I have always liked Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one of my favorite contemporary novels. His interests in Lego, comics, assimilationist Jewishness all dovetail with mine. And indeed, as revealed in Manhood for Amateurs, a collection of his (mostly) previously published musings on children, men, women and toys, we also both like Dr. Who and worry about what to do with our children’s artwork.
And yet, this book made me like him much less. More than one of the essays about childhood make the basic, inarguable and already much-chewed point that kids today don’t have enough time, space or opportunity for free play. Not outside (must be supervised to ride bike to corner), not inside (California houses have no basements), not in toys (Legos have become too fussy). He also tells us that boys and girls are different. And all this in rather purple prose, the ideas expanded to fill a magazine column through unconnected opening gambits, flashbacks to his own childhood and lots and lots of adjectives. I felt he was expending all the emotion of creating a character in a novel on the slighter premise of reality. I grew weary.
He also kept revealing the same things about himself, in slightly different ways. Now we see that his characters’ obsessions are his own, their personality traits, their relationships transformed versions of himself. This inevitable revelation takes away some of the authorial magic. But Chabon also falls into the grooves of old thought patterns in ways unbecoming to a Pulitzer Prize-winner. Yes, he was once a loser who didn’t understand women. But we know now he is not (though Katie Roiphe begs to differ). Can’t he and we, move on?
I was getting cranky after about 50 pages, starting to write this post in my head, apologizing all the while to my mother, who gave the book to my husband for Christmas, signed by the author at a recent reading. I was feeling bad and then I got to the last essay. I should have loved it. It was about raising a family of geeks, Dr. Who-loving, arcana-debating, geeks.
I had no idea you could get a K-9 t-shirt! When I was about 10 and my brother was 7 we attended a meeting of Dr. Who-lovers at the Durham Public Library in costume. We were the only kids. One of my favorite memories of a house we rented for only one year was the gold velour chair in which I curled to watch Dr. Who every afternoon at 5:30. My brother was on the sofa. My mom was making dinner. All was right with the world. For me the real Dr. Who is Tom Baker, the others merely passing through.
As you see, there’s a high likelihood that my family could turn out to be geeky too. But in the essay, Chabon doesn’t let anyone else in. He talks about his loves and his kids and the idea of Dr. Who, but he didn’t make me want to watch the new shows, or even conjure up some recollection of the old. He is not writing a TV column, but for there to be some value added to his cute story I think he needed to make us want to be geeks too. Kavalier & Clay worked for people who had never read a comic besides Archie. This, it seems to me, was the problem with the whole book. We needed less Chabon, more plot.