MAPS AND LEGENDS 

by Michael Chabon

McSweeney's

978-1-932416-89-3

222pp/$24.00/March 2008

Maps and Legends
Cover by Jordan Crane

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


In Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon collects many of his essays on writing and popular culture. A Pulitzer Prize winner for his 2000 novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Chabon has long been known as an aficionado of pop culture, ranging from comics to Sherlock Holmes to genre fiction.  All of these are addressed in the essays which comprise Maps and Legends, many of which originally appeared in The New York Review of Books.

Many of the essays deal with Chabon's own influences.  "Trickster in a Suit of Lights" looks at the view of popular fiction (or any popular entertainment) taken by academics who tend to dismiss it out of hand, without seeing the way it introduces the same concepts as more "erudite" fiction does. From here, Chabon looks at the power maps have on the imagination and his boyhood love of mythology and the Sherlock Holmes stories, the latter of which he indulged in his novel The Final Solution.  

Four of the essays, "On Daemons & Dust," "The Killer Hook," "Dark Adventure" and "The Other James" focus entirely on individual works by other authors, Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials," Howard Chaykin's comic American Flagg!, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and M.R. James's "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad." Unlike reviews, these essays completely stand on their own, providing an in depth summary of the books and then a detailed examination of themes and characterizations which occur in the books. These essays, however, work best for readers who are already familiar with the works which are being discussed.

Comics, of course, form the basis for several of the essays, from the aforementioned "The Killer Hook" to "Kids' Stuff" in which Chabon notes that one of the problems with modern comics is that they've strayed too far from their roots as a literature aimed at kids, even as they become more and more acceptable as a form of literature.  "Landsman of the Lost" is a look at the work of Ben Katchor, whose work on the comic Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer certainly is not one of the comics aimed at children. Chabon's "Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner," of course, looks at the life and work of the seminal figure in comic book art.

Several of the essays, especially the final five in the book, are autobiographical in nature, often mixing details of Chabon's life with details of his career as an author.  While this is mostly the focus of "My Back Pages," it holds true for all of these pieces.  The final one, however, includes a strong mix of fiction as Chabon relates his various encounters with golems throughout his life.  While he notes that he never really saw a golem (and other parts of the essay "Golems I Have Known" are fictitious as well), golems have played an important role in his writing.

The essays included in Maps and Legends offer insight into Chabon which may be seen as more autobiographical than his novels.  The essays are all short and none overstay their welcome.  In fact, the sixteen essays that fill just over 200 pages allow the reader to finish the collection before the reader is really ready to put the book down.


Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story The Other James
Maps and Legends Landsman of the Lost
Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner
Ragnarok Boy My Back Pages
On Daemons & Dust Diving into the Wreck
Kids' Stuff The Recipe for Life
The Killer Hook: Howard Chaykin's American Flagg! Imaginary Homelands
Dark Adventure: On Cormac McCarthy's The Road Golems I Have Known, or, Why My Elder Son's Middle Name is Napoleon

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