Image from The Fire Wire
Is the cover of this book not amazing? I’m always inspired by Frances at Nonsuch Book; she posts the most intriguing books and book design. When I started blogging, I knew I would have to feature this book’s art first and foremost. The photos above really do not do it justice. This is one of the most intricate, beautiful books I’ve ever owned. If you’re lucky enough to land one somewhere, hang on to it. Jordan Crane did the cover art, and it truly is art. [Maps and Legends is a collection of essays published by Michael Chabon in 2008.]
Ah, the essay. I think about essays constantly. I teach essay writing. I write essays. I enjoy reading essays. However, over the last few years, I have noticed that essay writers can be the most pretentious, self-important writers out there. A well-crafted essay is probably one of the most difficult things to write. The writer must be succinct but engaging. Very often, the essay topic is interesting to only a small subset of the population. Most importantly, there is just enough space to diverge from the main topic to explore other tangents, but the writer must once again come back to his or her main point.
My most recent brush with Michael Chabon was in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The experience was mixed as I really liked the story and some of the characters but felt Chabon’s voice was very present in the text, distractingly so. Of course, in this book of his essays, Chabon’s voice is ever present. While there were many points on which we agreed, that pretentious voice still irked the hell out of me. Overall, though, the essays did everything I require – they were entertaining, well written (although a bit wordy), and varied.
I almost wholly agree with his essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story,” wherein he explores genre, saying:
And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre …. is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult reader only as “guilty pleasures” (a phrase I loathe). A genre implies a set of conventions – a formula – and conventions imply limitations (the argument goes), and therefore no genre work can ever rise to the masterful heights of true literature, free (it is to be supposed) of all formulas and templates.
Bang on, Chabon. I’m right there with you, but wait…
Like most people who worry about whether it’s better to be wrong or pretentious when pronouncing the word “genre,” I’m always on the lookout for a chance to drop the name of Walter Benjamin. I had planned to do so here. I intended to refer to Benjamin’s bottomless essay “The Storyteller,” and to try to employ the famous distinction he makes…
Yeah – see, I did not even have to call him pretentious; he knows he is. And, he goes on to talk about Walter Benjamin… namedropper. Of course, before you think me moronic and incapable of reading his sardonic voice, let me skip to another section of the same essay:
I’d like to believe that, because I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on about the storytelling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. A spritz of Jung might scent the air. I could adduce Kafka’s formula…
Aaand, we’re back to pompous ass. His voice, particularly in this passage, reminds me of oh-so-many insecure graduate students, just learning theory. No longer is a story a story. Suddenly, it takes on so many theoretical contexts that not even they are capable of finding their way out of the rabbit hole.
This is not to say that each essay is unfulfilling. The first, already referenced essay regarding the short story is wonderful. There are also several essays devoted to the writing process and Chabon’s first and second novels.He discusses Sherlock Holmes, Cormac McCarthy, and Will Eisner, while also exploring his fascination with Golems in an essay entitled, “Golems I Have Known, or Why My Elder Son’s Middle Name is Napoleon.” The Eisner essay is short but fantastic, and Chabon’s love of anything comic book related definitely comes through.
One of my favorite passages discusses a popular topic, the inevitability of lies in fiction.
There is a contract between the writer of fiction and the readers he or she lies to, as there is between a magician and the audience he hoodwinks; they are in it together. They are helping each other to bring a story to apparent life or an edible orange to grow from the branch of a clockwork tree.
And, in “The Recipe for Life,” he expands on this idea:
Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction, and the marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed…. If a writer doesn’t give away secrets, his own or those of the people he loves…if the writer submits his work to an internal censor … the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth….[T]he writer shapes his story, flecked like river clay with the grit of experience and rank with the smell of human life, heedless of the danger to himself, eager to show his powers, to celebrate his mastery, to bring into being a little world that, like God’s is at once terribly imperfect and filled with astonishing life.
I know there are many readers out there who steer clear of essay collections. However, I have enjoyed them for years. Similar to a collection of short stories, you can pick the book up for one essay before bed or on a lunch break, without losing the flow of the story, as in a novel. This book has been on my bedside table for weeks, and I have picked through it, skimming the ones that I couldn’t relate to (I’ve never read The Golden Compass, so his essay about it was not for me) and relishing the ones that piqued my interest. This particular collection was coherent and enjoyable, and I am curious if anyone else out there has read it. If so, what were your thoughts?