Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

I've been a fan of Michael Chabon's since his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," and subsequent novels such as "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" and "Gentlemen of the Road." He's been very busy of late, producing two novels, a collection of essays entitled "Maps and Legends," and this latest work, a hybrid of memoir and essay and meditation on the creative processes in fiction and families.

"Manhood for Amateurs" sheds plenty of light on Chabon's biography, much as "Maps and Legends" did. "Manhood" is a sort of cousin of the earlier work, covering topics such as Chabon's first marriage, his early childhood, his maturation as a writer, and his fascination with science fiction and fantasy, comic books, baseball, etc. with each genre and sub-genre listed dutifully. It also covers his marriage to Ayelet Waldman and their lives with their children. Chabon marches through the passage of time, the expectations of fathers and mothers, and the nature of the universe with the same gentle humor and wonder that he marshals in his fiction.

I should say I did not want to read this book at first. I'm noticing too many of the novelists I follow suddenly giving me books about their lives and observations in place of the fictions I crave from them. Whether it be creative nonfiction or memoir or essay or whatever, I find myself losing patience when someone I admire thinks I'd rather read their all-too-predictable thoughts on the 2008 election or depression or, you name it. I realize this is part of the writer's mystique... after all, it's all about you, even if it isn't. But Chabon manages to make this journey pleasurable because of his beautiful prose and the gentle wisdom in his observations. Yes, he does talk about the election, but you're willing to forgive it because he doesn't dwell there for too long or indulge in the expected.

One piece in particular bears scrutiny here: "Xmas," a piece toward the end about Chabon's childhood as a Jew in the land of Christmas, and his reaction then and now to the Christ story. Chabon rails against the denatured Christmas as a holiday shorn of its inspiration, the birth of Jesus. Make no mistake, Chabon spends just as much time making clear he is no fan of what he refers to as religious fundamentalism. He is dubious, it seems, of religion in any stripe, and describes himself as agnostic but mildly observant. But he does find himself remembering the words of Luke's gospel, quoted in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," by Linus, and being inspired:

"I still know that chapter and verse of the Gospel of Luke by heart, and no amount of subsequent disillusionment with the behavior of self-described Christians, or with the ongoing commercialization that in 1965 had already broken Charlie Brown's heart, has robbed the central miracle of Christmas of its power to move me the way any truly great story can."

Chabon, though he considers the story of Jesus to be basically "a lie," says that it offers us a way to see the Truth. He's not far from the Kingdom of God, here, and actually sounds a lot like C.S. Lewis, if you ignore the pop culture references and occasional profanity. And he's able to summon up a great deal of wonder that I'm not sure Christians are able to tap into while they flit from store to store, trying to find the perfect gift for their imperfect budget.

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