Michael Chabon‘s first collection of essays, appropriately titled Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands (McSweeney’s 2008), charts the largely misunderstood, maligned, and unexplored territories of genre fiction and comic books, so it only stands to reason that this volume has itself been largely misunderstood, maligned, and (perhaps) not (completely) explored by those who have reviewed it in the mainstream media. As a longtime spectator of genre fictions, I was personally intrigued by Chabon’s premise throughout the book: that while “mainstream literary” culture (whatever that means) has a tendency to frown upon such categories as the mystery, science fiction, and romance, works written within these genres tend to be the most adventurous and experimental. In other words, despite its bad reputation, genre fiction is what keeps literature alive. (Not to toot my own horn, of course, but I’ve been making the same observation about independent presses since day one of this blog…)
As the subtitle for this book suggests, invention happens in the “borderlands” between established genres. Thus, like e.e. cummings’ Cambridge ladies with their comfortable minds who live in furnished souls, mainstream literary writers have a tendency to write safe literature that reproduces the status quo. By way of contrast, however, genre writers ranging from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Cormac McCarthy manage to challenge the status quo in various ways. Conan Doyle, for example, blurred the line between reality and fiction by having characters like Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr.Watson, insist at almost every turn that they were not amused at the attention lavished upon them by the public as a result of the publication of the tales of their exploits. Along slightly different lines, McCarthy uses the form of the epic adventure (and, perhaps surprisingly, not the sci-fi epic, as many critics have asserted) to plumb the depths of humanity’s will to survive in The Road.
Other “explorers” Chabon profiles throughout his book are comic book visionaries Will Eisner and Howard Chaykin, English writer Philip Pullman (of The Golden Compass fame, and himself. Indeed, Chabon’s exploration of his own creative processes make for some of the most interesting passages in the book. From his childhood in Columbia, Maryland, where the maps of city planners always preceded reality, through to his ongoing efforts at creating his own worlds in novels like The Mysteries of Pittsiburgh, Wonder Boys, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon’s love for the realms of imagination he has both created and inhabited shines like a beacon. Additionally, Chabon’s exploration of the biographical details surrounding many of his works sheds light not only on the relationship between his own works and real life, but on the relationship between fact and fiction in general. The realm of fiction, it turns out, is a realm that complements our own, a world that adds depth and dimension to the already complex day-to-day universe we inhabit. More importantly, perhaps, it is a realm that has the potential to reshape what we consider reality.