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Choose Your Own Adventure
Jews with swords.
Alan Jacobs

Monday, August 31, 2009

Michael Chabon's brief 2007 novel Gentlemen of the Road is the kind of story invariably described as "swashbuckling." It involves swordplay, axeplay, horsetheft, mysterious potions, damsels in disguise as well as distress, and, to speak generally, the full panoply of effects common to the kind of boy's adventure story that had its heyday a hundred years ago—though it must be said that few of those older tales, as I recall, were set near the end of the first Christian millennium and in the region of Central Asia dominated by the Khazars, that strange tribe of converts to Judaism; nor did the damsels of such books curse like drunken sailors. The story has chapters with titles like "On Anxieties Arising from the Impermissibility, However Unreasonable, of an Elephant's Rounding Out a Prayer Quorum." It is not remotely the sort of book that anyone would have predicted from Chabon when, twenty-one years ago, he published his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

Chabon knows this, and adds an afterword to Gentlemen of the Road in which—having noted that his working title for the book was Jews with Swords—he comments on the turn his career has taken:

As recently as ten years ago I had published two novels, and perhaps as many as twenty short stories, and not one of them featured weaponry more antique than a (lone) Glock 9mm. None was set any earlier than about 1972 or in any locale more far-flung or exotic than a radio station in Paris, France. Most of those stories appeared in sedate, respectable, and generally sword-free places like The New Yorker and Harper's, and featured unarmed Americans undergoing the eternal fates of contemporary short-story characters—disappointment, misfortune, loss, hard enlightenment, moments of bleak grace. Divorce; death; illness; violence, random and domestic; divorce; bad faith; deception and self-deception; love and hate between fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire; divorce— I guess that about covers it. Story, more or less, of my life.

Chabon insists that he doesn't repudiate any of that work. He just wants to contend that it is perfectly reasonable for him to do what he did in writing Gentlemen of the Road: take off "in search of a little adventure."

Chabon's collection of essays, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, is probably best understood as an extended, entertaining defense of readerly and writerly adventure—and of the sheer pleasure that such adventure often brings. Essential to this defense is a thoughtful and loving account of the ways that children read. And there is one other important element to Chabon's argument—if we can call it an argument—that we will return to at the end of our own little adventure.

After a brief survey of the modern short story that makes many of the same points as the afterword to Gentlemen of the Road—and exhorts writers not to fear "entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure"—Chabon moves on to the title essay, in which he recalls his early life in the planned city of Columbia, Maryland. What most fascinates him as he remembers those years, what provides an ongoing metaphor for his thoughts about reading and writing, is the fact that the founders of Columbia had laid out neighborhoods and streets and given them names—Phelps Luck (a Neighborhood), Harper's Choice (a Village), Newgrange Garth (a Street)—before anyone lived there. The "maps and legends" of Columbia invited those who viewed them to imagine the worlds they only slightly and vaguely invoked.

In another essay Chabon comments,

Readers of Tolkien often recall the strange narrative impulse engendered by those marginal regions named and labeled on the books' endpaper maps, yet never visited or even referred to by the characters in The Lord of the Rings. All enduring popular literature has this open-ended quality, and extends this invitation to the reader to continue, on his or her own, with the adventure. Through a combination of trompe l'oeil illusions, of imaginative persistence of vision, it creates a sense of an infinite horizon of play, an endless game board; it spawns, without trying, a thousand sequels, diagrams, and Web sites.

Maps and legends again. Chabon was initiated into this experience, encountered this "strange narrative impulse," when he read his first Sherlock Holmes story. "I was born the first time in Georgetown University Hospital, in 1963," he writes, "and the second time ten years later, in the opening pages of 'A Scandal in Bohemia.' " Almost immediately he sat down to write his own Holmesian adventure, faithfully narrated by Dr. Watson. And so Michael Chabon became a writer.

But a decade later, as "an English Major, and a regular participant in undergraduate fiction-writing workshops, I was taught—or perhaps in fairness it would be more accurate to say I learned—that science fiction was not serious fiction, that a writer of mystery novels might be loved but not revered, that if I meant to get serious about the art of fiction I might set a novel in Pittsburgh but never on Pluto." This is no criticism of Pittsburgh, mind you, but simply a plea for the fictional possibilities of Pluto. Or the largely imaginary London of Holmes and Watson. It is pleasant in light of this narrative to recall Chabon's extraordinary short novel of 2004, The Final Solution, which features as its protagonist an old man, a retired detective who now lives in a small cottage on the Sussex Downs and keeps bees, whose once-world-famous deductive powers are not, it proves, diminished beyond recall or use. Perhaps the novel means less as a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than as an act of reconciliation with Chabon's ten-year-old self. You were right all along, kid.

In a sense, Chabon writes, "all literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeneid onward, is fan fiction. That is why Harold Bloom's notion of the anxiety of influence has always rung so hollow to me … . All novels are sequels; influence is bliss." Influence is bliss because reading is bliss, and one of the gifts this book brings is its exploration of writers—as varied as Cormac McCarthy and Philip Pullman—for whom other books, previous books, are living beings with which (with whom) we converse and from whom we draw both instruction and delight. They have the breath of life in them, like Adam inspired by God, or the golems brought to life by the rabbis of old.

The Golem—in Jewish legend, a clay figure animated by prayer and incantation and a Divine Word inserted into its mouth or inscribed on its forehead—is a central figure for Chabon. The most fanciful essay in this collection is called "Golems I Have Known." One makes an appearance in his 2001 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which was perhaps Chabon's first major act of homage to his past, devoted as it is to the making of comic books. (Chabon was addicted to comics as a child, still writes about them today—several of the essays in Maps and Legends concern comics—and was a co-screenwriter for Spiderman 2.) But perhaps I should say not his past but his identity, for Chabon is Jewish, and as often as he notes, in these essays, his long neglect of his childhood reading habits, he equally often notes his years of neglecting his Judaism. The longest essay here is an autobiographical one on just this subject, and borrows its title from another literary exile, Salman Rushdie: "Imaginary Homelands."

This is that "other important element" of Chabon's argument that I promised I would deal with, and what is most extraordinary about it is its complex intertwining with all the other stuff we've been talking about. The Final Solution is set in 1944, and brings the elderly Sherlock Holmes into contact with a German Jewish refugee and, indirectly, with the world of the death camps—thus the shocking and, for a faithful reader of the book, deeply moving double meaning of the title. Similarly, The Yiddish Policeman's Union is an alternate-history tale, a hard-boiled detective story, and a meditation on the history of Judaism, with its unique weaving of persistence and tragedy.

It may not seem to you or me that these themes necessarily belong together; we may believe that it is simply an accident of personal history that Chabon finds himself, in the midst of his career and with four children of his own, simultaneously rethinking his childhood reading habits and his Judaism. But in that afterword to Gentlemen of the Road—or Jews with Swords—with which I began this review, Chabon offers the extraordinarily suggestive idea that there is an intrinsic connection after all:

The story of the Jews centers around— one might almost say that it stars—the hazards and accidents, the misfortunes and disasters, the feats of inspiration, the travail and despair, and intermittent moments of glory and grace, that entail upon journeys from home and back again. For better or worse it has been one long adventure—a five-thousand-year Odyssey—from the moment of the true First Commandment, when God told Abraham lech lecha: Thou shalt leave home. Thou shalt get lost. Thou shalt find slander, oppression, opportunity, escape, and destruction. Thou shalt, by definition, find adventure.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of Original Sin: A Cultural History (HarperOne) and Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life (Eerdmans).