Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon (4/5)
Over the course of his career, Michael Chabon has built a body of work that seems determined to prove that, paradoxically, we may engage with complicated, real-world entanglements through escapist literature. Kavalier and Clay detailed the Jewish immigrant experience by looking at the early formation of superheroes and comic books. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union took on questions of national identity and sovereignty while telling a noirish mystery adventure. At this point it seems strange to see Chabon come to reality through the decidedly un-otherworldly genre of the personal essay. Chabon’s collection of essays, Manhood for Amateurs, gives fans a glimpse into the real life obsessions that have made his novels unique imprints on the world of literature.
Anyone who has read his magnum opus Kavalier and Clay knows that Chabon is perfectly capable of writing novels of intellectual and physical weight, so it is somewhat refreshing to read this series of airy musings that might be best read during a sequence of lazy afternoons. Chabon’s ruminations are evenly split between autobiographical exploration and pop culture inquiry. In one of the more intimate essays, “The Heartbreak Kid,” Chabon recounts flashes of his first marriage and waxes nostalgic about his relationship with his first father-in-law. And yet just a couple dozen pages prior, he was tracing the evolution of Legos and doing his best impression of a septuagenarian while decrying their recent glut of licensing deals. But perhaps the best individual essays of the collection happen when the autobiographical and the cultural cross paths, like in “A Woman of Valor” where he compares his wife to the Jack Kirby superheroine Big Barda (which, if you are a DC Comics fan, is perhaps the most romantic sentiment ever uttered).
I had the good fortune to briefly talk to Michael Chabon while he signed my copy of this book. During our brief back and forth, my wife asked him if Manhood for Amateurs was a response to his wife’s collection of essays Bad Mother (which is also excellent, by the way). He said that he wrote Manhood as a sort of companion piece to Bad Mother. After hearing this I couldn’t help but line up both books. The essay genre seems like a more natural fit for Ayelet Waldman, who managed to go to some difficult places in her writing. Wanting to limit an audience’s access to your personal life is a perfectly reasonable reaction to writing non-fiction, but it would be a lie to say that it doesn’t in some manner limit this collection. Still, I’ve always felt that it is sometimes necessary for an author to write minor works in order to prove he is a major artist.