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Review: Michael Chabon's essays in 'Manhood for Amateurs' resonate with humor, wisdom

In one of the funniest and most resonant essays in this collection, Michael Chabon writes about the evolution — or devolution — of Lego.

The basic Lego colors he remembers from his youth — red, white, blue, yellow, green and black — have given way, in his children's sets, to blocks of "light blue, aquamarine, orange, purple, maroon, gold, silver, plum, pink" and many shades of gray. Squared-off blocks have mutated into "a strange geometry of irregular polygons, a vast bestiary of hybrid pieces, custom pieces, blanks and inverts, clears and pearlescents." And the little blank-faced humanoid figures have given way, he observes, to a multicultural population that includes "Frankenstein monsters, American Indians, Jedi knights and pizza chefs, medieval crossbowmen and Vikings, deep-sea divers and bus drivers, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, Allen Iverson."

By the late 1990s, Chabon writes, "abstraction was dead" and "realism reigned supreme in the Legosphere." Whereas children of his generation created Legolands that sprang full-blown from their imaginations, today's kids, he says, can buy Lego kits to build "precise replicas of Ferrari Formula I racers, pirate galleons, jet airplanes," not to mention Star Wars kits and other "ventures into trademarked, conglomerate-owned, pre-imagined environments."

In many of the essays in Manhood for Amateurs, Chabon expounds further on the increasingly organized, chaperoned nature of childhood in modern, middle-class America; about the changes in entertainment from the era of Star Trek and Planet of the Apes to today's computer-generated family-friendly movies; and about the comic book heroes he loved as a boy and his efforts to hand down his pop culture enthusiasms to his children.

It will come as no surprise to fans of Chabon novels like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policemen's Union and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh that Chabon seems particularly interested in how popular culture (comic books, television, movies, music) shapes a generation's imagination, how art affords the consolations of both escape and control, and how familial and romantic love are subject to the irrationalities of the human heart and the random movements of the universe.

Chabon has always been a magical prose stylist; the biggest flaws in his early fiction tended to be a certain self-consciousness, an overeagerness to stage-manage his characters' fates, to push his narratives into tidy, gift-wrapped packages. These essays (many of which originally appeared in magazines) shed some light on the roots of this authorial impulse, as well as on the tendency of many of his characters to cherish the idea of control, to try to ward off disaster and disappointment through detachment and oversight.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder runs in his family, Chabon says, from his grandmother, who "washed Dixie cups fresh from the package in soap and hot water," through his father, who was an "obsessively completist collector" of things like stamps, bubblegum cards and Ovaltine premiums, down to himself, who "can't stop trying to fix something that's broken, some lock that won't open even with the right combination, some computer program that won't run or channel that won't TiVo" even if it means staying up till 4 a.m.

For that matter, Chabon suggests that for him writing "may be in part a disorder: sheer, unfettered" obsessive-compulsive disorder, that writing fiction is a kind of problem solving.

The self-portrait he draws is that of a domesticated Gen X male, competent in the kitchen and devoted to sharing child-rearing duties with his wife, and at the same time a guy who believes that "the business of being a man" involves giving "the appearance of competence" and a fair amount of "faking it."

He depicts himself as a youthful misogynist of the Henry Miller school, who gradually began "to resemble a man" after getting to know a group of older women (who were "better read, more disciplined, more widely traveled, and far less impressed with me than I was") in a fiction workshop in graduate school.

Chabon also describes himself as oddly passive. On the eve of meeting his wife, author Ayelet Waldman, he writes: "When it came to the art of living, the only medium susceptible to my genius was inertia. If someone wanted to get married, I would marry her. If she wanted out, then it was time to get a divorce. Otherwise, in either case, I was okay with things the way they were." And yet, deep down inside, he adds, he wanted to find someone "to challenge me, to serve as a goad, an instigator, a stirrer of the pot," and he found that in his wife, who, he says, "has dragged, nudged, coaxed, led, stirred, embroiled, mocked, seduced, finagled, or carried me into every last instance of delight or sorrow, every debacle, every success, every brilliant call, and every terrible mistake, that I have known or made."

Chabon occasionally slips into Erma Bombeck territory, writing about diaper bags and cleaning up his children's vomit, and he sometimes stumbles into pretentious academy-speak. But for the most part he manages to write about himself, his family and his generation with humor and introspective wisdom.

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son

By Michael Chabon

Harper, 306 pages, $25.99

Review: Michael Chabon's essays in 'Manhood for Amateurs' resonate with humor, wisdom 11/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 11:55am]
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