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The Mysteries of Berkeley


Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son
Michael Chabon
New York: Harper, 2009

Perhaps Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs can be best understood as a species of science fiction. As a fan of the genre who thinks about novels set on Mars during a discussion with his wife about their son’s imminent circumcision, Chabon might not object to this conceit. It’s not that Chabon imagines a fantastic, futuristic world. Indeed, the twenty-first century he depicts is immediately recognizable – so much so that it might not need to be described to those living in it. Maybe – just maybe – as a document intended for a very different audience Chabon’s unremarkable musings on the mundane make a modicum of sense. Perhaps Martians could learn from it something about American families in general and a middle-aged liberal white male narcissist in particular.

“At a certain age you think it’s not like that anymore – it’s like this. But you are not quite sure what this is.” So Kingsley Amis once said to his son Martin Amis, and the remark pretty well conveys the gist of many of Chabon’s essays, minus the intensely intimate information he heaps before queasy readers. The author of Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay disapproves of kids’ movies now; they were better when he was a boy. The toys were better, too. Even boredom in basements was better. And why don’t these kids today go outside and play, anyway?

Perhaps another English poet better captures the problem with Chabon. When he writes, in a poem about how parents damage children, “don’t have any kids yourself,” Philip Larkin gives general advice, applicable to anyone. But Chabon’s essays suggest it has special relevance for writers, since having children evidently can reduce a witty and clever novelist into someone who finds the unexceptional mesmerizing and the most faded clichés vivid, someone who relentlessly ponders the everyday parental concerns that are wearyingly banal to everyone else – someone, in other words, who assumes others find his family as interesting as he does (always a fatal assumption).

One possible objection to my theory that Chabon writes for readers distant in time or space is his frequent use of markers like “a few weeks ago” and “yesterday,” which don’t lend the essays (most of which appeared initially in Details magazine) the aura of prose aimed at posterity. Then again, with his science-fiction predilection, he thinks of time in a special way. “There is no future and no past…. There is only ever now….” So he says near the end of Manhood for Amateurs. Before dispirited readers reach that point, however, Chabon takes a more conventional view of time. “If we are conducting our lives in the usual fashion, each of us serves as a constant source of embarrassment to his or her future self,” he comments amid ample reasons – pages and pages of them – for him to one day look back and cringe.

Chabon recognizes that “breaking out pictures of your kid’s head coming out of your wife’s vagina” makes you “a buzzkill at parties,” but he does something similar repeatedly in Manhood for Amateurs, including sharing several anecdotes involving his wife’s vagina. He recounts the delivery of his first child by cesarean section after his wife endured thirty six hours of labor. He expresses happiness over the effect pregnancy and his efforts “to free her from the cruel-irony dietary and body-image regimes … in which we raise our young women” had on his spouse’s figure, which he compares, intending a compliment, to the body of a comic book superheroine called Big Barda. He also proclaims his love for her by recalling how they met: a friend of his set up a blind date with a woman described as eager for cunnilingus; Chabon met the minimum requirements.

Chabon

He reports on her struggles with bipolar disorder and her contemplation of suicide. He weighs the pros and cons of foreskin removal. He explains how shouldering diaper bags persuaded him to start carrying a purse. He slinks through his divorced mother’s poor choices in boyfriends and his memories of a crazy ex-girlfriend. He recalls having sex with one of his mother’s thirty-five-year-old friends when he was fifteen, soon after losing his virginity, about which he also provides details. He blurts out his family’s history of obsessive compulsive disorder. In “Hypocritical Theory,” Chabon argues that Wacky Packages, the stickers from back in his day that directed “startlingly ‘gross’ humor” at “the features of the American brandscape,” are superior to his son’s beloved Captain Underpants books, in which the “original spirit of mockery is inverted” and children themselves are the targets, in order to elucidate “what sucks about being an adult” – namely, disapproving for your children precisely the kind of thing you enjoyed at their age. Regardless of whether he makes a convincing case, he reveals here and throughout Manhood for Amateurs what sucks about being a family-focused essayist – namely, compulsively writing the literary equivalent of those photos no one wants to see.

Many of Chabon’s assertions are undeniably true but so vapid as to be worthless. I do not doubt that daughters reaching puberty can make fathers uncomfortable or that parents (and perhaps especially formerly prodigious pot smokers like Chabon) wrestle with how best to discuss drug use with their children. Nor do I question that Chabon really, really wants to be a good father. I agree that it’s hypocritical and silly to take the Christ out of Christmas or to call Halloween a harvest festival in a place like Berkeley, California, where Chabon lives and where but for “the bounty of hydroponic plantations in its closets and basements” there is “no harvest to be observed.” I also concur that the best way to get to know a city is to walk around in it and that Legos were better when they allowed children’s imaginations to run wild and free before the building blocks started being designed for “preimagained” play. I don’t dispute that sports give men with little in common something to talk about or that people might feel old when the music of their youth is classified as “oldies.” It may very well be true that some families enjoy watching television together, maybe even as much as the Chabon clan relishes Doctor Who. But if one doesn’t do much more with such pedestrian observations – by looking at them in a new way, by reaching unexpected conclusions or by unearthing surprising connections – then they aren’t very interesting. Chabon doesn’t do much more with them.

Chabon occasionally shifts from this mode of inanity to the dubious and the ridiculous. “There is no use pretending that Christmas is not beautiful,” he asserts, ignoring that tinsel is a synonym for tacky and that the holiday’s shimmery aesthetics can quite easily be questioned. So can calling the New Testament a satisfying work of fiction, as the “agnostic, empiricist, proud to be a semi-observant, bacon-eating Jew” does. Chabon startles himself with the realization that Barack Obama is a father just like him and knocks himself sideways with the notion of a recognizably “operational” family in the White House. He acknowledges that he offers “depressingly trite” statements and “tiresome, empty” observations. He fails to take the next step of refraining from making them.

Failure supplies the steadiest theme of Manhood for Amateurs. He cycles through his failure to make friends, to be a good husband and father, to document more thoroughly his happy family life (no cause for worry there, I’d say), to succeed in baseball, to be handy with tools, to stop for directions (yes, even that), to cook well, to learn astrophysics, to create convincing female characters, to finish writing one of his novels and to finish reading one by David Foster Wallace.

Chabon openly confesses his own unreliability and asserts that stories tell truths by telling lies. In one of the better pieces, superficially about a baseball player, he admires a disreputable individual, explaining that “[Jose] Canseco has been described as a charmer and a clown, but in fact he is a rogue, a genuine one, and genuine rouges are rare, inside baseball and out.” Rogues have a distinguished literary pedigree, and Chabon likens the steroid-taking baseballer to characters like Ulysses and others “who sailed to places we couldn’t imagine” and returned with “a truth in their baggage that no one else would be clown enough, and rogue enough, and hero enough, to speak.”

If Chabon fabricates anything in his autobiographical excursions, if he plays the rogue, then he demonstrates another failure that concerns him, the failure of imagination. Manhood for Amateurs is dull enough to be wholly factual. And if it isn’t, frankly, who cares? He might have done his family a favor by fictionalizing their stories. But it would be a mistake – a critical failure – to judge the book a failure. Perhaps someday some readers somewhere will come across something in it that doesn’t strike them as either numbingly familiar or discomfitingly indiscrete.

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John G. Rodwan, Jr., an Open Letters Monthly contributing editor, has also had work published by The Mailer Review, The Oregonian, Blood & Thunder, The Second Pass, California Literary Review, Spot Literary Magazine, Slow Trains, Shaking like a Mountain, The Brooklyn Rail, Logos, American Writer, Free Inquiry and the Humanist, among others. He has lived in Detroit, Michigan; Geneva, Switzerland; Brooklyn, New York; and Portland, Oregon.

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