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“Where in God’s name did you come from? Who are you?” burst out Mr. Burton frantically.

“I can’t tell you exactly who I am,” replied the querulous whine, “because I’ve only been born a few hours – but my last name is certainly Button.”

“You lie! You’re an imposter!”

The old man turned wearily to the nurse. “Nice way to welcome a new-born child,” he complained in a weak voice. “Tell him he’s wrong, why don’t you?”

I originally intended to review Walter Scott’s Rob Roy for today, but given the season I have decided to review a series of fantastical stories over the next few days. This was inspired after I read today’s io9 article written by Michael Farrant complaining that there are no decent horror novels out there anymore. I also think I will track down John Lindqvist’s latest novel, as I was very impressed by the English translations of Let the Right One In and Handling the Undead.

As to Benjamin Button well it is a very particular kind of adult fairy tale that treats of the deathless phrase ‘youth is wasted on the young’. Not quite Halloween you might say, but it is no less concerned with that most essential element of horror – our fear of dying.

Roger Button is a young man of means living a respectable life in the city of Baltimore. Happily married and having the good fortune to be able to count on any number of relations belonging to the old families of the antebellum South, he is the very definition of a southern gentleman on the make. So it is an absolute scandal when having booked his wife into a fine modern hospital that the issue of their loins should prove to be Methuseleh himself! The family doctor and the attending staff are convinced that Mr Button has set out to fool them somehow and insist he remove the aged child from the grounds immediately. The infant, whose parents eventually give the name Benjamin, is bemused by all the fuss his arrival has caused. His relationship with his father is forever coloured by that sense of initial shock and embarrassment which his birth caused.

Childhood proves to be quite a dull affair for the young/old Benjamin, who resembles an aged gentlemen of some sixty years or so, but finds himself forced to interact with insensible toy soldiers and playthings that do little to alleviate his boredom. Instead he studies dictionaries and encyclopedias in secret, as well as treating himself to a stolen cigar or two. He may be an infant, but he has the appetites and intelligence of a mature man, something Roger refuses to acknowledge. For the sake of the Button family’s social standing, Benjamin must continue to act like a child. Despite these efforts the myth of a strange child with the appearance of a wizened old man continues to grow. Roger fears he will die of embarrassment.

As Benjamine continues to grow young he discovers his body becoming stronger, his wit more adept. He falls in love for the first time and weathers this further scandal of marrying a bride seemingly twenty years his junior with aplomb. Rejection by the admission’s board of Yale University fills him with a burning desire to revenge himself on that august establishment, but for the mean time he concentrates on running his father’s business. Together the two men share a life in their prime, both appearing to be brothers at fifty. However, despite his condition, Benjamin’s loved ones refused to understand how little control he has over his de-aging. It is not the done thing. For the duration of his existence it becomes clear he will be something of a family embarrassment.

Fitzgerald writes this story in a manner of a wry and worldly children’s storybook. The social mores of Benjamin’s lifetime are treated with good humoured contempt, with the author and the infant Button both bemused at how people care so much about such silly things. For as he becomes younger it is made clear that Benjamin has the right of it, despite swimming against the current in such a seemingly rebellious manner. His ending becomes asurrender into soft thinking and soft flesh, Fitzgerald closing his tale with a flourish.

This edition carries a series of illustrations by Calef Brown that match the ironical nursery book tone of the prose. A wonderfully gentle fable about old age and death.

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre  one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).

My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.

Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.

The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.

When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved  that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.

He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.

This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!

Inspiring, truthful and humorous.

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