Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

May 25th, 2008 at 1:02 pm

Cover of Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

After reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay some years ago, I promptly became a devoted disciple of Michael Chabon. If I was well read and given to making sweeping generalizations, I would be inclined to declare Chabon the greatest living writer. Such as it is, I avoid committing to sweeping generalizations and still have a lot more reading to do before I declare a Greatest Living Writer. And by then they’ll be dead so I’ll have to keep reading. Alas,

I recommend Kavalier and Clay to anyone who listens (and even to some who don’t). But when recommending Kavalier and Clay, I always recommend a supplementary volume to accompany one’s reading of Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel: a dictionary. You see, Michael Chabon has an extensive vocabulary. Saying that Chabon knows a lot of words would be like saying the ocean has a lot of water molecules in it. The dude’s diction is hot! And don’t get me started on the boy’s syntax. That shit is off the hook, dawg.

Word Choice. It’s kind of what writers are supposed to be good at. But Chabon is better. His sentences and words are just always so damn perfect. As an aspiring writer, Chabon intimidates me to no end because I know I will never be as good as him. If I were a writer, I would want to write like him. But Chabon already writes like Chabon, so what’s the point, right? I read Chabon and find myself muttering slurs to him out of sheer disdain and jealousy.

Chabon has been a bit prolific as of late. Following Kavalier and Clay, there was Final Solution. Then The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Then Gentlemen of the Road. And now Maps and Legends, his first work of non-fiction. And with Maps and Legends, Chabon has not relented with his impressive vocabulary. There are words like arriviste, appurtenances, pasquinade, asymptotically, punctilio, priggish, peregrinations, bathyspheric, aetataureate, and empyrean. But some words are even too obscure for Chabon, so he defines them. Which he does upon using anagnorisis (moment of recognition). His definitions sometimes serve a point, as they do when he reminds us that excoriated literally means “to have one’s skin removed.”

At one point Chabon uses the phrase “baby murder.” This usage struck me as odd. Why didn’t he use “infanticide?” “Infanticide” is a perfectly fine word. But upon further counsel and thought, I decided that “baby murder” was a far superior choice of words. “Baby murder” captures a sentiment in the reader that “infanticide” would not. And that is Chabon’s great skill. He knows all the words and he knows how to use them and when to use them and when to use their definitions.

Published by McSweeney’s, Maps and Legends is a simply beautiful book. McSweeney’s seems to be settling on a cohesive aesthetic because the cover of Maps and Legends carries striking similarities to Bowl of Cherries with its partial dust jacket that reveals the actual book cover. Which I’m a fan of. I hate dust jackets. They’re so stupid. Why do we need them? That’s why What is the What is so great. Besides being a fantastic book, it has no dust jacket. Just a small band on the back cover for blurbs.

Throughout the essays that comprise Maps and Legends, Chabon champions “genre fiction” in general and ghost stories, science fiction, graphic novels, short stories, and comics in particular. The very first essay is a true winner with Chabon analyzing the modern short story, the entertainment industry and encouraging all of us to be better readers and critics. He provides some analysis of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and even weighs in on the recent spate of fibbing memoirists with a story of his own that acknowledges his vocation as a “professional liar.” Chabon describes this particular essay’s subject as “the interrelationship between truth and lies, memory and invention, history and story, memoir and fiction, the sources of narrative and the storytelling impulse; the inevitable fate of liars to be swallowed up or crushed by their lies; and the risks inherent both in discounting the power of outright fiction to reveal the truths of a life, and in taking at face value the fictions that writers of memoir present as fact.”

Get Michael Chabon on Oprah. James Frey wishes he was this articulate and eloquent.

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One Response to “Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon”

  1. thank you for the lovww=
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