Forewords, prefaces and afterwords rank squarely among literature’s stepchildren — above marginalia and non-David Foster Wallace footnotes perhaps but below prologues and postscripts. For many readers they’re makeweight puffery, eminently skippable, a lot of throat-clearing and flapdoodle. A collection of such squibs might be a tough sell even if its author is acclaimed litterateur Michael Chabon.
Chabon concedes as much in his “meta-introduction” to “Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros.” The proportion of readers prepared to waylay themselves with an introduction approximates the proportion of consumers willing to futz “with user manuals before … powering up the widget,” he suspects. And spare a thought for the humble afterword — literature’s caboose. Who sticks around for that? For a hint of what those of us outside the golden circle of overachievement are missing, Chabon obligingly taxonomizes the merits of felicitous forewords. They may be “transitive: acts of seduction that are at the same time documents of earlier seductions,” or, in a good way, “parasitical,” upstaging “their hosts.” The finest prefaces and afterwords, meanwhile, are “restorative. They unstopper the vial that contains, like some volatile oil, the fragrance of the time in which the prefaced work was engendered, conceived, or written, summoning for writer and reader alike a sensuous jolt of things past.” But does uncoupling such hurrahs, homages, raves and rhapsodies from the works they accessorize and cobbling them together yield a volume that satisfies on its own? Most readers will likely never have heard of much of the arcana eulogized in “Bookends.” Chabon has long channeled his inner fanboy, flaunting obscure passions and inspirations in his novels. And aficionados will find familiar preoccupations — comic books, superheroes, sci-fi, fantasy. But non-heads may blank on Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson. Stated otherwise: Is “Bookends” strictly for the Chabon completist?
I’d recommend it for the Chabon greenhorn on up. Chabon has never been precious or stingy with his talent; he’s unspooled it from a single skein, whether in essays, columns, even — for DJ-producer Mark Ronson — liner notes (a species of foreword and reproduced in “Bookends”) or novels. “The primary motivation for writing introductions,” he explains, is of a piece with “everything I write: a hope of bringing pleasure to the reader.” The strongest entries in this compilation emphatically afford this — ignorance of their subjects no object.
“Bookends” reveals in full measure the avid fandom flickering around the edges of much of Chabon’s fiction. Eschewing hermetic analysis, he recounts the sensation of encountering a work of art.
Here, he recollects the feeling of reading Greek myths after millennia “of moralizers, preceptors, dramatists, hypocrites and scolds” have had their way in mediating them for our consumption:
“The original darkness was still there, and it was still very dark indeed. But it had been engineered, like a fetid swamp by the Army Corps, rationalized, bricked up, rechanneled, given a dazzling white coat of cement. It had been turned to the advantage of people trying to make a point to recalcitrant listeners.”
And he makes short work of evoking for the uninitiated the aesthetic of the Ben Katchor comic strip, “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer” — “a dyspeptic, masculine world the color of the stained lining of a hat.”
Elsewhere, he compares ghost-story master M.R. James in his unwitting use of recondite post-modern devices in service of the workaday task of frightening the wits out of his readers to a “casual, gentleman tinkerer yoking a homemade anti-gravity drive to the derailleurs of his bicycle because he is tired of being late to church every Sunday.”
And prefacing shards from an abandoned early novel, Chabon describes exhuming it from his computer and beholding “a strangely intact record of my life during the time I was writing the book, a bubble of ancient air trapped in the caulked hull of the sunken novel,” before giving up the ghost: “the great brined and barnacled hulk sank back to the silence and dark.”
Then there’s the preface to his novel “Summerland” that detours into a meditation on his “sense,” as a nostalgia fiend (“… who cannot make it from one end of a street to another without being momentarily upended by some fragment of outmoded typography, curve of chrome fender, or whiff of lavender hair oil from the pate of a semi-retired neighbor …,” he writes elsewhere), “of belatedness” — “perhaps … an artifact or hangover of the evolution of consciousness itself, of the descent of homo sapiens from the smooth, continuous flow of animal time into human time, discontinuous and pulsing like a watch-works with the awareness of mortality. Perhaps a child or grandchild of the first hominid to abandon the forest canopy for the forest floor looked up, one ancient African evening, at the sunlight that was fading in the treetops overhead, and felt just the way I felt …”
Besides such numinous musing is dead-eyed observation — for instance, a beloved literary mentor shod in “the kind of tan hybrid of sneaker and Oxford shoe favored by elder-hostlers.”
Corralled between covers for the first time a thread runs through these pieces: In their paeans to formative influences, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young [Nerd]” meets Jonathan Lethem’s “Ecstasy of Influence” refracted through Henry Miller’s “The Books in My Life.”
“Bookends” wobbles and sags in places. Chabon can frustrate as well as beguile. A disquisition on superhero outfits is logorrheic — “Thus, while claiming, on the one hand, a dubiously ahistorical, archetypal source for the superhero idea in the Jungian vastness of legend, we dissolve its true universality in a foaming bath of periodized explanations, and render the superhero and his costume a time-fixed idea that is always already going out of fashion.”
Still, in an age of algorithmic “based on your viewing history” recommendation engines, it offers — with all the serendipity, and redundancy, this entails — the gleanings of an idiosyncratic, omnivorous human mind: a destination unto itself but also a gateway to the work of others.
“Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros”
Harper Perennial, 192 pp., $16.99
Phillips has written for the Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Financial Times, Times Higher Education and other outlets.