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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

New Michael Chabon book challenges American masculinity

By Steve Sedlak

I first fell in love with Michael Chabon as a Pittsburgher. Chabon’s melancholic prose in “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” couldn’t more perfectly embody the confused college student persona of Oakland. But Chabon’s latest book, “Manhood for Amateurs” takes the author down a different authorial path: that of non-fiction.”Manhood for Amateurs,” which was released at the beginning of last month, is a collection of short stories and essays on the ever-constant theme of what it means to be “a man” in contemporary American society. But don’t be misled by the book’s seemingly heteronormative title, or my cursory summary of its contents. After all, the book’s binding and dust jacket seem to suggest that maybe we have been taking “being a man” a little too seriously for a little too long. Remove the dust jacket and you’ll find that “being a man” is just a game – something that can be reduced to a roulette wheel.

And that’s what makes “Manhood for Amateurs” fun to read. Chabon fully realizes the hypocrisy and arbitrariness at the root of most images of American masculinity. His chapter titled “I Feel Good About My Murse” probes the bizarre anxiety some Americans feel about males with hand luggage, ultimately reclaiming the purse for what it really is – an object – and not as an object of gendered distinction.

“Faking It” is wrought of masculine self-parody. Chabon ends up looking like a fool for trying to simulate a familiarity with power tools. The inner narration of masculinity, the very thing this book is made up of, is always unsure and mocking itself as it goes along.

But oftentimes Chabon’s cultural critique is more poignant than his self-parody. For a book that supposedly centers on Chabon’s experience as a Jewish American male, an inordinate portion of the book ridicules capitalism’s shameless colonization of kid’s culture. In Captain Underpants, Chabon sees the death of the childhood imaginary, but also the complete commodification of the questioning of authority. Reading “Hypocrticial Theory,” I’m reminded of the AdBusters article titled “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.” That Chabon picks up on such a broad cultural current by watching how his children interact with contemporary culture stands as testament to his brilliance and sensitivity.

Although the book ends with an obligatory dad-at-the-wedding scene, it’s done pretty tastefully. Chabon seems aware that the inventory of his lived experience is still being written. “This is our life happening,” writes Chabon on the book’s last page. Chabon is as much an amateur to manhood – and life – as anyone reading this book is. He navigates his own lived experience as he narrates this book, kindly, amateurishly, for us readers.

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