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Book Review

With essays, Chabon explores the byways of writing in America

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert Braile
August 13, 2008

Maps and Legends
By Michael Chabon
McSweeney's Books, 200 pp., $24

Michael Chabon is fascinated with life "along the borderlands," those perilous regions between and beyond what we claim to know. In these intriguing essays, he strolls through this netherworld, taking up topics from golems to suburbia.

Sometimes, the topic is literary form, like the ghost story and the epic fantasy. For instance, in "Trickster in a Suit of Lights," an allusion to Lewis Hyde's "Trickster Makes This World," Chabon says the short story has fallen out of favor with readers but can be revived. "Trickster haunts the boundary lines, the margins, the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore. And that is where, if it wants to renew itself in the way that the novel has done so often in its long history, the short story must, inevitably, go," he writes.

Elsewhere, Chabon examines comic books, writing for example in "The Killer Hook" of Howard Chaykin's "American Flagg!" that it "stands at the glorious midpoint, at that difficult fulcrum between innocence and experience, romance and disillusion, adventure and satire, the unashamedly commercial and the purely aesthetic, between the stoned, rangy funkiness of the Seventies and the digitized cool of the present day, between a time when outrage was a moral position and a time when it has become a way of life. Such balancing acts have always been the greatest feats of American popular art."

Many essays draw on Chabon's personal history, from the books he read as a boy, to his early years as a novelist, to his search as a contemporary Jew for a literal as well as figurative homeland, to his preoccupation with the idea that writers are imperiled by their own creations. In "Ragnarok Boy," for instance, he writes about his childhood love of a book of Norse myths that illuminated for him the tumultuous 1960s, especially through Loki, "the god of my own mind as a child, with its competing impulses of vandalism and vision, of imagining things and smashing them."

Chabon writes, "We all grew up - all of us, from the beginning - in a time of violence and invention, absurdity and Armageddon, prey and witness to the worst and the best in humanity, in a world both ruined and made interesting by Loki. I took comfort, as a kid, in knowing that things had always been as awful and as wonderful as they were now, that the world was always on the edge of total destruction, even if, in Maryland in 1969, as today, it seemed a little more true than usual."

Chabon is an accomplished fiction writer, having won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." This essay collection is his first. While interesting, many of the 16 pieces can be tedious, largely because of tortured phrasing. Many are also somewhat shallow, skimming whimsically along without probing the ideas they raise. And those ideas are often idiosyncratic. Still, when Chabon shines in "Maps and Legends" he shines brightly, displaying an inquisitive mind at work.

Robert Braile reviews regularly for the Globe.

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