From the archives: May 2008

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The Amazing Adventures of Pullman and Conan Doyle

Tuesday, 13 May 2008 — 8:13am | Literature, Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon enthusiasts have had plenty to be excited about of late. Not long ago, Chabon became the rarest of authors to be nominated for a Nebula, a Hugo and an Edgar for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union—a book that I didn’t find as sweeping as his magnum opus, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but stands nonetheless as the apotheosis of his recent efforts to tear down the walls of Genre like it’s ’89 in Berlin (as well as a thumping good detective thriller sprinkled with a healthy metaphoric dose of chess). Then it was announced that the film adaptation is in the hands of none other than the Brothers Coen, a dream pairing of filmmakers and source material if I ever saw one. And then the the draft screenplay that Chabon wrote for Spider-Man 2 hit the Web, finally revealing the extent of his contributions to the film, which were largely what I thought they were (Peter Parker the struggling pizza delivery boy—that sort of thing).

As I write this, I’m leafing through the newly released Maps and Legends, the first collection of Chabon’s literary essays in book form. (The bookshop stocked it in a shrinkwrap to protect Jordan Crane’s ornate three-piece jacket design—a boon for people like me who prefer to keep their books in impeccable condition, but perhaps unsuitable for browsing purposes.) Some of it is familiar to me: among the selections are his Eisner Awards keynote about the decline of children’s comics, his reflections on writing The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and my favourite, an expanded version of his 1997 essay on a bafflingly anachronistic Yiddish phrasebook that not only provided the inspiration for the contemporary Jewish Sitka of TYPU‘s alternate universe, but (hitherto unbeknownst to me) generated a stir of controversy on a Yiddish-language mailing list.

The other selections are quite refreshing; thankfully, they offer a lot more variety than a simple retread of Chabon’s position that serious fiction has dug itself into a hole as a consequence of relegating “entertaining” genres into other holes—though that, too, gets plenty of attention in the opening essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights”. There is an excursion into one of the iconic moments of Chabon’s personal mythos (the abandonment of his would-be second novel, Fountain City), a piece that exalts Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for his mastery of nesting lies within lies along Holmes’ pursuit of the truth, and many a word about the storyteller as both Golem-maker and trickster figure (or Coyote, if you will). The connections to Chabon’s fiction should be obvious to those familiar with his works (respectively, in the preceding sentence: Wonder Boys, The Final Solution, Kavalier & Clay, Summerland), though I imagine the essays stand alone quite admirably. I haven’t read the whole collection, mind you: I deliberately skipped the piece on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, as McCarthy’s jaunt into the well-travelled post-apocalypse resides high on my reading list untouched.

I was immediately drawn, as I would be, to Chabon’s essay on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Before I proceed, I should say that the very thought of Chabon writing about Pullman is almost as exciting to me as Watterson writing about Schulz, which, if you’ll remember, I favourably compared to Beethoven writing about Bach. That said, I come not to praise Chabon (I swear!), though I’m not exactly going to bury him, either.

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