In the opening essay of his second collection about fatherhood, Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, Michael Chabon recounts the advice he received early in his career from a writer he refers to only as “the great man”: “‘Don’t have children,’ he said. ‘That’s it.'”
On the verge of what will turn out to be his first (childless) marriage, Chabon tries to come up with examples of successful author-parents, but the great man continues: “‘You can write great books …or you can have kids. It’s up to you.'”
Chabon wants to balance his existential ledgers: how many books, versus how many children? It seems a stark, utilitarian showdown for what’s usually referred to as the “work-life balance”, and even more usually confined to the condescendingly-named “mommy lit”. Yet here, a male author seems rightfully worried about hostage negotiations between creation and procreation. That sensitivity, among many other things, is to Chabon’s credit.
In each essay that follows, then, Chabon walks the reader through a series of mediations on fatherhood and the stories families co-author: accompanying his 13-year-old son Abraham to Paris Men’s Fashion Week for GQ; a conversation with his 15-year-old daughter about the favorable weirdness of living in Berkeley, California; on teaching his older son, in one essay, “not to be a dick to girls”, and in another, realizing that his daughter, and not this son, is interested in baseball, and a concluding essay that describes his own experience as the child of an idealized, but less than ideal, father.
Further to Chabon’s credit, if there’s one thing even harder than parenting, it’s writing about parenting. There is, obviously, plenty of writing on parenting. The topics are, as they say in the magazine business, evergreen. But they are also primordial. Sleep. Clothing. Food. Freedom. Feces.
So what I mean is, if there is one thing even harder than parenting, it’s writing about parenting well. Chabon, as he demonstrated in his novels, from his recent memoir/biography/Holocaust novel Moonglow, to his Pulitzer-prize winning superhero origin story/Holocaust novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, to his speculative fiction/Holocaust novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, indeed writes well. Very well. In the book’s titular, final essay, a young Michael accompanies his doctor father on an in-home exam. Witness Chabon’s comparison between his father’s professional medical bag with his own:
The mouth of my father’s bag opens and closes smoothly on the hinges of a secret armature, clasped by a heavy brass tongue that slides home with a satisfying click. Mine pops open when you flop a plastic tab that has begun to shear loose and will soon snap off. A vial of candy “pills” was the sole advantage my black bag possesses over my father’s, but I have long since prescribed and administered them to myself. The empty vial rolls around at the bottom of the bag.
It’s a syntactical and symbolic wonder: the personification of the bag’s “mouth and tongue” during the scene of a checkup; “secret armature … that slides home with a satisfying click” combines onomatopoeia with Chabon’s stock-in-trade baseball, contrasting the equally onomatopoetic buffoonery of “flop a plastic tab” while managing to sneak in the essay’s and book’s title, “pops”; the ironic use of “prescribed and administered” for candy medicine that exposes Michael’s childish quackery; the objective correlative between the rolling, empty vial, and the imitation bag itself, for the insignificant feelings of the impostor son. Further, 1. it feels like Chabon wrote this ironically humble virtuoso prose poem effortlessly, and 2. you can perform this kind of close reading on virtually any passage.
So not only is Chabon the best writer; he is also the best parent. At first, he seems harsh on his older son: Abraham gets a trip to Paris, while the unnamed other son gets treated dickishly by his father so that he learns what it feels like. Even then, we see it’s in the spirit of egalitarian gender treatment, not dickishness for its own sake. Of course, as the best parent, Chabon would never claim to be the best parent. Instead, he is merely funny, fair, sensitive, self-deprecating, and brilliant. After Paris Men’s Fashion Week ends, Chabon is surprised to discover that Abraham is sad, not because it’s over, or about leaving the clothing behind, but in anticipation of missing his new fellow-fashion fanatic friends. Chabon concludes,
You are born into a family and those are your people, and they know you and they love you, and if you are lucky they even on occasion manage to understand you. And that ought to be enough. But it is never enough. Abe had not been dressing up, styling himself, for all these years because he was trying to prove how different he was from everyone else. He did it in the hope of attracting the attention of somebody else—somewhere, someday—who was the same. He was not flying his freak flag; he was sending up a flare, hoping for rescue, for company in the solitude of his passion.
“You were with your people. You found them,” I said.
“That’s good,” I said. “You’re early.”
As a writer, parent, and erstwhile parenting columnist myself, this ending had me on the verge of tears. So much insight into the black box of our children’s psyche, beautifully rendered, using clothes as a palpable metonym for identity itself. It recalls what Andrew Solomon, in Far From the Tree, refers to as horizontal identities: non-family members who are unlike the parents but like our children, as opposed to the vertical identities that parents assume their children will share with them.
In the end, reading Pops made me feel two things: this is how Eric Clapton felt seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time, when he exclaimed, “You never told me he was that fucking good.” And I’m not exactly the Eric Clapton of parenting articles in the first place. The other is the guilty wish that my own kids might have been better off if Chabon had raised them. But he couldn’t, because he was too busy writing more books.
So don’t feel too bad about that discouragement from “the great man”. Chabon went on have four children, and Pops is his 15th book. It turns out that, at least for some writers, children are not a very effective form of book control.