Since then, Chabon has chased that wonder through different genres, including the detective story and the adventure tale, in a pursuit that's led his fiction to disparate times and places. Maps and Legends reflects that preoccupation in his criticism, too. In an essay contemplating the "ruined, friendless world" of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Chabon notes that the novel inhabits "the rich storytelling borderland of horror and the epic." And in a piece calling a ghost story by M.R. James "one of the finest short stories ever written," Chabon complains about the literary world's disapproval of James' genre.
Chabon, worried that unequal degrees of respectability have been misguidedly conferred upon genres, seeks here to apply a corrective dose of inclusiveness. He bases his approach on "the common-sense proposition that, in constructing our fictional maps ... we are foolish to restrict ourselves to one type or category."
Yet too much common sense makes it hard to say anything new, and at times Chabon's perspective is so broad that it's scarcely a perspective. To use one of his favorite tropes: He's less a critic than a creator of maps, sketching a detailed representation of a whole planet of fiction rather than developing a concentrated argument.
Nonetheless, while drawing his expansive maps, Chabon appears to recognize that one appeal of criticism written by a novelist takes a more limited scope: the glimpse into authorial thought. Maps and Legends therefore includes, in addition to Chabon's self-reflection, a good deal of literary biography, from James' life "free of the usual writerly string of calamities and reversals" to the family life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Literary influence, too, thus becomes an inevitable subject. Fiction to Chabon combines an intense selfishness -- the product of personal meditation and one's own experience -- and a selflessness forged by enormous networks of places and influences. The absence of total originality isn't to be mourned; rather, in his words, "influence is bliss."
That kind of literary intoxication, evident in his characteristically brilliant style, permeates the essays. It's the aesthetic rush of a reader connecting with multiple fictional worlds, the charge that can come from what Chabon calls the realization "that you are both the center of the universe and a tiny speck sailing off its nethermost edge."
Fiction, as Chabon explains it, is too exciting to remain fixed, to hole up in one city and wearily bide its time. His delirious enthusiasm for this expanding realm of stories often inspires his catchy prose and sometimes sounds plainly unhealthy. Either way, it may be infectious.