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.

For all his admiration of Pullman’s Miltonian cycle—for the expected reason, too: its position as a “literary house on the borderlands” straddling the modes of understanding that govern childhood and adulthood, refusing to ascribe to modern epic fantasy’s presiding weltanschuuang of Tolkienian imitation—Chabon’s enthusiasm dwindles as the books become progressively transparent in their antitheism:

My heart sank as it began to dawn on me, around the time that the first angels begin to show up in The Subtle Knife, that there was some devil in Pullman, pitchfork-prodding him into adjusting his story to suit both the shape of his anti-Church argument (with which I largely sympathize) and the mounting sense of self-importance evident in the swollen (yet withal sketchy) bulk of the third volume and in the decreasing roundedness of its characters.

[…]

That’s the trouble with Plot, and its gloomy consigliere, Theme. They are, in many ways, the enemies of Character, of “roundedness,” insofar as our humanity and its convincing representation are constituted through contradiction, inconsistency, plurality of desire, absence of abstractable message or moral. It’s telling that the epithet most frequently applied to God by the characters in His Dark Materials is “the Authority.” This fits in well with Pullman’s explicit juxtaposition of control and freedom, repression and rebellion, and with his championing of Sin, insofar as Sin equals Knowledge, over Obedience, insofar as that means the kind of incurious acceptance urged on Adam by Milton’s Raphael. But the epithet also suggests, inevitably, the Author, and by the end of His Dark Materials one can’t help feeling that Will and Lyra, Pullman’s own Adam and Eve—appealing, vibrant, chaotic, disobedient, murderous—have been sacrificed to fulfill the hidden purposes of their creator. Plot is fate, and fate is always, by definition, inhuman.

Like many of Pullman’s critics, I think Chabon may have misdirected himself into conflating the author and the work. Pullman’s position is unambiguous: he excoriates C.S. Lewis’ Narnia for its slavish adherence to the nihilism of Christian allegory (a complaint that Tolkien famously shared, though Tolkien’s problem was more concerned with the allegory than the nihilism). Chabon’s argument here is that Pullman commits the same error as Lewis, and that the fulfilment of Lyra’s quest—read as a sort of grand liberation the world from the clutches of theocracy—robs the text of its depth.

I would venture, however, that a lot of the complexity that Chabon valorizes as “the serpent, […] the sheer, unstoppable storytelling drive that is independent of plot outlines and thematic schemes, the hidden story that comes snaking in through any ready crack when the Authority’s attention is turned elsewhere” is almost certainly there by Pullman’s design, and not some mistake of a saving grace wriggling its way out of a predatory Message’s gnashing teeth. Not that it matters, of course; I’ve never been one to put much stock in authorial intention.

Far from an instance of “the eternal battle between the forces of idealist fundamentalism and materialist humanism,” where in the end, everything reduces to Dust, the ethic of His Dark Materials is that the true spirit of humanity lies in the free and unfettered search for pattern, meaning and metaphor—in a word, storytelling. There is, I find, little that is crudely materialistic in a story modelled on the notoriously Janus-faced Paradise Lost (in which we are all drawn to reading Satan as the epic hero, as Chabon rightly admits), set in a world of witches and talking bears, where the serpent-figure is a scientist drawn to the I Ching. It’s fantasy, for crying out loud; the triumph of Reason be damned.

The problem with organized religion is its active resistance to metaphor, and its constriction of the activity of reading to the narrow band of theology (or, if you will have it, tautology). As such, I’ve never interpreted Pullman’s politics as a restriction on the trajectory of his plot; it is, instead, a celebration of the liberty of metaphor, an open invitation to see the very nuances that Chabon unveils in his reading of the books as “a lamentation for the loss, which I fear is irrevocable, of the idea of childhood as an adventure, a strange zone of liberty, walled, perhaps, but with plenty of holes for snakes to get in”—which is, if I ever saw one, a Theme.

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