Maps and Legends
Michael Chabon chose the dynamic, in-between spaces as the subject of his first nonfiction essay collection, Maps and Legends. “All mystery resides there,” he writes, “in the margins, between life and death, childhood and adulthood, Newtonian and quantum, ‘serious’ and ‘genre’ literature.” Chabon--writer, father, son, Jew--throws his lot with the Gypsies; for him, defined spaces are for those who aspire to extinction.
As a writer, Chabon works in the tense place between creation and destruction, and he compares this process to Golem-making. “‘Golem-making is dangerous,’” he writes, quoting an essay on the subject. “‘Like all major creation it endangers the life of the creator.’” But Chabon understands this self-imperilment as “not only an inevitable, necessary part of writing fiction [but] . . . a sign that I am on the right track.” In writers’ parlance, Chabon “writes toward the things that scare him,” which is as hard to do as it is easy to say.
Chabon explores and experiences his Judaism in the same open, unpredictable way. “It was the Arab side of Israel that I loved,” he writes in response to his first trip to Israel. “Or rather I loved the imperfection of the joint between Jewish and Arab, the patches in the fabric where the reverse showed through.” Home in America, his Jewishness is equally complicated for him: “It is impossible to live intelligently as a member of a minority group in a nation that was founded every bit as firmly on enslavement and butchery as on ideals of liberty and brotherhood and not feel, at least every once in a while, that you can no more take for granted the continued tolerance of your existence here than you ought to take the prosperity or freedom you enjoy.” It’s a testament to Chabon’s genuine discomfort with the seemingly stable that, as a Jew, he voices more concern about Americans than Arabs.
In religion and mythology, it is generally the Creator-God’s nemesis who is in charge of this fecund in-between terrain; Chabon, with unapologetic affection, calls him Trickster. The Trickster is Hermes, Loki, the Coyote, the Raven, and the Judeo-Christian Satan, and Chabon takes a fitting risk extolling this character as misunderstood: “Trickster is always associated with borders, no man’s lands, with crossroads and intersections . . . Trickster goes where the action is, and the action is in the borders between things.”
Not every essay circles these themes so cogently. “Landsman of the Lost” lapses into the heavier, overwritten style for which Chabon is sometimes criticized. But in general the essays are exhilarating examples of a mind active and alive on the page.
On the collection’s last page, Chabon observes it is “between the Empire of Lies and the Republic of Truth, more than along any other frontier on the map of existence, that Trickster makes his wandering way, and either comes to grief or finds his supper, his treasure, his fate.” Chabon travels the same path, and the American literary landscape is infinitely richer for it.