Manhood for Amateurs, By Michael Chabon, Harper (October 2009)
It is tempting, for those of us with an interest in literary couplehood, to compare Michael Chabon’s new collection of personal essays with his wife’s recent, bestselling memoir on motherhood. Both books examine the couple’s four children, their childrearing philosophies and tactics, their writing, and their marriage. A much-ballyhooed collection of personal writing by a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist will always be of interest, but Chabon’s wife, Ayelet Waldman, is not only herself a novelist and essayist, but also a self-described oversharer whose writings about raising kids have provoked some knock-down, drag-out mommy wars. Also, somewhat irresistibly, she has titled her book Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace.
Reading the two books together does yield some worthwhile nuggets, insights, discrepancies, and overlaps, but it would be a mistake to categorize Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs as a neat, male counterpoint to Bad Mother. Waldman’s book is more or less what it sounds like: a witty examination of society’s expectations for motherhood paired with self-deprecating and occasionally very poignant descriptions of how she 1) fails to fulfill them and 2) agonizes over this failure. But Manhood for Amateurs, despite its title, is as much a meditation about childhood, examined through the prism of Chabon’s experience and that of his four children, as it is a look at contemporary fatherhood or manhood. And, although many of the essays are quite intimate and sometimes funny, the book also seeks to say something universal, and serious-minded, about the interplay between pop culture and the creative imagination.
Chabon is the extraordinarily rare adult who can recall and convey the essence of being a child without superimposing grown-up hindsight too harshly. The time right after dinner in the summertime really is the “magic hour” of being a kid; childhood really is “a branch of cartography” that requires navigating a landscape of wonder, danger, tedium, and interfering adults. Some of his basic insights on how contemporary childhood differs from that of three or four decades ago are familiar—parents micromanage every detail of their children’s schedules, adults are too afraid to let kids play outside unattended, etc.—but Chabon’s prose and rhetoric, characteristically deft and subtle, avoid any hint of sanctimony. When he asserts that “childhood culture—that combination of lore and play—is now the trademarked property of adults,” and that children’s movies, toys, and books have become “like butlers of the imagination, ready to serve every need or desire as it occurs,” he doesn’t come off as curmudgeonly. Rather, he sounds genuinely devastated that his own children and their peers are missing out on an essential attribute of his own childhood, the fact that even crappy TV shows of the 1970s left room for ambiguity and inventiveness, resisted, to paraphrase his metaphor, putting up border walls in the wondrous wilderness of children’s imaginations.
Though plenty of grown-ups nowadays, in a sort of anti-helicopter parent rebellion, romanticize and fetishize the wonders of make-believe, Chabon isn’t one of them. He knows from his own creative experience that one generation’s crap is the source of another’s artistic inspiration, and believes ardently in “making something new out of what you have been given by your culture, what you know you will need to do the job, and what you happen to stumble on along the way.” Without time and space to mull and experiment, refashion and screw up, without what Chabon describes as “the dark tide of magic boredom that was the source of all my own inspiration,” how can any creative mind get to work? As enchanted with his children’s imaginative powers as any parent, Chabon nevertheless praises sparingly and critiques candidly. As he reveals their hesitancy and confusion when he and Waldman turn them loose to play at their vacation home in rural Maine, you’ve got to think: If Michael Chabon’s kids don’t know how to play a game of make-believe in the woods, what has the world come to?
Chabon describes himself as someone who obsessively analyzes and agonizes over his past missteps, but to the extent this is true of Manhood for Amateurs, he does so with a very light touch. The book is organized as a series of very short essays grouped, loosely, by theme, and although Chabon critiques and riffs on contemporary society and culture with verve, he ends many of the vignettes about his adolescence or young adulthood on decidedly ambiguous notes. Sometimes, these endings prove revelatory, but as often, Chabon seems so reluctant to be obvious or cliché in his self-analysis, that he comes off as frustratingly opaque.
His opacity isn’t the result of some self-ironic refusal to say anything sincere, however. Chabon dislikes snark, tends toward nostalgia, and has a soft spot for anything involving a loss of innocence or one generation passing something down to the next. Thus, the occasional cheesy misstep, such as an essay on baseball cards as a method of bonding with his father, or another, written about the Obamas after Barack won the election, about “that night in Chicago when everything began to change, for him and for Malia and Sasha and for the world.” Were Chabon a woman, his essay on the ways in which his cooking links him with his female family members stretching back through the generations might sound trite; as is, it’s original and endearing (I’ll spare you the gushing, but suffice it to say that Chabon, in both his own account and his wife’s, comes off as a father and husband who works very, very hard to do it all).
The book also discusses, quite forthrightly, the sources of Chabon’s literary influences and their significance in his writing. Having spent long hours of his formative years, for example, obsessing over diagrams of secret lairs in comic books, and tinkering and exploring in his grandparents’ basement, Chabon has filled his fiction with “buried treasures, Batcaves and hidey-holes, half-forgotten underground worlds that perhaps encode the rapture and the bitterness of my own isolation.” I’ll admit that, on their own merits, most of his hobbies—comic books, the minutiae of baseball, sci-fi, astronomy—leave me stone-cold. Too often, though, artists are loathe to disclose any such influences, lest their work be dismissed as an inexpertly concocted stew of personal experience and cultural copycatting. Chabon can be confident that his fiction is anything but derivative, and is therefore in a position to generously offer a peek at not only the biographical details of his life, or his take on contemporary politics and culture, but also at that most precious and closely guarded of an artist’s tools: inspiration.