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Revenge of the Nerd:
Michael Chabon Gets His

The Stop Smiling Review

(McSweeney's)

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Monday, June 09, 2008


Maps & Legends
By Michael Chabon
(McSweeney’s)

Reviewed by Michael Moreci

Since the release of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the novel that won its author the Pulitzer Prize, Michael Chabon has been a genre-blending machine. Having dispensed with the Cheever-esque fiction of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he turned his attentions to the Victorian mystery novel in The Final Solution and a Dumas-like historical adventure in Gentlemen of the Road. Now, with Maps and Legends, a collection of 12 essays, Chabon wants not only to validate his devotion to the aesthetics of genre fiction, but his membership in the club he calls “geekdom.” Michael Chabon wants geek cred because, like in any club or demographic, there’s a certain amount of exclusivity in belonging to “geekdom.” And one thing the geeks have little tolerance for is a poser.

The book’s opening essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story,” is, presumably, Chabon’s way of throwing down the gauntlet, of calling for a new direction in which fiction should head (much like many, many writers have done before him: Georges Perec, Milan Kundera and John Barth, to name a few). Chabon is disparaging of the stale tendencies of the mainstream short story, tendencies that began with the Eighties minimalists and have since been recycled endlessly: domestic malaise, little plot and an eventual epiphanic moment — Voilà! Grad school workshop 101. Considering Chabon’s status as a “safe” writer (one wouldn’t mistake him for avant-garde), he’s bold in telling writers of literary fiction to get off their high (and exhausted) horses and acknowledge that reading can, in fact, be entertaining.

Yet here’s where things get dicey. Chabon’s aim as a writer is to create a more pleasurable read. (“Lunch counters, muffler shops, dinner theater, they aim to please; but writers?”) What this assumes is that writers of difficult fiction are being intentionally unpleasant. This line of thought harkens back to Jonathan Franzen’s infamous “Mr. Difficult” essay, where the Franz just couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea that people — real living people — could, and do, enjoy reading William Gaddis. Chabon’s own position isn’t so alienating; at the heart of things, he is nostalgic for a time when writers could write for the fun of it and, if they did so well, could still be taken seriously. Think Henry James and his ghost stores; Nathaniel Hawthorne and his mysteries.

There is also, however, the troubling notion that Chabon, whose forays into genre-bending fiction have been successful and quite good, is a little late to the party. Anyone can look around the scene of contemporary literary fiction and see the cocktail mixings of genre happening fairly regularly: Jonathan Lethem, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster. Dig further back and there’s more of the same: Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, Alain Robbe-Grillet, all the way down to Raymond Chandler and H.P. Lovecraft.

Happily, though, Chabon seems aware of the history that precedes and surrounds him, and does well to tip his hat to his forebears. In reading these essays, one senses Chabon’s elation at having broken free of the shackles of mainstream literary fiction; there are standards in being taken seriously in that world, and Chabon met them well with his earlier stories and novels. Still, there’s a balance between the two that his essay collection sorely lacks.

On one hand, there’s Chabon’s slavish dedication to geekdom; on the other, there’s his need to retain his lit cred. The essays, at times, lend themselves more to the task of establishing Chabon’s cultural currency and less to their subject. Rarely is an opportunity squandered for Chabon to point out that he read this or that comic as a kid, that he was into fantasy and sci-fi since he was able to read. It comes off as posturing, like “Look, I’ve liked this stuff all along! I’m a nerd, too!”

When Chabon isn’t trying to justify his membership in the genre world and simply writes about his passion for the craft, his essays are a happy reminder of the boundlessness of storytelling, regardless of what form it takes. In an essay on American Flagg!, Howard Chaykin’s legendary (yet regrettably out-of-print) comic series, Chabon’s exhilaration is evident. The same can be said for Chabon’s essay on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which explores, adroitly, the manner in which literary circles tend to hold works of genre-meshing away from their noses as if it were a soiled diaper. Chabon stumbles only in his over-bearing presence as his essay’s central figure. He’s more compelling when explaining Chaykin’s importance to the genre, rather than Chaykin’s importance to Chabon.

There’s also something discordant about what Chabon’s selling here. Let’s face it: With all his success as a writer, Chabon has carte blanche. And the main reason he has the ability to do whatever he pleases, write adventure and crime novels, even dabble in comics, is due to the “bourgeois fiction” that made him a literary sensation. These essays find him trying too hard; even when he discusses the inception of his first novel — the one that received critical acclaim and sold like hotcakes — he can’t pass up the opportunity to mention that he wanted to write something along the lines of Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges, but was pressured into writing like F. Scott Fitzgerald. His folly is in defending how he belongs when, really, he should allow his work to speak for itself.

 

 

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