November 2009

Arts & Letters

‘Manhood for Amateurs’ by Michael Chabon

By Louis Nowra

There’s something of the eternal kid about Michael Chabon. Whereas other serious writers have outgrown Marvel comics, Star Trek and the rock songs of their youth, Chabon’s nostalgic sensibility is still deeply rooted in popular culture. If he mentions Burroughs, it’s more likely he’s referring to the creator of Tarzan than the author of Naked Lunch. As far as Chabon is concerned, literary fiction could do well to learn about plot and storytelling from genre fiction, particularly sci-fi and horror. Much of his success has been due to his ability to fashion strong narratives that neatly dovetail high and low cultures, most effectively demonstrated in his masterpiece The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Besides novels, he’s written screenplays, short stories and essays on literature. Now in his mid-forties with two sons and two daughters, Chabon has produced Manhood for Amateurs, a collection of mainly autobiographical pieces linked by the idea of fatherhood. There are pieces on his youth, spent as a solitary boy with a fascination for Jack Kirby comics, the Beatles and even Lego. Sometimes his interests, even when he writes engagingly about them, can pall; he spends too much time on the virtues of certain carry bags, baseball cards and – of all things – Doctor Who.

It’s his deeper personal experiences that resonate: remembering how he wanted his divorced mother to experience love again; having sex with a much older woman when he was 15; his bitter, desperate first marriage; his son’s obsessive-compulsive condition that reminds him of his grandmother’s and father’s similar obsessions. Chabon also writes movingly of his wife’s bipolar problems, and his attempt to understand her suicidal impulses. But the main thread of the essays is his experience, like that of many men, as a hopeless, goofy guy bumbling his way through marriage and fatherhood. Before becoming a dad, he promised himself he would not pretend to possess knowledge he didn’t have, nor would he hide his doubts and uncertainties. Of course, he finds himself being hypocritical every day. A former heavy dope-smoker, Chabon attempts to talk about the dangers of marijuana smoking with his young son. The scene is a comic triumph – the father who doesn’t know best.

One of his major concerns, as a father, is how children no longer experience the world around them. Kids sit in front of computers and if they venture outside, it’s in a car. As Chabon writes, “I grew up with a freedom, a liberty, that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible.” He ties the problem to a larger issue: if children are not permitted to be adventurers, then “what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?”

In these essays, Chabon is not saying anything outlandish or really new.  At times, the middle-class suburban world of the Chabons’ household can be boring and his remarks about fatherhood mawkish, but Chabon’s honesty and elegant prose, with its metaphorical exuberance, make this – like his other works – an easy and stimulating read.

Louis Nowra
Louis Nowra is an author, screenwriter and playwright. His books include Ice and The Twelfth of Never, and he is co-winner of the 2009 NSW Premier’s Script Writing Award for First Australians.

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