(Disclaimer: months between reading this and reviewing it)
Mixed feelings about this.
Chabon writes with enviable fluency – his style is easy to read, nicely paced, and engaging. This somehow despite his need to regularly insert both obscurely pompous vocabulary (his wallet is one of his ‘appurtenances’, and his ‘distillation’) and, conversely, profanity (his appurtenances are just crammed into his pocket mofo – but he didn’t write, ahem, mofo; seriously, both these examples came from the same randomly opened page – 151). I’ve seen this combination before in writers who still care enough about the opinions of those who privilege elevated vocabulary (“Don’t call me stupid,”) to deliberately highlight their education, but also want the street-cred, man, of dropping a few ‘f’s and ‘c’s. I realise this doesn’t have to be pretentious and contrived – but here it is.
It’s a weird little niche he’s covering in this collection of columns and articles: write something profound in every half a dozen pages. No, not merely anecdotal (even though you can draw on anecdotes), but profound. This isn’t Seinfeld riffing on men and remote controls, there’s more reverb, a slower pace, the camera panning back (think of, say, ‘The West’). I think I would have enjoyed anecdotes – with occasional insights or musing – but found the gravitas hard to take. So he’s not writing, for example, about his brother, but about ‘brotherhood’; not about differences between his upbringing and that of his kids, but about what children today have lost.
I think this is an important part of his appeal. When something resonates with a reader they’re not merely having a wry smile of recognition, no, they’re sagely nodding as part of some societal or human absolute. The grand scope (complemented hugely by the elevated language) tells them they’re not just some schmo schlepping (is that enough Jewish references – he has a few of those) through their isolated incidental life, instead they’re raised to archetype. Funny how I can relish this sort of thing in poetry, but react to it here. Some of that may be my own anglo-centrism banging into Chabon’s manifest destiny – so many of his absolutes are blindly parochial (it so fits that these columns were written by a guy from a country which has never recognised the irony of ‘World Series Baseball’). And if I had have grown up closer to his postcode maybe I would have felt more self important than alienated.
Well, sure I would have. Those mixed feelings I referred to? I was wading through the articles, appreciating the able writing but distancing myself from the underlying presumption that his individual experience was … Experience, Wisdom, Universality … when I bumped into one particular column (‘Normal Time’) and heard myself saying, “Yeah. Exactly. That is SO true. He’s nailed it. Isn’t that precisely what it’s like.” And then laughing at myself for being so easily seduced the moment my experience resonated with his, feeling part of this Gnostic club.
And I’m uncomfortable with the club thing, especially the men’s club thing. Where I’ve bumped into it personally it felt pretty pathetic to have as your claim to being special, as some vital comfort to your feelings of identity, the fact that you have a Y chromosome – something you, in no sense, achieved. The most grounded men I’ve come across might find themselves in male contexts (e.g. sport), but they have no need to dwell on this, and are just as comfortable if there are women around. Sure their masculinity is an important part of who they are, but, importantly, this is incidental to how they view themselves and others. They don’t need to be groomed with reassurances that they are ‘a man’, and that makes them special – any more than, say, their nationality (“Never forget, son, that you’re Aryan, and that makes all the difference.”). It does seem to make a difference if you force everything through this lens – it’s self fulfilling, and why, for example, if a male boss is a jerk to everyone, somehow he’s a misogynist whenever that jerk behaviour is directed towards a female. [Disclaimer: yes, of course, some bosses *are* misogynists. But some are just jerks, and this distinction is important.] The column I most related to (“Normal Time”) I immediately read to my wife because we’d previously noticed how every week seemed to be, “unusual.” And reading an essay to my wife? Sounds like the sort of nerdy thing Chabon would do with his own geeky amateur family, including wife and daughters. How is a Dr Who obsession about manhood? In my family this is exclusively the realm of sisters and nieces – but that’s a coincidence, it’s not saying anything poignant about ‘womenhood.’ How is it particularly masculine to find an old song takes you back to a certain time and place?
In grouping all these experiences and observations under his ‘manhood’ title, Chabon is playing to a market that seems to want or need this club membership – including all these women in the amazon comments who felt they had to exclusively give this book to their sons/husbands/various male relatives. [Woah – just occurred to me as I wrote that sentence that I was given this book by my sister. One of my smart, generous and much nicer than me sisters who remembers birthdays and makes an effort – and had no idea about my oversensitivity to ‘Manhood’ forums.] People who feel this need to essentially define themselves and others by their gender, when it’s so often irrelevant. This isn’t to say there aren’t distinctives, and that some of the columns in this collection don’t validly run with them. But it is saying it’s overstated.
I suspect if I knew Chabon I’d find him an interesting, likeable guy. But I wouldn’t know why he had to hang all these sorts of thoughts in the restrictive, occasionally misleading and overblown gallery of (cue reverb) ‘Manhood’. He should just grow a pair and re-release this as, ‘Michael Chabon’s idiosyncratic distillations’. [In the interests of previously spurned racial stereotyping, for US readers, that last line was ironic. As was the first one in these brackets.]. Maybe it’s just an effective marketing ploy – his title would sell more. What about: “Michael Chabon’s bikini dragon quest how to make more money than Oprah”?