I saw the movie version of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys well before I read the book. I thought, and still do, that it was one of the best movies ever made about being a writer. This was before I became serious about writing, but when I already knew most movies about writers are bullshit. I’ve never understood how or why movies constantly show writers pounding out a one-draft masterpiece in a weekend, especially since movies are, you know, written by writers – but they frequently do. So it was refreshing to see one that was about a writer who’d been going for years on a single book, with no end in sight. That seemed, to me, much more likely.
Since first seeing the film and then reading the book, I’ve become a writer myself, as well as a teacher. And I’ve been to a few writers’ conferences and watched Important White Male Writers holding court. In my first contact(s) with Wonder Boys, I had no idea how much Chabon had gotten right. I’ve recently finished it for the third time, and it’s as funny as it ever was, but also much more haunting. This is surely because of my own aging, but most of the credit needs to go to Chabon, who was just 32 when the book was published, yet had, for at least this one novel, access to some scary maturity.
The book of Wonder Boys is, as the cliché goes, so much better than the (very good) film. It’s richer and deeper, of course, but it’s also funnier, weirder, and features a giant chunk in the middle where its hero visits his latest ex-wife and her parents for a Passover Seder.
I should summarize: Grady Tripp, writer and teacher, can’t seem to stop writing his fourth novel, Wonder Boys, which has grown to 2600 pages. The book (our book) begins on the opening day of his Pittsburgh college’s weekend literary conference, Word Fest, which has not only drawn an impressive gathering of guest authors (including the Updike-esque “Q”), it’s drawn Tripp’s editor and longtime friend, Terry Crabtree, whose career has just about run out. Crabtree is hoping to return to New York with Tripp’s long-promised novel, though it doesn’t seem like that scenario will save either of them at this point.
Through the course of the weekend, Tripp will lose his wife for good, learn his girlfriend is pregnant, kill her dog, misplace a priceless Marilyn Monroe artifact, be stalked for his car, and inadvertently help his editor find Tripp’s own replacement.
Grady is a marijuana addict, in the sense that it’s causing major problems for himself and the people around him. It also probably has something to do with the fact that the book starts with a flashback, has no chapters, and spends most of its first section circling back for long digressions. I tell my students first-person narration has its charms, but if you’re going to spend 400 pages with someone, they’d better be goddamn fascinating. Grady Tripp, for all his cloudy thinking, is fantastic company.
Dig if you will this small passage, where Grady Tripp is describing his lover (and his boss’s wife and boss’s boss) Sara Gaskell:
She imprisoned her glorious hair within its scaffolding of pins, painted a thin copper line across her lips for makeup, and aside from her wedding ring the only jewelry she generally wore was a pair of half-moon reading glasses tied around her neck with a length of athletic shoestring. Undressing her was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals, or blowing up a dam.
Wonder Boys is full of that kind of stuff, tenderly chosen details with unexpected, verb-noun imagery. While none of Wonder Boys‘ characters is let off easy, we love them as much as their author clearly does. That’s a rarer occurrence than a lot of us would like to admit. Let us praise it.
Michael Chabon’s career is often the work of a writer hell-bent on destroying the line between “literary” and “genre,” and his most famous work is an epic adventure novel about comic-book creators. But I think Wonder Boys, while increasingly looking like a piece left over from a different puzzle, is still his best work. Chabon has said he responded deeply to Jonathan Yardley’s Washington Post review of Wonder Boys, where the critic challenged the author to “explore larger worlds” in his next work. And while this apparently spurred Chabon to write his Pulitzer-winning epic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay I can’t help but wonder what might’ve been if Yardley hadn’t scrambled for something negative to say about Wonder Boys, or if Chabon hadn’t taken him so fucking literally.
I say this because in so much of his work, Chabon’s obsessions – genre, Jewish identity, race – cling to the surface, sharing space with a lovingly arcane vocabulary and a need to be Saying Something. Wonder Boys, to me, is the one truly immersive Chabon experience. It’s about a lot of big subjects – art, creation, addiction, sexuality, aging – and it’s the least self-conscious thing Chabon’s ever produced. It’s an ambitious work of incredible simplicity and clarity. It’s Chabon’s Ram, his Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, his Fargo. I wish that had been enough for the author, but I’m grateful he gave us this before moving on to explore those “larger worlds.”