New memoirs dont quite hit on the real Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon is an illusionist of sorts, an offbeat rebellious conjurer of jarring images that both startle and disturb the reader. He struggles to find a consistently intimate voice in his new book of autobiographical essays, but often stumbles and seems merely to be striking different poses — some more artificial than others, but all of them provocative and interesting.

Chabon, 46, is probably best known for “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” which received tremendous critical acclaim. A plot-driven novel of intrigue, it imagined an alternative historical reality that had the Jews losing the war in Palestine in 1948 and winding up living on a sliver of land in Alaska.

In his most recent effort, he has attempted to reveal to us his most personal thinking, and realness turns out not to be his strongest suit — though cleverness is.

Chabon grew up a nerdy Jewish kid in Columbia, Md., the eldest son of a physician. He was utterly devastated when his father deserted the family when he was only 11. His mother and younger brother remained, but his mother was distracted picking up the pieces of her own shattered life. She began attending law school and dating new men, and there seemed to be very little time for her children.

Chabon’s early years were an uneasy and lonely time, and he found great solace in comic books and science fiction fantasies, mesmerized by the exciting lives of the superheroes and villains living in galaxies far away.

The loss of a father while on the brink of becoming a man is a festering wound that permeates almost everything Chabon writes. Daddy seems to be always there with him, a persistent voice in his head, occasionally offering the praise for which he longs or criticizing him for his failings.

Chabon admits this absence of paternal affection left him hungry for other fatherly figures, and in one of the most delightful essays in the book, he writes tenderly of his surprisingly close bond with his first wife’s father.

The problem with Chabon is that he never fully confronts the roots of his turmoil; he dances and squirms his way around things. He has trouble showing us his suffering and often seems obtuse when considering the lives of those closest to him. He shows us so many different faces that we have trouble seeing his face.

There is Chabon, the sensitive, hippie-like daddy of four living in Berkeley with his wife, Ayelet Waldman, whom he describes as his savior of sorts — the spark plug that lifted him and continues to drag him up from the abyss into which he seems intent on falling.

The two of them work in side-by-side in their home office so they can read and critique each other’s work and remain in close proximity to each other. Chabon’s description of the inner workings of their marriage reveal it to be fueled by an almost unbearable intensity that convinces the reader they will either remain intertwined forever at each other’s beck and call, or disintegrate tomorrow — one really isn’t sure.

There is also Chabon, the grown man filled with regret, reliving the isolation he felt as a 14-year-old boy watching his mother smoke pot a few years after his father left, the swirls of smoke creating a cloudy haziness that rendered him more invisible and insignificant than he already felt.

There is the irreverent Chabon who spends the night before his second son’s circumcision cursing out God for coercing him to follow this ancient Jewish mandate.

Occasionally, he is more candid about himself. Chabon writes about his own peculiar obsessions, the pressing need he has felt at certain times of his life to repeat certain words and phrases daily and his son’s more serious affliction with the same sort of obsessive behavior. He mentions briefly his wife’s struggle with bipolar disorder, which occasionally drowns out her almost irrepressible spirit and frightens him.

Yet we never fully get pulled into Chabon’s corner; we don’t feel the presence of his soul or join him on his journey. He is too self-conscious, too savvy and sophisticated, and too afraid and cut off to really surrender to the pain that has infused many parts of his life. He disappoints those of us who want to fall in love a little bit every time we read a memoir. Even his flirtation with Judaism seems forced and porous; one minute he is kvelling over his daughter’s bat mitzvah, and the next second he is sparring with God, suspecting he might lose.

But perhaps before we condemn Chabon, we must confront our own inadequacy in being able to feel for him. After all, he is just a sad grown man who was once a sad little boy, now forced to reckon with the knowledge that there is so little that can truly placate him.

“Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son” by Michael Chabon (320 pages, HarperCollins, $25.99)

Michael Chabon
will be speaking 8 p.m. Nov. 10 at Stanford University’s Hewlett Building, Room 200, in a conversation about “notions of home,” sponsored by Stanford’s Taube Center for Jewish Studies.