Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

Even chaos can become predictable. Marijuana, alcohol, three marriages, an ongoing infidelity with his department head's wife, a peripatetic silver-tongued agent who pops drugs like tic-tacs, and a seven year publishing dry spell have been shepherding the hapless main character, author Grady Tripp, to the fateful weekend chronicled in this novel. It's a weekend that will arouse atomized glimpses of self-awareness in Tripp.

Chabon has stashed a cache of writerly tics in his character. Grady's maid

Even chaos can become predictable. Marijuana, alcohol, three marriages, an ongoing infidelity with his department head's wife, a peripatetic silver-tongued agent who pops drugs like tic-tacs, and a seven year publishing dry spell have been shepherding the hapless main character, author Grady Tripp, to the fateful weekend chronicled in this novel. It's a weekend that will arouse atomized glimpses of self-awareness in Tripp.

Chabon has stashed a cache of writerly tics in his character. Grady's maiden novel Bottomlands (1976) was a literary thunderbolt. Critical accolades, best-seller status, a slender second novel The Arsonist's Girl and a lucrative third novel followed. Since then, nothing. The problem is not writer's block. Tripp has been laboring on a chimerical monstrosity titled Wonder Boys (not referencing Wunderkinder but a multi-generational family tree headed by patriarch Culloden Wonder). He's now at over 2000 pages with no clear ending in sight. Tripp confides almost boastfully: “I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers whose petals I peeled down to the intricate frail organs within, too many terrible genetic and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury and dig up again, too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trysts to arrange, letters to misdirect into evil hands, innocent children to slay with rheumatic fever, women to leave unfulfilled and hopeless, men to drive to adultery and theft, fires to agitate at the hearts of ancient houses....I was nowhere near the end.” (Location 159)

Like the title, it's another one of Chabon's jokes. His own novel erupts with architectural minutiae and new peripheral characters emerging as if from some sort of cosmic clown car. In addition to the principal characters — Tripp's precocious fragile creative writing student James Leer; his amoral agent clad insect-like in an irridescent green suit, Terry Crabtree; and university chancellor Sara Gaskill who is Tripp's current coupling partner; Chabon introduces August Van Zorn (pen name Albert Vetch), a minor horror story writer who committed suicide; Tripp's current wife Emily along with her entire family who gather at a fractured Seder celebration; Tripp's own father Little George, an unbalanced war veteran turned policeman who also committed suicide; Sara's father Joseph Tedesco, an assistant groundskeeper at Forbes Field; James Leer's complacent country clubber parents Fred and Amanda; Cleon Clement, a bouncer at the local watering hole the Hi Hat; a transvestite named Antonia/Tony Sloviak; Hannah Green, a lodger and creative writing student; and John Jose Fahey, a writer who apparently did suffer from writer's block. Fahey was run over by a casino's armored car, an incident that boosted sales of his final book submission to his publisher. Cash giveth and cash taketh away, but not necessarily in that order.

Tripp's name is yet another joke in the same vein. The narrative of the plot is a road trip forced into numerous detours and seen through the trippy drug hazed eyes of the three participants. Their state is conducive to their tenuous connection to reality. They inhabit a writer's world of inversions. Reality looks surreal; the imaginary feels real. At the Hi Hat the three notice a small guy with a deformed face and an out of date pompadour. The challenge of creating a fictional backstory for him is irresistible: a fly-weight boxer, a jockey trampled by his mount, an ex-matador.... In the car Tripp and his student Leer notice what looks like the quintessential family next door. “ 'Look at them,' said James. 'They look like replicants.'” (Location 2073) Sober and undrugged, Tripp can barely manage the social niceties required at an academic gathering of writers. His mind is an obsessive probe seeking material to exploit in a fictional concoction. The mind becomes an echo chamber telling itself reassuring lies. This is the writer's disease. Tripp calls it the midnight disease. In a rare moment of clarity Tripp reflects: “It is said that acute insomniacs often experienced a kind of queasy blurring of the lines between dreams and wakefulness, their waking lives taking on some of the surprising tedium of a nightmare. Maybe the midnight disease was like that, too. After a while you lost the ability to distinguish between your fictional and actual worlds; you confused yourself with your characters, and the random happenings of your life with the machinations of a plot.” (Location 3275)

These three men, so much alike, are incapable of candor even with each other. Crabtree asks Tripp how his book is coming, and Tripp assures him he's almost finished. He's lying, and Crabtree knows it. Leer, it turns out, has told everyone some really big whoppers. Whenever one of the characters assures the others that things will be OK, it is a cue to the reader that more disasters are waiting in the wings.

A surprising instance of clarity is voiced early on by the transvestite, Tony Sloviak. Crabtree had turned his attentions to Leer after a quickie with Sloviak as Antonia. Tripp drives Tony home and tries to offer some consolation but Tony's dispassionate response is clear-sighted: “ 'Your friend, Crabtree, he's just looking for, I don't know, novelty, or whatever. He's into collec, like collecting, you know, weird tricks. Mind?'” (Location 1284)

Even the bond between Tripp and Crabtree (Tripp's oldest friend) was consummated on literary ground. In their short story class both of them plagiarized from the same obscure story by the same obscure author. The friendship is consecrated by a baptism of ice water, dumped on Tripp in reprisal by a young woman he had been dodging.

This is a book that teases the reader. Chabon has a great deal of fun puncturing what romantic myths we may have accumulated about writers. The self-loathing of his characters would be alienating if not for the extravagant accumulation of absurdities and individuality of his characters. This is the sort of book that may not appeal on the first reading. The characters are at first not only unsympathetic but appalling. The direction of the narrative is not at all predictable. It took me a second reading to appreciate Chabon's careful structure and sly sense of humor. Reading it is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. There's a special delight in discovering how each piece fits together.

NOTES:


Roger Ebert reviews the film adaptation of this book at
http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/won...