Review: Manhood for Amateurs

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

As I continually mention, I will read anything Michael Chabon publishes, and someday, I’ll get around to doing just that. (But you know how life is; so many books, so little time…) As I settled back into town for school, I picked up Manhood for Amateurs, as I’ve heard only good things about it, especially about Chabon’s self-identification as a fan (as in fandom). That, I feel, is massively important. There’s a specific slant to the way a fan sees the world, the way we reference and frame things in context of the stories we love. To watch Chabon, and his mastery of language, do that? Sign me up.

Manhood for Amateurs is a collection of essays by Chabon, many of which were published in Details Magazine. Separated out into sections by general topic, Chabon explores not only fandom and what drives people to write, but his position as son, father, and husband throughout his life. Here, he contemplates his first failed marriage, his current marriage to Ayelet Waldman, and his children, who see things much differently than he does.

Gender is performance; that’s a fact. The thing is, I have never met any men who seem as contentedly aware of this as most of the women I know; in darker moments, I have been known to call them “unenlightened straight boys”. So reading Chabon dissect and look at his own conception of himself as a man was absolutely fascinating to me, as a straight man doing so is utterly novel to me. I especially enjoyed “A Textbook Father”, where Chabon looked at the gap between his desire to be a good and feminist-minded father towards his daughter, especially as she grows into her sexuality, and his awkward, almost stereotypically male feelings about the situation–he, in a moment of high drama, panics over the thought of his wife dying before his daughter gets her period. The fact that Chabon can look at that gap and accept it as a part of himself speaks volumes, to me, about the kind of person he is. Another wonderful piece on the subject is “The Art of Cake”, where Chabon thanks the seventies and the Second Wave of feminism for giving him the ability to use cooking as a way to identify with his mother and his grandmother.

Memoirs, by their very nature, are invasive, which is why I don’t read much of the genre–only my love for Chabon’s writing made me pick up Manhood for Amateurs (well, that and Jenny’s review). This trait of memoirs is abundant here; Chabon lays bare his first sexual experience (which involves a downright charming amount of awe), his failed first marriage (to a degree), and his immense and touching love for his wife. But I think the piece that really steals the show in this regard is “Cosmodemonic”, which is about how his MFA in creative writing was what turned him from a pretentious and misogynistic young man into an actual man. It’s a hard thing, I think, to look at one’s past self and realize what bizarre ways you looked at and thought about the world, and Chabon strips his past self to the bone and examines how that experience, encountering actual women who were sacrificing something to pursue this writing thing, changed him for the infinitely better. In every collection, there’s always a piece I want to rip out and distribute to the world–“Cosmodemonic” is that piece in Manhood for Amateurs.

Chabon, as ever, has a devastatingly beautiful eye for detail–which is not only the eye for the perfect word, but for the perfect moment. “Fever”, one of the shortest pieces in the volume, focuses on a very specific moment when the actual boyfriend of Chabon’s stoner girlfriend calls him up and asks him to look after her. It’s the perfect moment to illustrate his tragic attraction to lost causes, especially the moment when he, astonishingly enough to himself, forgives her. You guys should really see the entry in my commonplace book for this one; it’s four pages long. Chabon’s writing is just so beautiful. However, I will say this–while it doesn’t bother me, I did notice that his syntax can occasionally be tricky. It’s nothing that’ll trip you up, but gleaning all you can from Chabon requires careful reading.

I’ve mentioned Diana Gabaldon’s strange reaction to fandom before; it almost bothers me that a creative, as I deem all humanities types, can’t understand that base impulse to expand upon something–in a way, isn’t everything fanfiction? Chabon, God bless him, does understand that base impulse, and even devotes the first piece, “The Losers’ Club”, to a discussion of fandom and creators. But it’s a topic he returns to throughout the book–beautifully in “The Splendors of Crap”, where he praises open-ended speculative fiction and inadvertently explains the popularity of Firefly, and a bit clumsily in “The Amateur Family”, where he forces the two themes of family and fandom together. It works, but not as well as it could have. I quite enjoyed “A Woman of Valor”, where he describe his early crush and continuing interest in Big Barda, a DC superheroine. It just encapsulates fannish love so well and links it to his immense love for his wife, which reminds me of nothing so much as a fannish couple sighing over each other and declaring each other to be the, well, Mister Miracle to the other’s Big Barda. It’s a perfect example of a fannish viewpoint, framing your world in terms of the stories you love. Isn’t love grand?

Bottom line: In Manhood for Amateurs, Chabon turns his devestatingly eye for detail inward, contemplating his good and bad experiences as well as his identity as a father, a son, a husband, and, well, a man. Want to get someone hooked on Chabon? This might not be a bad place to start.

I rented this book from the public library.

9 thoughts on “Review: Manhood for Amateurs

  1. I liked the essay on family and fandom a lot, but it could have used some work to make it come together properly. It’s just so exactly the experience of my own family that I had to love it. 🙂

  2. I have not yet read anything by Chabon, but I’ve been meaning to. I do like memoirs, so maybe this would be a good place to start. Thanks for the thoughtful review!

    • Chabon is brilliant; he’s one of my favorite writers. If you like memoirs, yeah, this is a good place to start–his other collection of essays, Maps and Legends, focuses more on the craft of writing. But I can’t praise his work enough; his stuff is wonderful.

  3. I enjoyed this one quite a bit as well. I recently read an essay collection titled “What I Would Tell Her”, essays by different men about their relationships with their daughters, and it reminded me a LOT of Manhood for Amateurs; I would definitely recommend it. I haven’t read anything else by Chabon but I definitely want to!

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