Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 21 (2/24) -- Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

Most men -- the ones who are serious readers to begin with, I mean -- hit a point in their middle years when they turn away from fiction for non-fiction. Some get a worse case than others: a few find themselves unable to read anything but military history, or something similarly solid and bluntly factual. I don't have it quite that bad, but I have read both this book -- a nonfictional fix-up of Chabon's Details columns (and a few other, related essays)-- and his other nonfiction collection Maps and Legends without having yet gotten around to his major novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Given my free choice, these days I'm choosing prose about things that are ostensibly true much more than I was used to just a few years ago.

Manhood for Amateurs collects thirty-two of those pieces from Details, plus works originally published in Vogue, Swing, Allure, and The New York Times (one each from the paper proper and its Sunday Magazine). There's also one lone new work, proving the instinct of "adding something new for the collection" is not restricted to the SFF world. All of the pieces are autobiographical to one degree or other -- hence the subtitle "The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son" -- and are organized into ten loosely thematic section. (So loosely thematic, in fact, that I would have to spend no little space working out precisely what the themes of each one were.)

Chabon is a thoughtful, careful writer who works hard to use the precisely right words and sentences to say what he means; reading his essays is a joy, with many small bolts of lightning as the reader recognizes emotions and situations and lives he has lived -- or could have lived.

Look, here's one example, from an essay about manhood called "Faking It":
This is and essential element of the business of being a man: to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit, one whose source and object of greatest intensity is yourself. To behave as if you have everything firmly under control even when you have just sailed your boat over the falls. "To keep your head." wrote Rudyard Kipling in his classic poem "If," which articulated the code of high-Victorian masculinity in whose fragmentary shadow American men still come of age, "when all about you are losing theirs"; but, in reality, the trick of being a man is to give the appearance of keeping your head when, deep inside, the truest part of you is crying out, Oh, shit!
If you're a man, you know that feeling; you've been there. Chabon is equally penetrating about what it means to be a father, to be a good or bad lover (boyfriend, husband, man). And I can't describe it any better than to just give you another example, the beginning of the essay "Th Memory Hole":
Almost every school day, at least one of my four children comes home with art: a drawing, a painting, a piece of handicraft, a construction-paper assemblage, an enigmatic apparatus made from pipe cleaners, sparkles, and clay. And almost every bit of it ends up in the trash. My wife and I have to remember to shove the things down deep, lest one of the kids stumble across the ruin of his or her laboriously stapled paper-plate-and-dried-bean maraca wedged in with the junk mail and the collapsed packaging from a twelve-pack of squeezable yogurt. But there is so much of the stuff; we don't know what else to do with it. We don't toss all of it. We keep the good stuff -- or what strikes us, in the Zen of that instant between scraping out the lunch box and sorting the mail,m as good. As worthier somehow: more vivid, more elaborate, more accurate, more sweated over. A crayon drawing that fills the entire sheet of newsprint from corner to corner, a lifelike smile on the bill of a penciled flamingo. We stack the good stuff in a big drawer, and when the drawer is finally full, we pull out the stuff and stick it in a plastic bin that we keep in the attic. We never revisit it. We never get the children's artwork down and sort through it with them, the way we do with photo albums, and say "That's how you used to draw curly hair" or "See how you made your letter E's with seven crossbars?" I'm not sure why we're saving it except that getting rid of it feels so awful.
Chabon's scope here may seem small and limited, and I suppose that's true. It's only of interest to readers who are parents or children, spouses or partners, men or women. Only for people who live in the world today and look around them. Only for us. It's a book I expect to come back to many times, and I hope Chabon continues to write non-fiction and collect it now and then -- and, who knows?, maybe I'll finally dive further into his fiction one of these years.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: My Brightest Diamond - Inside a Boy
via FoxyTunes

1 comment:

skottk said...

Your first paragraph speaks to me in ways I don't totally understand. I'm in the throes of a huge fiction to non-fiction transition myself. From 12 to 38, I'm not sure I read a dozen non-fiction books that weren't directly related to school or work, out of thousands of books read total. At 42, I've probably read a dozen non-fiction books for entertainment within the last six months.
Thanks for bringing this up - I thought it was just me.

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