Sunday, 12 December 2010

Manhood For Amateurs

Michael Chabon

This is a collection of autobiographical essays about being a father and a husband and an ex-husband and a brief son-in-law. I don't know if it says more about me or Chabon that I read it is a stand-alone love letter to childhood.

I was particularly taken with the fact that he and his children are all massive Doctor Who geeks. Not because I like the show, though I do, but because I'm deeply attached to the idea that people need to share the same cultural environment, the same atmosphere of stories.

References are so important. They're the shortcuts and exploded diagrams of conversation. It's not always easy to communicate a particular situation, a particular relationship, or the significance of a pareticular event, from first principles. And if you can point your listener to a story that you know and that they know and that echoes what you wish to explain, you don't need to.

That's the best reason I can think of to mourn the loss of the classical education. I get sick of characters and their authors in old books always referring to Greek myths and the like, because I don't share the references. But the intended readers would undoubtedly have got them. These days, there's not many stories an author can point to and be completely sure the reader knows them. I don't even know with any certainty which stories are the wallpaper in my sister's houses. There's too many stories to choose from.

It's why it's so important to watch the same comedy programs as your friends. Even if they're crap. Making sure all my friends have seen the same comedy that I've seen has become a personal mission of the religious variety, in recent years. I want to live in the same richly textured storyworlds they do, so I can talk to them properly.

(An aside: That's also why every book or story I write is full of other books and stories. Salvage, in which a woman fantasises about the end of the world, is full of the characters from Friends. Full of them.)

That's all a long and laboured way of saying how excited I was to discover that the Chabons all watch Doctor Who, and quote it and discuss it and make sense of their lives in accordance to it. Let's not mourn the classical education, but let's all start watching Jonathan Creek. Or Band of Brothers. Or anything, it doesn't matter. Wodehouse and his daughter swapped letters about trashy American soaps for years. That's fine.

But while Chabon is keen to create a shared environment for his whole family, he is also keen to protect the independent world of childhood that he fears is a dying space, a swiftly dwindling rainforest. He makes the decision to disapprove of the mildly gross Captain Underpants books, despite secretly liking them, so his children have the start of somewhere to go where he is not allowed to follow. When adults start moving in on the cultural items of childhood, the children have nowhere to grow. They need their own world, and their own language. They need a basement.

When Chabon finds himself in a house without a basement, he worries for his children. Where will the 'dark tide of magical boredom' collect, ferment and inspire? So he builds them a treehouse. That's the one practical tip I picked up from this self-help guide. Build them a treehouse, and don't skimp on the dank. And hope,  with the same pure memory and desperate awe of my own childhood places that Chabon does, that 'they lie up there on their backs for hours, feeling tragic, and happy, and terribly, terribly bored.'

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