Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Two Books

I haven't read much by Michael Chabon, just The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It's a fine novel, and I've meant to read more of his fiction, but I haven't gotten around to it. Somehow, though, I found a book of his essays, Maps and Legends in the library. I say "somehow" because I didn't run across it while browsing. I went looking for the book and checked it out, though I don't recall how I learned of it. In any case, I found it interesting.

There are three basic topics that he dwells on in these essays. First, there's comic books, of which he's fond. In fact, the protagonists of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay become comic book artists upon immigrating to America. Then, there's the golem. That's interesting too. Something I hadn't thought of before is that the Frankenstein monster story is a gloss of the myth of the golem, and Chabon likens a novel to a golem that the author animates and sets loose in the world. I can see his point, but it doesn't resonate with me in that way.

The most interesting topic that Chabon discusses in his essays is genre fiction, which he likes. As he points out, genre fiction is looked down upon by literary critics and by writers who take themselves seriously. Here's how Chabon puts it. "A detective novelist or a horror writer who made claims to artistry sat in the same chair at the table of literature as did a transvestite cousin at a family Thanksgiving. He was something to be allowed for, indulged, pardoned, excused, his fabulous hat studiously ignored."

That pretty much sums it up, though there are lots of reasons to be disdainful of most genre fiction. As Chabon puts it, "A genre implies a set of conventions -- a formula -- and conventions imply limitations (the argument goes), and therefore no genre work can ever rise to the masterful heights of true literature, free (it is to be supposed) of all formulas and templates." He goes on to add that this is mostly the fault of publishers, who use genre as a marketing tool. I might also add that, in most genre fiction, the writing is just plain bad. It pains me to read it.

However, it's not as simple as all that. So-called literary fiction isn't as free of formulas and templates itself. Take a look at a book of short stories by an author who is acknowledged as someone to be taken seriously. As Chabon points out, they are likely to be mundane and plotless, with a moment-of-truth epiphany at the end. He's right on the mark there, and Chabon admits that he himself has written many such short stories. Of course, he's the product of an MFA program, so he probably didn't have much choice.

I finished another book a few days ago. It was a novel called The Resurrectionist by Jack O'Connell. It's a nice piece of work. I read an earlier novel of his, The Skin Palace, that I didn't much like, but I'm glad I gave him a second chance. The Resurrectionist isn't what you would call a conventional novel. It's about this guy by the name of Sweeney, who has a six-year-old son who is in a coma as a result of an accident. He's moved the son from the care facility where he'd been staying to the Peck Clinic, where they are supposed to be doing cutting edge work on treating patients who are in persistent coma states. Things get weird from there.

There's a parallel story that's going on at the same time. You see, Sweeney's son loved a series of comic books called the Limbo comics, about a traveling band of circus freaks, and Sweeney reads aloud from these books to his comatose son. As soon becomes clear, the events in the comic book parallel those in the real world in a strange, surreal way. I use the word "real" advisedly, since the book is, and I'm using a genre term here, a fantasy. O'Connell would probably prefer the description "magical realism", since fantasy often implies unicorns, busty witches, and imaginary realms. In any case, it's a damned good book, and worth a read.


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