Monday, May 24, 2010

Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends

It's been almost two months since I've posted here. Spring always sneaks up on me -- all of a sudden, I have yard and garden work again, Derby festivities, and this year, I also picked up some fun side-work writing about live music for Since April, I've been going to more shows, doing interviews with artists, and writing reviews, and I'm still getting used to the new schedule.

It has definitely cut down on my time with other things, although I did manage to follow up Romola with reading Ross King's history of the building of Brunelleschi's Dome, an architectural marvel which looms, literally and figuratively, over much of the history of Florence where Romola is set. I learned a little bit about architecture, and it included some great character studies of Brunelleschi and his artistic rivals. Anyone with an engineering bent of mind would probably enjoy reading about the practical challenges of building such an immense dome, the innovations it required, and the machines that had to be created just to hoist all that material up to the workers.

Right now, I'm reading the essays in Chabon's Maps and Legends, a witty, fun, and very illuminating collection about the act of writing, of reading, and of what fires the imagination. He pays close attention to the subject of "serious" literature as opposed to writing for mere "entertainment." By way of making his case for fiction that is both, he uses Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories as an example, and argues against the rather patronizing attitude of critics, not to mention some readers and writers, toward fiction that gets labeled as genre writing for "entertainment" purposes -- mysteries, fantasy, adventure, and science-fiction.

I loved his essay on The Road by Cormac McCarthy, another example that he uses to extend his argument of serious vs. genre fiction. He posits that The Road is "allowed" into the serious literary fiction club, even though it treats a "fantasy" post-apocalyptic world, peopled by near-mythical figures, because McCarthy is already established as a literary writer and his speculative world hews close to accepted forms: "For the post-apocalyptic is also a mode into which mainstream readers may venture without risking the stain of geekdom."
The status of relative legitimacy enjoyed by the literature of global disaster may in part result from the fig leaf that a satirical or religious purpose provides, and from the congeniality to conventional realism of a world without supercomputers, starships, or eight-foot feline warriors from the planet Kzin.
Chabon obviously is not afraid of the stain of geekdom, as he spends quite a bit of time on comic books and what they have meant to him as a writer. One reason that I'm drawn to him is that he is able to put into just the right words, a lot of what I feel about the reading and writing of books. Of course, he goes the extra step of actually putting those thoughts into practice by writing brilliant, entertaining fictions.

No comments: