Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Ghosts of Nostalgia

Let me tell you about a lovely little book I picked up yesterday morning, and have just finished this evening: the collection of debut nonfiction from Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends.

Chabon, for those of you unfamiliar, is the author of, most notably, the novels Wonder Boys, the Pulitzer Prize winning The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and most recently, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

I was introduced to Chabon by my beloved, long-lost high school boyfriend, who is almost single-handedly responsible for my induction into the literature of coolness. I had seen the film adaptation of Wonder Boys, but I was skeptical about his rants on Chabon’s most recent work at the time, Kavalier and Clay. I even remember buying him his copy in Barnes and Noble during a birthday gift exchange—I bought him the Chabon, he bought me Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. Both novels are very dear to me, for several reasons. Now I work for the company that published Middlesex, and although said ex-boyfriend refuses to speak to me, I cannot discuss Chabon without thinking of him.

In fact, Chabon’s first collection of nonfiction is largely about nostalgia and its effect not only on our literatures but our day-to-day existence. There are several themes present here: the Golem and Jewish mysticism, the state of the genre novel, the short story, the act of writing, and of course, comics. It feels appropriate that Chabon chooses his essay on “entertainment” as the first in this book, as I have often described The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay as “one of the most entertaining novels I have ever read.”

Here. He puts it much better than I can:

“Yet entertainment—as I define it, pleasure and all—remains the only sure means we have of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else. The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience, and the universal hunger for connection.”

This connection, between author and author, reader and author, reader and reader, is exactly what makes reading one of the most pleasurable activities for the active mind. Again, Chabon: “Through parody and pastiche, allusion and homage, retelling and reimagining the stories that we were told before us that we have come of age loving—amateurs—we proceed, seeking out the blank places in the map that our favorite writers, in their greatness and negligence, have left for us, hoping to pass on to our own readers—should we be lucky enough to find any—some of the pleasure that we ourselves have taken in the stuff we love: to get in on the game. All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.”

Chabon speaks frequently throughout these essays about an aching feeling of homelessness and loneliness that drives his compulsion to write. His identity as a Jew ties him to a tradition and to a people who have struggled to maintain their existence. Chabon, in his loneliness, claims to feel tied to historical events and people that occurred and existed many years before his birth, as if his feeling of nostalgia reaches far back beyond his childhood and into history itself. And not only is Chabon’s love for all things Jewish is similar to my obsession with Judaism (someday I will write about my Jew fetish on this blog, I promise), his is a description of an emotion that I have grappled with my entire life. Chabon, in 222 pages, has articulated both its nature and its necessity through a range of literatures almost anyone can enjoy. No small feat.

The collection closes with a memoir, which, according to Chabon, is nothing more than a pack of lies. What else, then, is fiction, if nothing but a pack of lies, a false communication between other minds and even ourselves, a imagining of what-could-have-been or what-will-be? Literature, then, is the most pleasant (or most cutting) form of nostalgia. Its glow follows us everywhere, in the stories we tell, and in others' stories that we decide to keep.

1 comment:

Bookhouse said...

I read the Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and said to myself, “he wrote this book for me to read”. He’s that guy, the “I want to be like him” guy. This was the book that only mattered because I had read it, and I applied to graduate school the day I finished it after putting that off for a year. It was time to write. It is very as you say about the relationships books create between readers, writers, and whomever.

Strange thing is I have not read another book he’s written since then, not even the comic series. I’d already read Wonder Boys before K&C, because the movie was so good (another RDJ affair afterall), but I got lost in the lists of reading I had to do for my MFA, which was wide as all, but allowed for little depth.

This is going near the top of the stack.