Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Michael Chabon’s Manhood

I just realized that the above title might promise more than I can deliver…
Michael Chabon (born 1963) is very much an anomaly in contemporary serious fiction: he is actively involved in telling a story and he wants you to like him.  As such, his remarkable popularity with the general reading public and with the literati is a happy coincidence that ensures both his continued publication and his serious critical reception.  This interest in narrative (and, to a lesser degree, genre fiction) is a refreshing change in American letters, which for decades has been mired in short, slice-of-life tidbits that read as if they were missing both the opening and closing pages.
I have found Chabon’s fiction to be very much a mixed bag.  I thought The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) to be magnificent; indeed, one of the best books of the decade.  I also found his The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), Wonder Boys (1995) and Werewolves in Our Youth (1999) to be powerful and affecting books.  However, in trying to craft more ‘literary’ forays into genre writing, he has churned out an astounding number of clunkers, including the incomprehensible Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Final Solution (2004), the sword-and-sorcery meller Gentlemen of the Road (2007), and the completely unreadable alternate history, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007).  (In fact, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is such a bad book that the thuggish policemen who so recently attacked peaceful American protestors should be forced to read it twice.  Aloud.)
Chabon’s second nonfiction book was Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, published in 2009.  (His earlier books of essays, Maps and Legends, published in 2008, will be covered in a future post.)  Chabon’s Manhood encompasses a great deal of territory (sorry), and the full range of his musings and concerns make expansive and fascinating reading.  And, more so than after any of these novels, I closed the book thinking, “I like this man a lot.”
Chabon breaks his essays into interesting categories, such as Exercises in Masculine Affection, Patterns of Early Enchantment, or Studies in Pink and Blue.  Each and every section has much to commend it, and the essays in Tactics of Wonder and Loss contain passages that can only be called shimmering.  Here, for example, is Chabon writing about his own, aborted first marriage in his essay The Hand On My Shoulder: The meaning of divorce will elude us as long as we are blind to the meaning of marriage, as I think at the start we must all be.  Marriage seems – at least it seemed to an absurdly young man in the summer of 1987, standing on the sun-drenched patio of an elegant house on Lake Washington – to be an activity, like chess or tennis or a rumba contest that we embark upon in tandem while everyone who loves us stands around and hopes for the best.  We have no inkling of the fervor of their hope, nor of the ways in which our marriage, that collective endeavor, will be constructed from and burdened with their love.
Fine stuff, that. 
Chabon also has a great deal of insight on the richness of childhood imagination, and how the imaginative landscape of our childhood often coalesces into our adult frame of reference.  He, for example, loved the short-lived Planet of the Apes television show he watched as a boy because the format and premise were open-ended enough for his imagination to run riot and play a variety of different games.  He fears that current entertainment for children is so over-produced and so ironic that this lush imaginative landscape has grown smaller.  Chabon also believes that a healthy appreciation of ‘crap culture’ (comic books, junk movies, television) is not necessarily a bad thing, and that: what smells strongly of crap to one generation – Victorian penny dreadfuls, the music of the Archies, the Lone Ranger radio show, blaxploitation films of the seventies – so often becomes a fruitful source of inspiration, veneration, and study for those to come, while certified Great and Worthy Art molders and fades on its storage rack, giving off an increasingly powerful whiff of naphthalene.
Of course, as with any book of essays, there is some dross with the gold.  His Biblical mediations while watching the Barack Obama inauguration feel forced and his article on circumcision could be cut.  (Sorry.)  But for every minor misstep, there is an embarrassment of riches to be found in Manhood for Amateurs, and it comes highly recommended.

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