The book is Maps & Legends, the essay is "Trickster in a Suit of Lights," and the subject is the modern short story. Michael Chabon mourns the critical and aesthetic sensibilities that have limited the acceptable literary short story to "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story," as though the greatest ambition of English literature is to imitate the stuff that Joyce himself got tired of writing. Respectable writers used to be free to spin ghost stories and adventures on the high seas, but no longer. And now Chabon proposes the radical idea that pleasure and entertainment are not incompatible with art.
He lists several of his own bright and pleasurable moments of reading, and they include both "a duel to the death with broadswords on the seacoast of ancient Zingara" and "the engagement of the interior ear by the rhythm and pitch of a fine prose style." He name-drops dozens of writers, respectable and less so, with such style and grace that he makes you want to read them—all of them—without making you feel dumb for not having read them already.
What each of these writers has in common—with one another and with Chabon himself—is that they are borderland writers. They can leap nimbly between different worlds and speak the languages of each. They know how to examine the slow and devastating heartbreak of a failing marriage in 1950s suburbia as well as the hazards of atmospheric reentry with space pirates in pursuit. These artists are tricksters. "Trickster goes where the action is, and the action is in the border between things."
There are other marvelous essays, small memoirs, and pseudo-fictions in Chabon's Maps & Legends, but "Trickster" is a brilliantly insightful diagnosis of, and prescription for, contemporary literature. It also clearly tells us what Chabon has been showing us for years. On one hand the guy can win a Pulitzer for geeking out about fictional comic books. On the other, his recent novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, boasts some meticulously realized alternate history as a backdrop to a proudly pulpy and hard-boiled murder investigation. The action is in the border between things, and Michael Chabon is as trustworthy a guide to these territories as tricksters ever get.
William Alexander writes fiction, teaches English, and contributes to Rain Taxi Review of Books.