Friday, January 29, 2010

Men of an uncertain age

In Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, Michael Chabon engages the topic of gender with a impressive lack of professionalism

The following review was published earlier this week on the Books page at the History News Network

Manhood for Amateurs is not entirely candid about what it is: a collection of previously published magazine pieces, most of which appeared in Details (a men's magazine more obviously notable for photographs of scantily clad women than insightful social commentary). This is something you only learn by studying the copyright page. The flap copy calls the book an "autobiographical narrative," which comes close to crossing an ethical line: autobiographical, yes; narrative, not really. As a matter of marketing, such camouflaging was probably necessary; while Michael Chabon has a well-deserved reputation as an entertaining literary novelist -- his 1995 book Wonder Boys was made into a pretty good movie five years later, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and his most recent novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007), got good reviews -- he doesn't have the readership of a Maureen Dowd necessary to flaunt the book as a collection of columns. Such ledgermain aside, this is a smart, funny, and cohesive little book, elegantly clustered into segments about sex, gender, parenting, and the like. It's also a remarkable historical document of a life begun in the mid-twentieth century that has carried over to the twenty-first.

Chabon establishes the tone for the 39 pieces as a whole with his first essay, "The Loser's Club," which describes a childhood memory in which his mother helped him establish a comic book club in which no one wished to be a member. This tragicomic anecdote leads to th
e point of the story: "A father is a man who fails every day," he explains. Occasional successes do "nothing to diminish the knowledge that failure stalks everything you do. But you always knew that. Nobody gets past the age of ten without that knowledge. Welcome to the club." Yet far from bitterness or self-pity, this message proves oddly liberating. The mood of the book is actually quite buoyant: like the cakes he learned to bake in his mother's kitchen, the journey matters at least as much as the destination, which every once in a while proves to be delicious.

Chabon has the not inconsiderable gift of turning apparent cliches into bracing moments of revelation. He writes about hoisting his son on his shoulders in Grant Park on the night of Barack Obama's victory, and the sad loss of innocence it portends for Obama's daughters as well as his son. An essay about the collapse of his first marriage suggests his greatest regret may well breaking his (very different) father-in-law's heart. Alternatively, enrolling in an MFA program at the University of California not only proves to be a good career move, but helps him grow up (go figure).

A number of themes stitch the book together.
Chabon, who was born in 1962, is a child of divorce who came of age in a feminist era. That this has resulted in confusion and anxiety about his relationships, male and female, is less something he laments than it is something to be taken for granted. (It's worth pointing out in this context that Chabon's wife, novelist Ayalet Waldman, has also recently published a book, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace.) He writes with a good deal of curiosity and sympathy for a number of women in life, past and present, even as he accepts the criticism he's received in his fiction that he doesn't really portray female characters three-dimensionally.

Chabon also describes, as a number of observers have, the transformation of American childhood, which is now more intensively managed by adults than it ever has been. But few people to make this point are as entertaining as he is on the evolution of Legos from his own childhood to that of his son. In "Hypocritical Theory," Chabon asserts his detestation of Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants books less because he actually hates them than because he needs to give his child a subversive pleasure. He grieves that his children lack the joy of going out and playing after dinner, riding their bicycles in the neighborhood, or exploring dank basements the way he once did.

Running through the whole book is Chabon's infectious lifelong infatuation with pop culture, whether it's pop music on FM radio, old television shows, or classic characters from Marvel cartoons (there's a nice piece on cartoon women). Chabon makes clear that the jetsam and flotsam of this culture, which will surface in his consciousness at the oddest moments, is not simply the source of happy childhood memory, but the seedbed of his adult creativity. And seemingly mediocre figures like Jos
é Conseco (this from a piece Chabon wrote when the steroid scandal was first breaking) suggests that scoundrels can be genuinely edifying figures. In one of the more moving pieces in the collection, "The Amateur Family," Chabon savors the joy of shared passions -- a joy he lacked as a child but savors with this own children -- before making this moving peroration:

Maybe all families are a kind of fandom, an endlessly elaborated, endlessly disputed, endlessly reconfigured set of commentaries, extrapolations, and variations generated by passionate amateurs on the primal text of the parents' love for each other. Sometimes the original program is canceled by death or separation; sometimes, as with Doctor Who, it endures and flourishes for decades. And maybe love, mortality, and loss, and all the children and mythologies and sorrows they engender, make passionate amateurs -- nerds, geeks, and fanboys -- of us all.

Manhood for Amateurs would make an excellent addition to any number of gender studies courses. Chabon's insights rival those of many academic scholars, and he renders them with a grace and wit that will enliven many a discussion. I suspect this book will become a classic of its kind.