The literary entertainer

By David Herman, March 25, 2010
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Michael Chabon: novelist with an original, individual, critical voice

Michael Chabon: novelist with an original, individual, critical voice

Manhood for Amateurs
By Michael Chabon
Fourth Estate, £16.99

Maps and legends
By Michael Chabon
Fourth Estate, £8.99

One night, a friend told the young Michael Chabon he had no sense of sadness and he never would. This points to an interesting truth about Chabon's generation and the great Jewish-American writers who came before them. Writers like Miller and Bellow grew up in the Depression. Mailer and Heller fought in the Second World War. They wrote about the immigrant neighbourhoods and the Holocaust. Big history was part of their experience. But what had younger writers like Chabon known? They grew up in the suburbs in the 1970s, watched TV, went to college, had kids and wrote books.

For their big subjects, they increasingly turned to Jewish history, in novels like Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, Nicole Krauss's The History of Love and Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Final Solution and The Yiddish Policeman's Union.

Chabon is certainly one of the best of this bright, smart generation of Jewish-American writers and probably the most prolific and wide-ranging. These two delightful books of essays confirm his position as one of the best writers of the past 20 years.

Maps and Legends is a short, entertaining book of essays. Devotees will enjoy the material on the background to some of Chabon's novels - for example, how his chance encounter with a new edition of Say it in Yiddish, a phrase-book, made him think what it would be like to live in a contemporary society where everyone spoke Yiddish, in some improbable place like Alaska, which led to The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

The other pieces, all lively and accessible, fall into two groups. First, there are essays on comics, a lifelong passion. The others are about literature, a quirky selection including gothic and horror in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, the ghost stories of MR James and, best of all, superb essays on Sherlock Holmes and Norse legends. Chabon has an original voice as a critic. He doesn't have time for academic critics and other cultural policemen. He has his own pantheon, including several English-speaking writers on the supernatural and, above all, writers of adventure stories.

The essays are full of illuminating insights: the two traditions which follow either Milton or Tolkien, how Conan Doyle transformed the short story and how MR James's ghost stories are haunted by the casualties of the First World War.

The book takes a Jewish turn as Chabon starts to write more "as a Jew and as a teller of Jewish stories", as well as a lover of genre fiction - detectives, ghosts, comic heroes. He tells how he has spent "years writing novels and stories about golems and the Jewish roots of American superhero comic books, Sherlock Holmes and the Holocaust, medieval Jewish freebooters…" There was, he says, "really only one investigation all along. One search, with a sole objective: a home, a world to call my own."

Manhood for Amateurs is even more enjoyable, more autobiographical than literary. It is a book of essays about being a man in modern America, "the pleasures and regrets of a husband, father and son." Some pieces smack of post-feminist pieties and read too much like the familiar Saturday magazine New Man column. But Chabon has a terrific turn of phrase and a rare gift for nailing the father as shmendrick. And, perhaps his best subject of all, for bringing to life the pleasures (and terrors) of childhood and adolescence.

These books are a treat, introducing us to a new aspect of Chabon's work, as critic and essayist.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 1:13pm, October 12 2010