Wednesday Book Club: Wonder Boys

Wednesday, 26 November 2008 — 11:08pm | Book Club, Literature, Michael Chabon

This week’s selection: Wonder Boys (1995) by Michael Chabon.

In brief: Chabon’s sophomore novel is the literary equivalent of a warm bath. A comic contemporary adventure about the existential crises of novelists, it fits snugly in the naturalistic mould of modern literature about the here and now, albeit with a few extra helpings of wackiness. It meanders here and there, and its lightheartedness assures you that none of the characters are ever in much danger; however, Chabon’s lucid style keeps the story at least as fluid as his recent dips into genre, if not more so. It’s not high-concept, but it’s fun.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Wonder Boys, keep reading below.)

So I’ve finally done it: I have now read every novel written by Michael Chabon. His extensive oeuvre of short stories notwithstanding, I’ve assembled a complete picture of Chabon’s fiction portfolio—something I haven’t done for any author in a very long time, apart from the J.K. Rowlings of the world who made their names in a single series designed to be swallowed whole.

It is not my habit to read fiction biographically. I ordinarily consider books as finished products that can speak for themselves, not because I believe it is the only scope of analysis, but because it is the one I prefer. But in the case of Wonder Boys, I would be remiss to overlook the relationship between the author and the text, and I can think of at least three reasons why this is so.

  1. For me, reading this book was like clicking the last piece in a jigsaw into place. Much of what enticed me about it was its transitional nature, and its place in the continuum of Chabon’s evolution from an orthodox literary novelist to a crusader for genre and escape.
  2. Wonder Boys is Chabon’s most explicitly autobiographical novel, at least in terms of inspiration. The main character, Grady Tripp, is hopelessly lost in the 2611-page manuscript of an increasingly Byzantine family epic (also entitled Wonder Boys) that he has been working on for seven years. Likewise, Chabon wrote his Wonder Boys to rescue himself from the wreck of Fountain City, an unfinished novel that collapsed under its own weight and threatened to erode all the goodwill he had accumulated as a young superstar of American letters.
  3. In a self-referential manoeuvre, one of the novel’s central themes is the conflation of writers and their characters; indeed, what the very act of writing fiction does to a person’s sense of self.

If there is one thing that the novel is solidly about, it is the “midnight disease”:

[…] which started as a simple feeling of disconnection from other people, an inability to “fit in” by no means unique to writers, a sense of envy and of unbridgeable distance like that felt by someone tossing on a restless pillow in a world full of sleepers. Very quickly, though, what happened with the midnight disease was that you began to crave this feeling of apartness, to cultivate and even flourish within it. You pushed yourself farther and farther and farther apart until one black day you woke to discover that you yourself had become the chief object of your own hostile gaze.

Yes, that sounds about right. But if we wish to be more specific, then we can turn to Chabon’s characterization of what he called “late-century naturalism” in his 2007 essay about Jews with swords—the typically respectable American short story or novel of the late twentieth century:

[…] unarmed Americans undergoing the eternal fates of contemporary short story characters — disappointment, misfortune, loss, hard enlightenment, moments of bleak grace. Divorce; death; illness; violence, random and domestic; divorce; bad faith; deception and self-deception; love and hate among fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire; divorce — I guess that about covers it. Story, more or less, of my life.

And the story, more or less, of Grady Tripp.

The unpublished behemoth of Grady’s Wonder Boys is only one of his immediate worries. There’s the minor problem of his third wife leaving him without knowing that he recently impregnated another woman (the chancellor of the college at which he teaches, whose husband is his department head), which makes for awkward parties at the college’s WordFest conference and an even more awkward Passover with the in-laws. There’s his dependency on Humboldt County’s finest marijuana to an extreme that is clearly a serious problem to any external observer, though Grady revels in it with a sort of ironic glamour. And then there’s James Leer.

James Leer is one of Grady’s writing students, a sexually confused twenty-something kleptomaniac whose talents include reciting a roll call of obscure Hollywood suicides in alphabetical order, composing in sentence fragments, and not telling the truth. In many ways he comes off as a holdover from Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh—only now, the lost young dreamer trapped in middle-class comforts is the observed, not the observer. This is for the better: in several respects, Wonder Boys is Mysteries revisited (from the incessant party-hopping down to the ritual inhumanities inflicted on other people’s pets), but with the coming-of-age character situated at a safe distance from the reader. This lends Wonder Boys a comparatively greater degree of maturity, which is ironic, as its narrator is a midlife crisis case who doesn’t have an inkling of perspective on the outrageous extent of his irresponsibility.

Let’s stop for a moment: by now, I’ve probably made Wonder Boys sound like every other lightweight contemporary novel of self-discovery. The genre, which some erroneously think of as outside genre, is not one that allows for compelling back-cover summaries apart from laundry lists of characters you haven’t met. Character X is a writer with wacky properties A, B, and C; character Y has equally wacky properties D, E, and F (and is, for bonus points, “coming of age”). Together, they struggle their way through Life in a smart, funny, and ultimately heartwarming voyage of personal renewal.

I’m not surprised at the common perception that literary novels are boring: they don’t jump out at you with unique tag-line synopses like “a detective story of messianic prophecy and chess in an alternate-history Jewish homeland set in Alaska”, “a Brooklynite and his escape-artist cousin create a costumed superhero to vicariously fight the Nazis”, or “Jews with swords”. In the hands of a lesser writer, Wonder Boys wouldn’t have much to recommend it in terms of a deep conceptual hypothesis. But lest we forget, this is Michael Chabon we’re talking about: he is an exceptional storyteller with an amusing simile for every occasion. If anything, his writing is more at ease here than it is in the stringently style-conscious genre pieces of recent years, which are increasingly thick with Yiddish loanwords. The prose is lyrical, yet silky smooth: it’s pleasant to the eyes without drawing too much attention to itself and grinding the tale to a halt.

There are seeds of the recurring ideas that would reach full bloom in Chabon’s later novels—chief among them, the adoption of Jewish history as an ur-legend around which his stories are designed. The centrepiece of Wonder Boys is James and Grady’s Passover visit to the family of Grady’s third wife, who had left him the day before. It makes for an interesting Seder:

Dutifully Irv set about answering the Four Questions. He looked around the table, at which sat three native Koreans, a converted Baptist, a badly lapsed Methodist, and a Catholic of questionable but tormented stripe, lifted his Haggadah, and began, unironically, “Once we were slaves in Egypt…”

As with many of Chabon’s best scenes, it’s all very procedural until somebody gets hurt. Metaphorical, too; it’s clear that Grady is thinking about his towering Babel of a novel—and by extension, Life—in the following exchange.

“Hey, Irv?” I said, deciding, after all this time, to ask the Fifth Question, the one that never got asked. “How come old Yahweh let the Jews wander around in the desert like that for forty years, anyway? How come he didn’t, just, like, show them the right way to go? They could have gotten there in a month.”

“They weren’t ready to enter the Holy Land,” said Marie. “It took forty years to get the slavery out of them.”

“That could be,” said Irv, looking over at James, his eyes deep and shadowy. “Or maybe they just got lost.”

Thankfully for the novel’s structural integrity, the ambitions Chabon would later realize don’t pop all the seams of what is a straightforward human comedy. It’s like he had to get Wonder Boys out of his system and then, satisfied with his fictional comment on the personal aspect of novels (as well as the nail on the coffin of Fountain City), aim for a dramatic historical sweep worthy of his imaginative talent.

That isn’t to say that plot architecture falls by the wayside in Wonder Boys, though it certainly seems that way in the novel’s middle stretch. Most of the oddball character conflicts that show up for the apparent purpose of being oddball do become relevant by the end. At times, the warmth that the novel exudes is almost an impediment: rarely is there a convincing sense of danger, even when the characters bludgeon each other with baseball bats and boa constrictors. We know from the tone of the book alone that James Leer isn’t actually going to off himself in the manner of his idols, and that Grady will be relieved of his 2611-page burden in one way or another. All the tension rests on how the sordid details fall into place to make a happy ending possible, if they manage to mesh at all.

For the most part, they do. Wonder Boys is a scattered book, and oftentimes we find Grady treading over the debris of untold stories. Not all of the pocketed absurdities cohere, but they make for an uncanny delight.

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5 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: Wonder Boys

  1. Daniel Kaszor

    Hmm. I’ve been wanting to read “Wonder Boys” ever since I finished off “Kavalier and Clay” (which is far more a book about genre than a genre book itself). I guess this tips it for me. Thanks.

    Also, if you’re looking for a fantasy novel to put in the Wednesday queue, I would suggest “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss. It starts off a bit overwritten, but finds itself as it goes on. It’s also one of the only fantasy novels that I can remember that really feels like it was written from a liberal college-educated perspective (not from an overly literary perspective mind you; it’s still pretty pulpy).

    Thursday, 27 November 2008 at 3:28pm

  2. Yes, there’s no question that K&C was the big turning point of Chabon’s career, where he laid out a complete thesis about escapism in the familiar format of a life-of-my-characters epic. Everything he has done since has been a proof of concept. But it’s also clear to me now that it was also where he began to let his characters interact with history on a larger scale than their immediate localities.

    Word is that he’s going contemporary again with his next full-length novel, and I’m very curious to see what form that will take.

    I’ll put Rothfuss on my list, though right now, it’s a very long list.

    Thursday, 27 November 2008 at 5:28pm

  3. Thanks for this post. I just finished my second reading of Wonder Boys and was looking for some discussions to take to the book club. I really like your analysis here.

    Sunday, 15 December 2013 at 1:10pm

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