Favourite Thinkers VI: Michael Chabon

Is a blog, which this is, by an academic, which I am, necessarily an ‘academic blog’? I’m not sure, and I kind of hope not.

Anyway, I came across this little essay by Michael Chabon, on why dreams are over-rated. It’s typical of how he writes about grand things by locating them in the mundane stream of ordinary living. Chabon has accidentally become one my favourite thinkers recently, even though I have only ever read one of his books – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, obviously, almost a quarter of a century ago (I keep trying to read Wonderboys, and we have a couple of his other novels kicking around the house, but they are so thick it’s off-putting).

But his non-fiction is great. He has a collection of ‘criticism’, Maps and Legends, which is  all about being a fan of genre fiction, and how all literature is really genre fiction, that I picked up in a wonderful book shop in Greenwich village a couple of years ago. This was shortly after the film adaptation of The Road had been released, and lots of the discussion about it presumed it was an allegory for environmental catastrophe. Chabon’s essay, written before the film, puts the novel into the perspective of the whole sweep of Cormac McCarthy’s work, and specifically, presents it as working the line between two genres, those of epic and horror.

The horror, for Chabon, derives from the way in which The Road works as “a testament to the abyss of a parent’s greatest fears”:

“The fear of leaving your child alone, of dying before your child has reached adulthood and learned to work the mechanisms and face the dangers of the world, or found a new partner to face them with”.

And some other fears too. I liked this account not least because it captured something of my own experience of reading the novel (I haven’t been able to find time, or face up, to watching the film) – it really did interpellate me as a parent, provoked a series of anxieties that I don’t think it would have done before then.

More lightheartedly, the other collection of Chabon’s that I have read, more recently, is Manhood for Amateurs, a book about being a dad, husband, boyfriend, son, and other assorted manly roles. It sounds like one of those ‘guides to being a dad’ books, I know, but it really isn’t. I bought it for 1.99 at The Works in Swindon’s Outlet Village (second best bookshop in town, in the best public space). It contains a series of little pieces on all sorts of topics, some of which don’t quite translate for an American context, some of which do – a wonderful account of the guilt inducing struggle to manage the mountain of pictures and drawings that one’s children bring home every day from nursery or school without succumbing to the sense that you are destroying the archive of your, and their, future memories; why the introduction of human mini-figures by Lego was indicative of a larger shift in contemporary toy culture that shrinks the scope of the imagination (it’s more fun than that makes it sound); the importance of pockets in men’s lives, and the difficulties of finding appropriate bags-which-are-not-purses – and the search for the perfect “murse”.

Chabon also writes abuot how he suffers from the ‘delusion’  that, despite knowing he’ll never see grandparents again, or dead dogs, or 1976, that he will return to these times and places and people sometime in the future:

“always lurking somewhere in the back of my mind is the unshakeable, even foundational knowledge – for which certainty is too conscious a term – that at some unspecified future date, by unspecified means, I will return to those people and to those locales. That I am going back”.

Again, this strikes a chord with me, it’s a constant feature of how I process memories. So does Chabon’s wider point about the delusion of yearning for the return of ‘normal time’ – a time in life when it seems that the rhythm of everyday life is not interrupted or imperilled by rain pouring through the bedroom ceiling, cats with urinary tract infections, children with conjunctivitis, having to look after the neighbours chickens.

Anyway, I have nothing profound to say about any of this, other than to recommend Chabon’s writing on the ordinary aspects of growing up and growing old.