Posted by: Corri van de Stege | October 26, 2009

Michael Chabon and Wonder Boys

Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize winner.  I cannot remember now how  Wonder Boys got onto my tbr pile, but there it was in my suitcase, so long ago now, and although it got pushed away at the time when, in the airport, I got my hands on a copy of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl who kicked the Hornets’ Nest, it was there waiting for me once I found out what had happened to Salander. 

Wonder Boys is a good read, this story about a writer and university teacher, Grady Tripp, who attempts to write the follow up novel to his first award winning one.  He’s had the advance from his editor, has worked on the book for years, only he somehow or other cannot finish it.  Sounds familiar?

Grady Tripp has stopped drinking, but does drugs, long evenings and nights full of drugs, and when smoking pot he manages to convince himself that he is now writing the definitive end to the book, only to discover the next morning that  it is just absolutely wrong again and won’t do. 

When his editor, Crabtree, turns up for the ‘Wordfest’, a week’s festival of literary greats, speeches and seminars by writers, editors and university staff, Tripp needs to convince Crabtree that he really is finishing the book. 

Whatever can go wrong, does go wrong, almost as a matter of fact.  Tripp’s wife Emily leaves him, nevertheless, his father in law suggests he comes and celebrates Passover with the family which results in a number of disasters, when he does turn up with his star pupil James.  The only admirer of his book is also his lodger who wants to sleep with him.  Crabtree becomes embroiled with a cross dresser, but he in fact fancies James, who, as it turns out, is a much better (aspiring) writer than Tripp.

All of this makes for hilarious scenario’s which nevertheless have very serious undercurrents.  There is a search for the past and for purpose, and it is not until the very end, just when it all seems to have definitely and irrevocably gone wrong that Tripp realises what a fool he is, and with ‘maturity’ he begins to take responsibility for his actions.  At the same time, writing becomes a job that is taken for what it is, hard work.   He knows he can no longer fool himself.

The story is told from Tripp’s perspective, he relates in first person what is happening and so does not always have insight into other people’s views or reactions.  He guesses and tries to respond accordingly, he does not know what happens behind closed doors, but surmises and often unwittingly lands himself into one bizarre situation after another.

Meanwhile he battles with his book, his 2000 pages masterpiece called ‘Wonder Boys’.  They are all imaginary wonder boys, the characters in this book, until the manuscript in another bizarre twist is blown away and all is lost, the whole charade of what is supposed to be a masterpiece.

The book is  full of pace and is interlaced with references to films and stars, fights, misunderstanding, sexual innuendos  and literary gems; funny and weird, yet believable despite its craziness.

 If you have ambition and despair at ever writing ‘that book’ then read this, and realise how unbelievably hard it is to finish, how many things can get in the way, and do get in the way, and that somehow or other you have to pull through all that and then just maybe you will finish….

The writing is brilliant.  Conversations are interspersed with narratives that show the what where and  when, in a whirlwind fashion.  There is not much time for reflection, not for the reader, nor for the wonder boys in his book.  The characters are well drawn, from the crazy Crabtree to the shy and gifted James and the Jewish father in law and many more.  Even the dog has character, however scary and only until his untimely death!

Recommended – enjoy.

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Responses

  1. I loved Wonder Boys. It does have such great humor and the prose is so smooth, the book is easy to read. You are right, though: there are many undercurrents of more serious issues beneath the surface, and Chabon just handles it all so gracefully. I think I also enjoyed this novel because I was in grad school at the time, and it painted a relatively realistic picture of academic life.

  2. This is one I’ve wanted to read for years! Of all Chabon’s stuff (none of which I’ve read), this one has been on my radar the longest and with the most intensity. I really liked the portion of the movie I saw, too, so I think it’ll be right up my alley. Then I get to tackle Kavalier and Clay. Hehe.


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