Our Geeky Hearts Are Bigger On The Inside Than On The Outside

Of all the love letters in Michael Chabon's newest book Manhood For Amateurs, the tenderest might well be reserved for Doctor Who. The Time Lord's journey, like so many other geeky narratives, becomes a touchstone for Chabon's relationships and self-discovery.

Chabon talks about how his eldest son startled a British attendant at the Smithsonian with his Dalek T-shirt, and then his other children had to regale the man with tales of their Cybermen and Time Lord shirts, until he understands they're a geek family. And then Chabon talks about how the new Doctor Who series has brought his family together, and sings the show's praises:

And if you aren't watching and loving the glorious new BBC incarnation of Doctor Who, geeking out on the mythos of the Daleks and Time Lords and Cybermen, swooning to the polysexual heroics of Captain Jack Harkness, aching over the quantum transdimensional heartache of Rose Tyler, and granting yourself the supreme and steady pleasure of watching the dazzling Scottish actor David Tennant go about the business of being the tenth man to embody the time-and-space traveling Doctor on television since the show's debut in 1963, then I pity you with the especial harsh pity of the geek.

As you might have gathered from its subtitle ("The Pleasures And Regrets Of A Husband, Father, And Son") Manhood For Amateurs is Chabon's collection of essays about being a man, and the various personas he's taken on. But even as he delves into the heart of his own struggles with maleness, Chabon invokes science fiction and comics, exploring topics as diverse as why Big Barda is the greatest superheroine, or why all futurism is now retro-futurism, and we've lost our starry-eyed optimism. Like manhood, these geek avatars gain their meaning from other people, they're public and subject to interpretation. They also change over time, like the Doctor. (Chabon, himself, has gone through incarnations, including being a "little shit" in his twenties, as he makes clear at various points.)

The Doctor Who essay, one of the last in the book, returns to the theme of the book's first essay: the solitary and communal sides of fandom. Chabon grew up, like many of us, as a solitary geek, with nobody to share his obsession with comics and science fiction paperbacks. The first essay talks about how he tried to start a local comic-book fan club, with his mother's help — they even paid $25 to rent a room for the first meeting, and only one other boy showed up, then immediately left before he could get sucked into this "loser's club." The Doctor Who essay is about how the new version of the show has given Chabon's children the gift of each other, and how fandom and families are the same, with their rituals and obsessions.

Most provocatively, in the earlier "Loser's Club" essay, Chabon even suggests that fandom and the artistic drive come from the same impulse, and even hints that fanfic and literature spring from the same well:

This is the point, to me, where art and fandom coincide. Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake, a challenge that seeks the password, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing. Every great record or novel or comic book convenes the first meeting of a fan club whose membership stands forever at one but which maintains chapters in every city — in every cranium — in the world. Art, like fandom, asserts the possibility of fellowship in a world built entirely from the materials of solitude. The novelist, the cartoonist, the songwriter, knows that the gesture is doomed from the beginning but makees it anyway, flashes his or her bit of mirror, not on the chance that the signal will be seen or understood but as if such a chance existed.

Manhood For Amateurs isn't just notable for the honestly with which Chabon deals with every aspect of his life, including his insecurities and his relationships with women and his own children — it's also a more revelatory look at fan culture, and science fiction, through the lens of the personal essay. Anyone who's interested in discussing science fiction and its attendent genres for their personal as well as cultural significance should be checking out these essays.

More than ever, Chabon uses superhero comics, Star Wars toys and Doctor Who's Daleks as signposts to the masculine imaginary. He geeks out about these things as if they are the only points of certainty in a shifting, illusory world.

(The book is by no means perfect: At times, his opinion-spouting gets a little overwhelming, and by the time he gets to the section where he talks about women, about two-thirds of the way through, I was starting to wonder if Chabon really did live in some male-dominated enclave — but then a lot of the last third of the book is about women, and he addresses that criticism of his writing head-on. But my criticisms of the book mostly have nothing to do with its discussions of science fiction or geek culture, and they're pretty minor in any case.)

Manhood, Chabon seems to be saying, is improv. You create yourself on the fly, in roles as perplexing and diverse as husband, father, lover and friend, and hope to project an impression of knowing what you're doing. The fact that Chabon deconstructs masculinity while pulling together so many elements of science fiction turns nerd culture into a set of anchor points. You sort of expect Chabon to use comic-book and science-fiction icons to illuminate his inner world, the way in which superhero storytelling in Kavalier And Clay became a kind of emotional atlas. But it goes beyond that: one of the constants in Chabon's essays is the primacy of play, in the midst of all this role confusion. And geeking out is an essential ingredient of that play.

The discussions of play includes a very carefully considered history of Lego toys, and their development from abstract bricks to a world dominated by crudely representational minifigs. (We featured a "quote of the day" a while back, in which Chabon talked about how his kids were remixing these Lego sets and transcending the tyrannical corporate-sanctioned instructions.) He joins the chorus of people lamenting the fact that kids no longer roam free on their bicycles and skateboards. He narrates some bizarrely awesome-sounding games he and other kids played, based on the 1973 Planet Of The Apes TV series (not the movies, weirdly enough). And he talks about stargazing, and discovering our smallness in the cosmos, as well as the Long Now Foundation's 10,000 year clock and how it's making him wonder why we've stopped obsessing about the far future.

All in all, Manhood For Amateurs is a much geekier book than you might have expected from its title, and yet also a much more personal book than most geeky essay collections. If you've suspected that fandom's signs and collections of ill-fitting clues were markers in someone else's inner cosmology, just as they are in yours, then you will definitely bond with this book.