Over the past 20 years, the US author Michael Chabon has carved a place as one of the most imaginative and skilful writers of his generation. In a handful of fantastic novels, as well as in short stories, screenplays, children's fiction, comics and more, he's consistently succeeded in marrying high-concept literary values with a love of pop culture, throwing an irrepressible storytelling compulsion into the bargain. Those tropes all recur in this brilliant collection of short essays, which focuses on the nature of family, parenthood, childhood and relationships but takes in so much more besides. It's a manifesto of sorts, but one delivered with all the caveats, excuses and exceptions of a modern man struggling to make sense of the 21st century. It's also delivered with a huge amount of insight into the way we live our lives today, not to mention plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and some heartbreaking, melancholic ones as well.
Central to Chabon's concerns is the worry that we are robbing today's children of their childhoods. The author, who is a father of four, eloquently discusses in several of these essays the idea that childhood has become so packaged and formulated that we leave today's kids no room for experimentation, nor the freedom to screw up in their own sweet ways. In one of the funniest essays in this collection, he rants about Lego, and how it has changed from being a tool of the imagination into a toy with an insanely proscriptive set of instructions, marketed and branded to within an inch of its life.
A similar theme permeates both "The Wilderness of Childhood" and "The Splendors of Crap", in which Chabon rails against the focus-grouped precision of modern family-friendly movies in favour of the more "open-ended" crap of his youth. Chabon has long been a champion of the power of such "crap" to shape the culture of a generation. There are plenty of references to Star Trek and Doctor Who and whatever else here. But this is a long way from being a geek's charter – rather, the author does a fantastic job of persuading us of how such "lowly" vessels of entertainment can tell us more about life than 100 obscure, esoteric literary novels.
Elsewhere, Chabon is at his best when discussing the uniquely chaotic interactions of family. In "The Memory Hole", he begins by confessing to having binned large quantities of his children's school artwork, then goes on to pinpoint the heady brew of exhilaration, melancholy and ennui that accompanies everyday family life. In "Normal Time", he exquisitely describes the delusions necessary for parenthood – for example, that everything will return to some fictional, Platonic ideal of calm normalcy once all this damned crazy stuff just finishes happening.
The self-portrait that emerges of Chabon from these often sublime essays is of an immensely likeable figure, a man trying to do his level best in the perfect storm of modern life; someone aware of his faults and not afraid to discuss them; a man brimming with compassion and empathy, but not afraid to let loose a tirade once in a while if he feels the need. That all this is delivered with beautiful, dancing, lively language, not a whiff of cliché, and an acute understanding of the frailty of human nature will come as no surprise to fans of Chabon's fiction. And if you're not a fan of his writing yet, this book will surely change that.