A number of writers have begun to exult in print about the uncanny realms where the influences of pulp and pop (comic books, science fiction and fantasy, mysteries, rock & roll) meld with those “higher” and more established echelons of literature. Michael Chabon, the author of Wonder Boys, 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 subtly and surprisingly 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 with a deft touch to the book’s epigraph, transforming the way we read a Melville quotation about those who have written about whaling before him merely by appending the mischievously explanatory phrase “on the writing of fan fiction.” Chabon’s 16 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 (like Cynthia Ozick’s Ruth Puttermesser, R.N.) was allowed to flourish or where one might catch a glimpse of a zeppelin (“that colophon of alternate-world fiction from Ada to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”) screaming across the sky. In an essay on Sherlock Holmes, Chabon writes:
by Michael Chabon
(McSweeney's; 200 pages; $24)
And yet there is a degree to which, just as all criticism is in essence Sherlockian, all literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeneid onward, is fan fiction. That is why Harold Bloom’s notion of the anxiety of influence has always rung so hollow to me. Through parody and pastiche, allusion and homage, retelling and reimagining the stories that were told before us and that we have come of age loving – amateurs – we proceed, seeking out the blank places in the map that our favorite writers, in their greatness and negligence, have left for us, hoping to pass on to our own readers – should we be lucky enough to find any – some of the pleasure that we ourselves have taken in the stuff we love: to get in on the game. All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.
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 of 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 10 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, an encounter resulting in a peculiar inquiry into history and storytelling.
Maps and Legends is swathed in a marvelous Jordan Crane dust jacket with three blue, green and yellow-gold layers, populated with storybook characters scattered within the scenery, each of which can be peeled back to reveal – what else? – the letter “x” to mark the title. 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 email@example.com