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Michael Chabon


  To my father, and to my children


  I’ve been there and back

  And I know how far it is




  Title Page



  Introduction: The Opposite of Writing

  Little Man

  Adventures in Euphemism

  The Bubble People

  Against Dickitude

  The Old Ball Game

  Be Cool or Be Cast Out


  About the Author

  Also by Michael Chabon


  About the Publisher

  Introduction: The Opposite of Writing

  At a literary party the summer before my first novel was published, I found myself alone with a writer I admired, on the deck of our hosts’ house along the Truckee River. People came and went with blue Mexican wineglasses and bottles of beer, but I sensed that, for whatever reason, I had the man’s attention.

  “I’m going to give you some advice,” he told me, a warning edge in his voice.

  I said I would appreciate that. I was curious to hear what he had to say, not because I felt in need of advice but as a clue to the mystery of the great man himself. He presented a smooth surface without chinks or toeholds, the studied amiability of someone unaccustomed to giving himself away. Advice might be the only clue I was going to get.

  The great man said that his advice was going to be painful—or maybe that was just in his tone—but he knew what he was talking about, and if I wanted to make a go of it as a novelist, I would do well to pay attention. The guy was nearly twice my age, but he was not old. He was young enough, for example, to wear black Chuck Taylors. He was young enough to smile ironically at himself, laying the Polonius routine on some raw hurler of metaphors out of UC Irvine.

  “Don’t have children,” he said. “That’s it. Do not.” The smile faded, but its ghost lingered a moment in his blue eyes. “That is the whole of the law.”

  I was due to marry my future ex-wife in under a month; my book would come out the following spring. It turned out that this conjunction of circumstances, in the view of the famous writer, was cause for alarm. Now, marriage was fine—in fact, all of the guy’s books were dedicated to his long-suffering wife—but if you were not careful, you would run a serious risk of damaging your career. After this one, he patiently explained, there would be a second novel to write, and second novels were notoriously thornier and more unwieldy than debuts. Following the inevitable sophomore cock-up, if I were lucky and stubborn in the proper measure, I would go on to tackle the magisterial third and fourth novels, and then the quirky fifth, the slim and elegant sixth, the seventh that, in some way, would recapitulate and ring the changes on all its predecessors, and so on, for as long as my stubbornness and luck held out. Unless, of course, I made the fatal mistake of so many would-be young hotshots before me.

  “You can write great books,” the great man continued. “Or you can have kids. It’s up to you.”

  I nodded, reeling a little at the prophecy he had just laid down for me, a career of struggle and triumph stacked up to the heavens like Babel, book by torturous book.

  “I never thought about it that way,” I confessed. My future ex-wife and I had gotten as far as the usual drawing up of rotisserie-league baby-name rosters, but no further. Did I need to put an immediate halt to these playful conversations, along with any more earnest ones that might arise? She was a poet, with ambitions of her own.

  “Poe,” he said. “O’Connor. Welty. None of them had children.” This was a list that, by implication, included him; he was a Southerner himself, and he and his beloved dedicatee were childless, too. “Chekhov. Beckett. Woolf.”

  I tried to muster some counterexamples, but alas, the one who came immediately to mind was my current idol, John Cheever, packed into a house in Ossining with his aggrieved wife and three children. I had just been reading the memoirs of his daughter, Susan. Her childhood had been quietly calamitous, her father’s career a farrago of alcoholism, shame, and secret homosexuality. The short stories had over time come unbuttoned, the novels proceeding with the sham dignity and slow gait of drunks trying to pass for sober, while the children alternated between hoping desperately to be seen and trying to keep out of the way. It was at least arguable, I guessed, that the man ought never to have had children at all. I wondered how Susan Cheever would feel about that proposition.

  “Put it this way, Michael,” the great man said, and then he sketched out the brutal logic: Writing was a practice. The more you wrote, the better a writer you became, and the more books you produced. Excellence plus productivity, that was the formula for sustained success, and time was the coefficient of both. Children, the great man said, were notorious thieves of time. Then there was the question of subject matter, settings, experiences; books were hungry things, and if you stayed too long in any one place, they would consume everything and everyone around you. You needed to keep moving, always onward, a literary Masai driving your ravenous herd of novels. Travel, therefore, was a must, and I should take his word for it, because he had made a careful study: Traveling with children was the world’s biggest pain in the ass. Anyway, writers were restless folk. They could not thrive without being able to pick up and go, wherever and whenever it suited them. Writers needed to be irresponsible, ultimately, to everything but the writing, free of commitments to everything but the daily word count. Children, by contrast, needed stability, consistency, routine, and above all, commitment. In short, he was saying, children are the opposite of writing.

  “Thomas Mann?” I tried. I had been racking my brain to think of a great writer who was a family man but not calamitously so, like Cheever. My enthusiasm for Mann had faded of late, but I would never forget the rapture of the summer I had spent, five years earlier, climbing The Magic Mountain.

  “Thomas Mann?” the great man said. He grinned; I had walked right into his trap. “Thomas Mann used to lock himself in his room! Every day! For hours! His children were forbidden to disturb him, on pain of death, and that’s barely an exaggeration. His children were a disturbance to him. When he was working, they were a source of pain. I mean, forget the question of getting your work done, is that the kind of father you want to be?”

  That was an easy one to answer. I knew, without ever having discussed it with my future ex-wife or anyone, the kind of father I wanted to be. Unlike my own father, I would be around for my children whenever they needed me, over breakfast, doing homework, when they learned to swim, to cook, to ride a bicycle; when they cried into their pillows. I would be present in my children’s lives. In short, my door would always be open to them. Until now it had never occurred to me that this ambition might be incompatible with the practice of writing.

  “Richard Yates,” said the great man, preparing to deliver the tercio de muerte, like one of Hemingway’s matadors. “You know what Richard Yates said?”

  Oh, no, I thought. I revered the bleak and gimlet-eyed Yates, for Easter Parade and Revolutionary Road and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness; no way was this going to be anything but grim.

  “‘You lose a book,’” the great man quoted, or paraphrased, or possibly invented himself, “‘for every child.’”

  Now the great man smiled. He could see the effect that his words were having on me as I stood there trying to reckon how many books I stood, or would stand, to lose. My future ex-wife and I had settled on two names, one male, one female. This suggested a worst case of two books, two books erased, wiped away by the universal solvent of children. I supposed I could live with that. But what if, after the first two, there was an “accident,” too much wine in the afternoon, a failu
re of birth control; and what if, God forbid, that third pregnancy turned out to be twins? Suddenly, in my imagination, I was clinging to the base of that half-built Babel, up to my ankles in a roiling surf of babies and brats, the non-author of an entire shelf of great novels I would never be able to write, any one of them conceivably my masterpiece.

  “All right, Michael, you think about it,” said the great man in that accent like butter on a warm biscuit. His work was done. He patted me on the shoulder, rattled the last half-inch of Dos Equis in his bottle, and went back inside the house, confident of having saved—or at least of having frightened—another lost lamb.

  I have a vague recollection of reporting this conversation afterward to my future ex-wife, and of our laughing it off as arrogant self-justification or, perhaps, more pitiably, making virtue of necessity. We got married, moved a few times, got divorced. I managed to snatch a handful of gently farbisn short stories out of that Gilliganesque pleasure cruise, though the second novel I attempted to build and launch over the course of those years, a would-be epic, sank like a vast unseaworthy dreadnought, unsalvageable, to the bottom of my soul. Fortunately, there were no children to blame for that shipwreck. A couple of years later I married again, and over the quarter century that has followed, while fathering four children, I’ve managed to turn out fourteen books.

  Should there be eighteen?

  Is the creative wistfulness that sometimes comes over me after a rough night at the keyboard, that feeling of having somehow wandered by mistake into the wrong book, a kind of mourning for the loss of those other, phantom-limb novels, the ones that my children stole? It’s certainly the case that if one were to plot on a graph my declining output of short stories over the past two decades alongside my rising output of children, the resulting X would seem to mark the scene of a crime. But the reason I almost never write short stories anymore isn’t that my children are time thieves. It’s that my children are expensive, and short stories just don’t pay very well. I can’t afford to write short stories anymore.

  And those four “lost” novels predicted by the great man’s theory all those years ago? (Setting aside for the moment the question of whether you can lose something you never had, and the fact that going around telling people “You lose a book for every child” sounds like exactly the kind of romantically unromantic self-pity you would expect from the full-blown raging alcoholic that Richard Yates had apparently become by the end of his life.)

  If I had followed the great man’s advice and never burdened myself with the gift of my children, or if I had never written any novels at all, in the long run the result would have been the same as the result will be for me here, having made the choice I made: I will die; and the world in its violence and serenity will roll on, through the endless indifference of space; and it will take only one hundred of its circuits around the sun to turn the six of us, who loved each other, to dust, and consign to oblivion all but a scant few of the thousands upon thousands of novels and short stories written and published during our lifetimes. If none of my books turns out to be among that bright remnant because I allowed my children to steal my time, narrow my compass, and curtail my freedom, I’m all right with that. Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back. Anyway, if, one hundred years hence, those books lie moldering and forgotten, I’ll never know. That’s the problem, in the end, with putting all your chips on posterity: You never stick around long enough to enjoy it.

  Little Man

  Half an hour late, and just ahead of his minder—he was always a step ahead of his ponderous old minder—Abraham Chabon sauntered into the room where the designer Virgil Abloh was giving a private preview of Off-White’s collection for spring/summer 2017 to a small group of reporters, editorial directors, and fashion buyers. Abe’s manner was self-conscious, his cheeks flushed, but if his movements were a bit constrained, they had an undeniable grace. “Saunter” was really the only word for it.

  “Now, this dude here, that’s what I’m talking about,” Abloh said, smiling at Abe from the center of the room, the attic of an old photo studio in the Latin Quarter: crisscrossing steel beams, wide pine floorboards, every surface radiant with whitewash except for the gridded slant of windows in the steep-pitched roof. From their folding chairs opposite the atelier windows, the buyers and editors turned to see what Abloh was talking about. So did the four male models lined up and slouching artfully in front of the people in the folding chairs. By the time his minder caught up with him, everyone in the room seemed to have their eyes on Abe. Prompt people never get to make grand entrances.

  “Come over here,” Abloh said. Abloh was a big man, solidly built, an architect by training who had emerged in the early 2000s from the fizzy intellectual nimbus—one third hip-hop, one third hustle, one third McLarenesque inside joke—surrounding fellow Chicagoan Kanye West. Abloh had made a name for himself in fashion along the avant-garde perimeter of streetwear, screen-printing diagonal crosswalk stripes and cryptic mottoes onto blank Champion tees and dead-stock Rugby Ralph Lauren flannel shirts that he resold for dizzying multiples of their original retail price. Abe thought Virgil Abloh was “lit,” the highest accolade he could award to anyone or anything. “Come right on over here. Hey, look at you!”

  Abe went on over, sleeves rolled, hands thrust into his pockets, tails of his pale gray-green shirt freshly tucked into the waist of his gray twill trousers. In front, the shirt lay flat and trim, but it was a little too big, and at the back, it bellied out over the top of his skinny black belt. It was Maison Margiela, cleanly tailored, with a narrow collar and covered buttons that gave it a minimalist sleekness. Abe had bought it the day before, on sale, at a shop in Le Marais called Tom Greyhound. He wore a pair of $400 silver Adidas by Raf Simons purchased for $250 on and a pair of Off-White athletic socks. He had pulled the socks up to his knees, where they met the rolled-up cuffs of his trouser legs, vintage-newsboy-style. Abe had earned the money to pay for the “Rafs” by raking leaves for neighbors, organizing drawers and closets around the house, running errands, and other odd jobs. His parents had given him, on the occasion of his bar mitzvah, the cash he’d used to buy the Margiela shirt, and the trousers had actually been repurposed from his Appaman bar mitzvah suit. Abe was thirteen years and three months old, and he did not need to be told, by Virgil Abloh or anyone else, to look at himself. He knew exactly how he looked.

  “Hi,” Abe said to Abloh in his husky voice—low-pitched and raspy all his life, heading even lower now and given, at the moment, to random breaking—“I’m Abe.”

  Some of the people in the room already knew Abe—which tended to get pronounced Ah-bay, like the surname of the Japanese prime minister, by the French staffers who put his name on the guest lists for the fourteen shows he attended over the course of Paris Men’s Fashion Week. They had met him or seen him around. He was almost always, and by far, the youngest person in the audience, and likely would have stood out for that reason alone, even if he had not dressed himself with such evident consideration and casual art. But it was his clothes and the way he wore them that elicited reporters’ attention, and a few had taken enough of an interest to ask him some questions, on the record. The questions tended to run along the same lines: What had he thought of this or that particular collection? What got him interested in clothes? Did he hope to be a fashion designer one day? Why had he come to Fashion Week?

  I’m here with my dad, it’s my bar mitzvah present, he’s a writer, and he’s writing about our trip to Fashion Week for GQ. I know I want to do something in fashion, but I don’t know what, maybe design; I do make sketches, mostly streetwear, I like to use fabrics and patterns you kind of wouldn’t expect, like, I don’t know, a Japanese textile pattern for a bomber jacket, or glen-plaid overalls. My older brother got me intereste
d in clothes, it started with sneakers and then it kind of grew, and now I know more about men’s fashion than he does. I thought the collection was interesting or I thought it was awesome or I thought it was a little boring, you know, it didn’t really stand out, we’ve seen a lot of trench coats already this week or The quality of the tailoring didn’t seem very good or I thought it was insane or It was fire or It was totally lit.

  Abe’s minder noticed that, when talking to reporters, Abe almost always found a way to mention the leaf-raking and drawer-organizing, conscious of the atmosphere of privilege and extravagance that permeated the world of fashion. He knew that for a lot of kids his age—good friends of his among them—the price of a pair of “fire” sneakers represented a greater and more important sacrifice than it would for him and his family. But he never directly addressed the ethics of his wearing a shirt that had cost him $225 on sale. He did not offer profound insights into the economics or meaning of style like some pocket-size Roland Barthes bursting with critique and paradox.

  Abe was just a kid who loved clothes. He loved talking about them, looking at them, and wearing them, and when it came to men’s clothing, in particular the hipper precincts of streetwear, he knew his shit. He could trace the career path of Raf Simons, from Raf to Jil Sander to Dior and now to Calvin Klein. He could identify on sight the designers of countless individual articles of men’s clothing—sneakers, shirts, jackets, pants—and when he didn’t know for sure, the guesses he made were informed, reasoned, and often correct.

  He seemed to have memorized a dense tidal chart of recent fashion trends as they ebbed and flooded, witheringly dismissing a runway offering as “fine, for 2014” or “already kind of played out last year.” His taste as reflected in the clothes he wore was impeccable, interesting, and, in its way, fearless.