James Chew reviews Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
Chabon’s Wonder Boys was handed to me in the upper bar of Aikmans by the Tribe‘s Editor-In-Chief. ‘Go on,’ He said, ‘It’s a book about writing that might not annoy you.’
I’ve had a long-standing fascination for, and dislike of, novels in which the writer writes about books and/or writing. Martin Amis’ Pregnant Widow made me despair (though, it must be said, for a variety of reasons). I found any section in A S Byatt’s Possession set in the modern day insufferable. Although, I do enjoy Borges so perhaps I’m just a hypocrite. Still, Wonder Boys, a novel about Grady Tripp, aging Creative Writing professor and fading novelist, as he struggles to finish his own novel also entitled Wonder Boys, seemed a recipe for disaster.
I suppose the highest praise I can give it is that I quite enjoyed it. Partially because the in-text version of Wonder Boys is such a wonderful farce. It spans 2000 pages and isn’t even partially finished, chronicling the absurdly named Wonder brothers and their entire family history and all manner of tragedy and misfortune that befalls them; it’s also replete with 40 page interludes on the history of Native American reservations tangentially related to the family. Grady lives in constant dread of his Editor, the notorious (and wonderfully named) Terry Crabtree, ever reading it. Understandably, you might think. Crabtree’s arrival in Pittsburgh, specifically for the annual WordFest run by Grady’s department, sends Grady’s life careening into comic chaos.
Grady himself is a deliberately dislikable protagonist: cowardly, ineffectual, addicted to pot, a love-cheat, a terrible tutor, and continuously self-serving. The novel’s joy comes from marveling at the ludicrous situations in which Grady embroils himself in and how he digs himself deeper through increasingly ineffectual attempts to extricate himself. Add to that some fine academic satire – Grady’s colleague, also the husband of his lover, is a minor but very funny delight, as is his futile pseudo-academic obsession with Marilyn Monroe. There’s also a delicate balance, beautifully negotiated, between a genuine exploration of the demons that plague many a writer and a parody of the excesses and follies of writers and literary culture.
My largest criticism of the novel is that, whilst it at both its funniest and most insightful when it comes to writing and literary academia, it falls short as the book meanders literally and thematically into the short-comings of the human condition. Grady’s marital problems never entirely convince, and the extended sequence wherein he visits his in-laws at Passover aims and largely fails to convey genuine pathos. The characters introduced are sketched with loving detail and with an eye to their human foibles and failings, but as they seem to exist only in relation to Grady, as obstacles to be surmounted or otherwise overcome and prove irrelevant to prior and later sections of the novel, one can’t help but feel the actual Wonder Boys is straying too close to the fictional Wonder Boys.
However, there’s a lightness of touch on display and a breezy pace which keeps the novel engaging enough to stick with. Chabon’s prose is spare but elegant with passages of genuine lyricism and a pleasantly wistful tone. There’s a surprisingly sensitive and oddly truthful depiction of class and sexuality in the character of James Leer, Grady’s most tormented student. In some ways, the novel is at its best when it follows James’ twisted, tangled rise towards grace, or at least something resembling it. The ending is certainly more palatable if viewed as James’ triumph rather than Grady’s.
Still, for all its flaws and despite never quite living up to the promise of its opening pages, there’s much to recommend here. As novels about writing go, it’s probably as good as it gets.