A number of writers have begun to exult in print about the uncanny realms where the influences of pulp and pop meld with those "higher" and more established echelons of literature. Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, relishes secret transactions between authors and their readers. When I realized that the two Japanese students Takeshi and Ichizo in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh bore the same names as the kamikaze pilots in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, the shock of recognition ushered me into yet another story. Here was one lesson about how one kind of fiction could infiltrate another.
Maps and Legends, Chabon's first essay collection, unearths some of the author's source texts and offers his exuberant ruminations on the role of the writer as protector and defender of artistic ancestors. His intention to cast us out and off into alternate worlds is made clear from the outset. Chabon's sixteen essays ponder those landscapes, whether mythological, alternate-historical, or post-apocalyptic, where entertainers and tricksters, ghosts and golems dwell. He is an exacting cartographer of those speculative spaces where only the genre of nurse romances was allowed to flourish or where one might catch a glimpse of a zeppelin screaming across the sky.
As he roams across literary and cultural borderlands, Chabon investigates comic-book deity Will Eisner, road warrior Cormac McCarthy, the urban sprawls of Howard Chaykin's American Flagg! and Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl, the supernatural tales of M.R. James, and the contrarian cosmology of Philip Pullman. Sadly, there is only brief mention of August Van Zorn, the little-known acolyte of H.P. Lovecraft so beloved by Chabon that he includes him in Wonder Boys. Chabon also provides observations on his own literary endeavors, from the Sherlock Holmes story he wrote at age ten and the place where he penned his first novel to his problematic second novel, Fountain City, which, although uncompleted, provided essential inspiration for the runaway magnum opus Grady Tripp toils on in Wonder Boys. His final two essays contemplate artistic approaches to questions of exile and faith. The last essay is the text of a public talk Chabon delivered in 2003 and 2004 about the author's stumbling upon a writer and Holocaust survivor named C.B. Colby resulting in a peculiar inquiry into history and storytelling.
Maps and Legends is a treasure trove of intriguing and revealing looks at where Chabon goes to make up his worlds and how he tells his fables of the reconstruction. (McSweeney's, 200 pages, $24)
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