Mad Pen

fallarts booksslide Mad PenFor the academician planning a cutting-edge survey in Manliness Studies, fall 2009 provides a fine reading list. Start with two new novels from the modern masters of professional boyhood: Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby’s latest adult-contemporary fable, features Apple ear-buds on its cover and, in its plot, a character called Tucker Crowe, described as “a reclusive Dylanish singer-songwriter.” It’s unfair how easy adjectives make things sometimes (Sept. 29). Rather more interesting is Dave Eggers’ The Wild Things, based on the screenplay of the upcoming Spike Jonze version of Maurice Sendak’s child-predation classic. Upon seeing it listed at 300 pages and Ages 12 and up, this reviewer experienced a chilling flashback to his first encounter with a footnote (Oct. 1).

Literary manhood’s main event begins in October. By the numbers: In 2008, 12,700 newborn boys were named Jonathan in the United States. That works out to about twenty-six and a half Jonathans for every page of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, the Brooklyn chronicler’s first novel-length treatment of rudderless Manhattan. (Oct. 16). But what sort of mother would name her Jonathan after Lethem? At 36 Jonathans per page, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals is marginally less substantial but potentially significantly weirder, an everything-but-fiction admixture of “philosophy, literature, science, memoir and his own detective work” that starts with teenage Jonathan’s flirtations with vegetarianism to become, somewhat obscurely, “a celebration and a reckoning, a story about the stories we’ve told—and the stories we now need to tell” (Nov. 2). Do not confuse Eating Animals with Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman’s latest collection of “Pop Culture Pieces” (Oct. 20). (If none of these stories entice, Jonathan Franzen’s next novel, Freedom, is due fall 2010.)

Incidentally, there were more than twice as many Stevens born last year than Stephens. On Oct. 20, one of each—Levitt and Dubner, respectively—bring us SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. Arriving the same day is What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, a collection of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker pieces. Like David Plouffe’s The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory (Nov. 3), both titles amount to world-historical valedictions for their authors; symbology aside, they are the best-seller franchises the ’00s will be remembered for. Which, unfortunately, happens to dilute their cocktail-party efficacy (one can only learn that abortion prevents crime so often!); in autumn’s competitive factoid-dropping, separating boys from men may finally take a woman’s touch. 

Consider the nuggets sure to be found in Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller (Oct. 27). Ms. Heller is an admirer of Rand but not, as it were, a Randian; this denied her access to the Objectivist archives, but also makes her impressive research the closest we’re likely to get to an objective account of a figure non-admirers would mostly care to ignore. They do so at their peril. Like Joseph Smith’s or L. Ron Hubbard’s, Rand’s is the peculiarly American sort of crazy liable to insinuate itself as the new normal anywhere and everywhere it’s given half a chance (say, at the Federal Treasury). Likewise, a peculiarly Russian sort of genius—that of hermit ex-mathematician (and Rasputin look-alike) Grigori Perelman—is the topic of Masha Gessen’s promising pop-sci Perfect Rigor (Nov. 11).

All of which is to say that the time to order your copy of The Original of Laura is now; saved from the flames by his willful wife, and brought to press by his petulant son, she forcibly reasserts Vladimir Nabokov’s alpha-male indispensability from the grave (Nov. 17). Pity the Jonathans.

Mr. Ayelet Waldman Mulls Manhood

To call manliness and its discontents Michael Chabon’s raison d’écrire is merely to say he was born, male and literarily inclined, in the years after the Berlin Wall went up, and has been professionally active since it came down. Spanning 1960 and 1975, his odd generation—the first one post-draft, the last one pre–personal computer—happens to dominate American letters, which makes their vocational quandary our Cultural Problem. How, then, to refashion the masculine narrative tradition—sustained by soldiers and stoics from Beowulf through Hemingway, Chandler and McCarthy—for current flabby male reality? The great question that has never been answered, and which our variegated post-feminisms have not yet been able to answer (despite a decade of Clooneys and Beckhams, Eggerses and Foster Wallaces, Sopranos and Entourages and Mad Men), is “What do men want out of manhood?”

Circa 2000, the answer would have been: comic books, exemplified by Mr. Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, which won a Pulitzer Prize. He followed it with three hyper-rigorous exercises in genre fiction, and he wasn’t alone. In strenuously play-acting as mystery novelists (Mr. Chabon’s The Final Solution and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), young-adult authors (his Summerland), Marvel writers (Jonathan Lethem’s Omega the Unknown) and mid-century New York intellectuals (the strange case of n+1), very adult men seemed to be working through a problem, in boyish Asperger’s fashion, by way of non-sequitur obsession—by inhabiting ready-made, amber-set formal frameworks as a means to confront their own times. A decade into the 21st century, is specifically masculine virtue a contradiction in terms? The detour into superheroes and detectives would have been worth the pulp if it can answer this question, and Mr. Chabon’s memoir Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, a Father and a Son promises a “shy manifesto” that may be his generation’s, and ours, first serious stab at just that (Oct. 6).