november: notes on michael chabon

December 10, 2009

reading michael chabon

For my little project this month, I read  Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son by Michael Chabon. I loved this book. I think my copy now bears more blue and green highlights than any of the essay collections I’ve read this year. 

random notes:

Judging from the blurbs and praises on the back cover of the book, Chabon’s prose is widely considered some of the best of his generation. His writing is smart, lyrical, and writerly. And it manages to be smart, lyrical and writerly while containing references to Squeeze Parkay margarine, Wacky Packages, and the Planet of the Apes television show from the 70’s. I find this irresistible. Chabon is a writer of my generation, and he writes about that generation like no one else. Look at what he has to say about Captain Underpants.

“If I withdraw my approval of Captain Underpants–if I tell my son I will gladly supply him with good books and comics but that if he wants to read those damned Captain Underpants, he’ll have to pay for them himself–that withdrawal creates a gap, a small enchanted precinct of parental disapproval within which he can curl up, for a minute, for the time it takes to read a crass, vibrant, silly 120-page book with big print, one that he paid for himself, and thrill to the deep, furtive pleasure of annoying one’s father.”

There’s something about the way Chabon combines his Pulitzer Prize-winning style with the most base cultural references that captivates me. In his essay on Legos—one that had particular resonance for me as the mother of two Lego-loving sons—Chabon writes, “Time after time, playing Legos with my kids, I would fall under the spell of the old familiar crunching. It’s the sound of creativity itself, of the inventive mind at work, making something new out of what you have been given by your culture, what you know you will need to do the job, and what you happen to stumble upon along the way.” That making something new of what you have been given by your culture is a big part of Chabon’s genius. It’s precisely what he does in these essays, again and again. (It’s the same sort of creative, culture-twisting that I love to see my kids fiddle with, that I’ve written about in my Waldorf Guilt posts.) Chabon gives hope to a woman of his age who aspires to write, but worries about the conceit of such an intellectual aspiration given the amount of time she spent watching Brady Bunch reruns as a child.

The parenting essays are my favorites here. Since I attempt to write about parenting myself, I don’t know how I’ve made it through almost a year of this project without reading essays on parenting (other than a little rereading of Anne Lamott). Chabon has now spoiled parenting essays for me: the writing of others, and my own work, especially, is now bound to wither when compared. He writes about the world I knew as a kid, with those Wacky Packs and Linda Carter as Wonder Woman and the De Franco Family singing “A Heartbeat (It’s a Love Beat)”; he writes about the world I know now, with Captain Underpants and crappy kids’ movies and neighborhoods where kids can’t wander alone and teenage daughters with blossoming bodies. Observing his kids and himself as a father, he is both scaldingly honest and sentimental. He looks at his world from quirky perspectives that seem to have a little or a lot to do with his childhood love of comics. He can be witty and crass and irreverent and still convey those pangs of the heart that only a parent can know.

There’s other good stuff here, too, some of which I can’t wait to have my husband read (especially the essay about men faking competence—I get fooled all the time, I’m guessing now.) I’m not sure I needed to know so much about Chabon’s sexual history, but then again it’s hard not to follow along when someone is sharing his or her sexual history. Especially when the sharer is a Pulitzer-award winning writer.

One of my measures of an essay is its ending. I want an ending to wow me, to take all that’s happened earlier in the essay and elevate it somehow, so I feel wind-blown and shaken up and compelled to pause for a minute and reread. I don’t want an essay to be straight memoir–I want art, and a carefully crafted ending is part of that. Many essayists seem to miss that point, or don’t care; their endings are just taped-on tying-ups. Not Chabon’s. He gets it. His endings wow. Every single time.

a few lines to love:

From his essay on how men can get labeled “good fathers” for mere meager acts of fathering:

“The father on a camping trip who manages to beat a rattlesnake to death with a can of Dinty Moore in a tube sock may rest for decades on the ensuing laurels yet somehow snore peacefully every night beside his sleepless wife, even though he knows perfectly well that the Polly Pocket toys may be tainted with lead-based paint, and the Rite-Aid was out of test kits, and somebody had better go order them online, overnight delivery, even though it is four in the morning. It is in part the monumental open-endedness of the job, with its infinite number of infinitely small pieces, that routinely leads mothers to see themselves as inadequate, therefore making the task of recognizing their goodness, at any given moment, so hard.”

I wonder if he came upon this insight himself, or whether his wife had something to do with it. Hmm. Well, I like it either way. And the particularity of the Dinty Moore in a tube sock, too.

In his essay D.A.R.E., he writes of his son asking if he has ever smoked marijuana. Chabon replies that he has.

    “How many times?” my son said, eyes wide.

     So far, even blindsided as I had been by the abrupt onset of this conversation, I hadn’t violated the guiding principle my wife and I had decided on for its eventual proper conduct: I had been honest. But now I had a moment’s pause before replying, unwilling to pronounce those two simple words: one million.

Two more simple words: so funny.

On Lego people, properly known as minifigs, which hadn’t existed in Lego sets when Chabon was a kid:

“But what I most resented about the minifigs was the scale they imposed on everything you built around them. Like Le Corbusier’s humancentric Modular scale or Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, the minifigs as they proliferated became the measure of all things: Weapons must fit their rigid grip, doorways accommodate the tops of their heads, cockpits accommodate their snap-on asses.”

I can’t help but appreciate a writer who glides so easily from Le Corbusier and Leonardo to the snap-on asses of Lego people.

On the freedom of his childhood:

“I could lose myself in vacant lots and playgrounds, in the alleyway behind the Wawa, in the neighbors’ yards, on the sidewalks. Anywhere, in short, I could reach on my bicycle, a 1970 Schwinn Typhoon, Coke-can red with a banana seat, a sissy bar, and ape-hanger handlebars. On it I covered the neighborhood in a regular route for half a mile in every direction. I knew the locations of all my classmates’ houses, the number of pets and siblings they had, the brand of Popsicle they served, the potential dangerousness of their fathers.”

You know how I love details. Chabon does them better than anyone. Look at that description of the bike! His details are so precise that research must be involved. And don’t you like the Popsicles, and the potentially dangerous fathers?

From an essay on the father of his former wife:

“We spent hours together, cheering on Art Monk and Carlton Fisk and other men whose names, when by chance they arise now, can summon up that entire era of whisky and football and the smell of new Coupe de Ville, when the biggest mistake I ever made came to roost, and I briefly had one of the best fathers I’ve ever found.” 

In previous installments of this project, I’ve written about how I admire long lines when written well. Chabon has lots of long lines. Lots of long lines. In fact, this one is rather short, relatively. (The first line of the essay “Normal Time” goes on for over a page. I would have shared it here, but I didn’t want to type it.) Convoluted, complicated sentences are part of Chabon’s style, and it’s interesting to study how he uses them. In this particular line, we start with the names of football players and then suddenly get whisked along a string of sensory details to a poignant ending we hadn’t anticipated. The line works just like memory does. (The last line of that essay works the same way. If you have the book, check out that ending. Definitely a little heart-breaking.)

Here’s one from that essay “Faking It” on how men fake competency. Exhibit #1: pretending he knows how to hang a towel rack. This is how he starts the essay:

“At one time there was a pair of hooks on the back of the bathroom door from which one could hang a couple of towels, but people used the towels as vines, webbing, and rope for games of Tarzan, Spider-Man and Look! I’m a Dead Guy That Hung Themself, and now, to serve four children there remained one wall-mounted towel rack with only two bars.”

Gee, I thought it was only my kids. I wonder if Chris will be pretending to know what he’s doing when he replaces the door stop that fell off the back of the bathroom door because Mr. T likes to stand on it and swing the door back and forth when he is Indiana Jones or Snorlax or Wolverine or whomever he is when he stands on that door stop and swings. I love Chabon’s last line of that essay too:

“By the way, the towels are still hanging from the rack in the bathroom. And I fully expect, at any moment, in the dead of night, to hear a telltale clatter on the tiles.”

The essay “I Feel Good About My Murse”, on how Chabon caves to carrying a man-purse, is hilarious. 

“Three children followed the first, each with his or her diaper bag, and as fatigue, inattention and habit took over, I stopped noticing if I was carrying the Esprit or the Kate Spade or the (forgive me) Petunia Pickle Bottom in embroidered lime-green Chinese silk. I had the diaper bag over one shoulder and a kid in the opposite arm, and I was pushing a stroller full of groceries, and some other small child was dragging along behind me hanging from the back pocket of my jeans, and at that instant as I left the store, I felt like it would be a lot easier just to drop my wallet into the diaper bag with my keys, and my cell phone, and my New York Times Review of Books than try to shove it down into my pants.”

The Petunia Pickle-Bottom bag just cracks me up. And I’m exhausted myself as I get to the end of the second line; I get why he breaks the ultimate rule of man-code and doesn’t put his wallet in his pocket.

Here are a few lines from an essay on his wife. Another crazy, long set of lines to admire. (I can’t believe I’m typing all these in. None of my other essayists have tortured me so.):

“And since that afternoon in Berkeley, California, standing along the deepest seam of the Hayward Fault–no since our first date–this woman 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. I’m grateful for that, because if it weren’t for her, I would never go anywhere, never see anything, never meet anyone. It’s too much bother. It’s dangerous, hard work, or expensive. I lost my ticket. I kind of have a headache. They don’t speak English there, it’s too far away, they’re closed for the day, they’re full, they said we can’t, it’s too much bother with children along.”

And, of course, the next line is “She will have none of that.” I love how much fun he seems to be having with that string of verbs, and the list of instances. And then how he segues into his first-person litany of excuses.

Okay, one more, just because I don’t think I’ve captured enough of the poignancy that I admired in so many of these essays. Here’s one of those masterful endings, on an essay about throwing away his kids’ art:

“Every day is like a kid’s drawing, offered to you with a strange mixture of ceremoniousness and offhand disregard, yours for the keeping. Some of the days are rich and complicated, others inscrutable, others little more than a stray gray mark on a ragged page. Some you manage to hang on to, though your reasons for doing so are often hard to fathom. But most of them you just ball up and throw away.”

Whew. I could go on, but I’ll stop myself. Michael Chabon lives about five minutes from me; I’ve seen him, from a distance, at the farmer’s market, at a kiddie matinee, running down College Avenue. If I ever see him again, maybe I’ll get up the nerve to tell him how much I liked his book.

the plan for december:

The plan for December is to stop making myself so crazy with plans, and to stop writing such wordy posts that take too much of my time. I’ll end this project reading Adam Gopnik, because he’s the one who inspired the project in the first place. To cut myself some slack, I’ll just focus on his essays on Thanksgiving and Christmas, from his books Paris to the Moon and Through the Children’s Gate.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Lise December 10, 2009 at 11:31 am

Wordy, yes, but I read every word, and now I love him, too. Thanks for sharing your discovery.

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patricia December 14, 2009 at 8:08 am

Nice to hear from you again, Lise! You must have read every word because you commented on the last paragraph. I’m always grateful for patient readers!

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Diane December 10, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Oh! Now I want to read this. I just finished his wife’s book, Bad Mother. (I didn’t like it much. at all.) But your review of this one definitely makes me want to give it a go… Comparing the two sides of a marriage in this way could only be interesting I think.

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patricia December 14, 2009 at 8:14 am

I read the other book too, Diane. I suppose it isn’t fair to compare, but it’s hard not to. I found myself reading her book for the titillating tales she was telling and her willingness to be honest, while his book was all about the writing for me. And he puts an interesting spin on every topic he writes about.

Since you read hers first, you really ought to try his. I’m not sure I’d recommend the other way around…

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gonzomama December 10, 2009 at 3:36 pm

i’ve read several of his fictional books and have been anxious to pick this one up. i was trying to hold out until it came out in pb but don’t think i’ll be able to wait.

i love the excerpt about his childhood, it reminds me very much of my summers as a kid. it made me think that many children don’t have those experiences anymore and i hope mine do.

and the excerpt about throwing away your child’s art. i may have type that up and hang it on the fridge.

thanks for sharing this!

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patricia December 14, 2009 at 8:21 am

Hi Gonzomama! I’m honored that you’ve visited my blog! I love yours.

Did you get to read the Wilderness of Childhood essay in its entirety? It’s online. I loved that one.
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22891

Maybe reading it will convince you not to wait for the paperback. 😉

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Carrie Pomeroy December 10, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Thanks for this delightful review–I requested the book at the library, but I think I’m about #22 on the waiting list. I may have to buy it for a holiday treat for myself!

I think it’s interesting that the publicity for his wife’s book this summer may be helping bring new readers to his work. An unusual twist.

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patricia December 14, 2009 at 8:24 am

Do buy it as a holiday treat for yourself. You’re a writer, and I know you’d appreciate it!

I’ll bet you’re right about the publicity for her book. She also probably knew better than to release hers second. It would be awfully hard to follow up a husband who writes like Michael Chabon.

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melissa s. December 11, 2009 at 6:59 pm

If you see him again, can you tell him I love him, too? I think I have a new author crush. (and I love how it was “people” hanging from the bathroom towel. funny detail!)

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patricia December 14, 2009 at 9:22 am

I know, the “people” thing. I re-read so many lines in this book to appreciate all those little details.

And can’t you see it, if I run across him again: “Oh hi! My friend Melissa and I just wanted to tell you that we’re big fans! We loved the people hanging from your towel hooks!”

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susan December 15, 2009 at 8:04 am

Who knew I was depriving my child of a small enchanted precinct of parental disapproval and the opportunity to thrill to the deep, furtive pleasure of annoying me. I’ll have to pick something to disapprove of. It is too late to disapprove of Captain Underpants.

I loved the people on the towel hooks, too–I reread it thinking we enjoy the specificity of the Dinty Moore can, but here it is the tongue-in-cheek inspecificity that charms.

Oh, and the passage on each day as a child’s work of art offered up with a ceremony and offhandedness. Brilliant.

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patricia December 15, 2009 at 8:51 am

I know, I’ve already blown it with my long-time approval of Captain Underpants. I used to rush H to the bookstore when a new edition came out. What a failure of a parent I am! At least I’ve vociferously disapproved of the Berenstain Bears and those Magic Tree House kids. And have displayed an admirable sense of annoyance when they’ve been read anyway.

And you’re right about how he uses both specificity and inspecificity to fine effect. There’s so much to learn from masterful writers.

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susan December 15, 2009 at 9:18 am

I like the original Berenstain Bears books, the picnic one, and the vacation one, but the didactic franchise built upon them is loathsome. I can’t tell you how I relished the news (in the book Nurture Shock) that the Berenstain Bears books teach kids to be more skilled relational aggressors.

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patricia December 15, 2009 at 11:42 pm

What is a relational aggressor? It can’t be a good thing, I’m guessing.

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