Thursday, September 09, 2010

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

Micheal Chabon is one of those lauded American novelists that always seem to hover just a little out of reach. There's such a lack of interest in US fiction in the UK that its only the occasional book ("The Corrections", "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao") that seems to get marketed here. Partly its the prize culture, where American novels (with the exception of the Orange Prize) are generally excluded. If all book discussion is about the Booker we get this really strange world. It's like a sixties radio station that never plays the Beatles.

"Wonder Boys" is perhaps his best known novel, partly because of the Michael Douglas film. It tells the story of a dissolute writer, in his early forties, endlessly rewriting the titular "Wonder Boys" whilst his life, addled by pot, and punctuated by longstanding affairs (despite him being on his 3rd wife), goes to pieces. Like "The Sportswriter" or "Bright Lights, Big City" or any number of other novels, this is a recurring theme of American fiction. It's lead character, Grady Tripp, (a self-explanatory name), is also our narrator, and he's an unreliable one in the sense that he's not seeing his disintegrating life, on this "lost weekend" where his wife has left him, and his editor has come to town to find out what has happened to the undelivered 4th novel. It's a funny book, from the off, and has the cavalier anything-can-happen momentum of a road movie, though his characters stay static. Like a lot of novels of its period (mid-90s) it seems half-written with Hollywood in mind, or as model. This is "Bad Behaviour" or "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" or "Falling Down", and like the latter has a middle-aged man (Micheal Douglas in both films!)at the heart of things. Funny how times change, it's hard, a generation on, to imagine how someone has fit three wives, three novels and concomitant affairs in by their early forties! But this is the Kerouac/Carver role model that is key to much late 20th Century American fiction, rolled over into the late eighties/early nineties. I say that, though, come to think of it, there's not much to place it other than its obvious contemporaneousness.

Yet, Chabon's clearly not just wanting to write a piece of slapstick. There's something of the small town absurdity of John Irving about the book. Picking up his editor Crabtree from the airport, Tripp also picks up a transvestite who sat next to Crabtree on the plane, and a tuba they'd assumed was "hers" but becomes a leitmotif through the novel, a comic caul that stays with Tripp through his weekend of breakdown. Like those big family novels of Irving, there's also a gaggle of extended-family characters. The wife, the wife's family, the mistress, the mistress's husband, and, as lecturer in creative writing, a gaggle of student-writers, one of whom, the self-hating James Leech, has written a novel of brilliance.

As a book about writing it has its own pleasures. Chabon is fantastic on what he calls "real writing" and "real writers" and links it very much with a certain kind of midnight madness. In these days of blogs and Microsoft Word, this kind of writer/writing seems almost anachronistic, yet we all recognise it as authentic - even if, thinking about it, the only chaotic, alcoholic novelists and poets I've met are the ones who have always preferred the "pose" to the "prose." It's also a superior kind of campus novel, with some of the comic absurdity of David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury, with a writing weekend happening tangentionally, as Tripp's life implodes. I get the sense that Chabon wanted to write about writing, but was aware of how self-indulgent that can be. In truth, this is a novel about breakdown, and, (in common with many "lost weekend" books) a final fling of male extended adolescence. The maverick, lovable Tripp is also a nightmare to everyone in his life, particularly himself. His editor, his wife, his in-laws, his lover, even his students, (particularly the underwritten Hannah - a beautiful young girl who rents a room from him - yet seems to disappear from the novel once Chabon - and Tripp- has decided that an affair with her would be a complication too far), all care about this wastrel, whilst at the same time having given up on him. Man goes to end of road. Man wakes up. Man changes, might be the plot synthesis.

I rushed through "Wonder Boys" in 24-hours, as its pleasures, like an Irving novel, are many. The classic plot arc allows Chabon to fit in ruminations on the campus novel, an overly-detailed and lovingly portrayed Jewish family Passover, as well as the sort of capers that you won't find out of place in a teen movie like "Superbad." There's a slightly timeless quality to it as well, a recognisable every-American-town, that makes it still highly readable fifteen years after it was published. I'm not sure that it does the writer-plot as much justice as, say, Stephen King or William Goldman has done in the past, and it's comedy, though good, is a little relentless at times, moving between schtick and slapstick, as if to save the screenplay rewriters work.

Reading Chabon's biography on Wikipedia, Chabon himself had spent years writing a sprawling second novel (after instant success with his first) that was rejected by his agent, before completing the "Wonder Boys", and many of the pleasures of the book come from this imagined novel, and the literary references that pepper the text. I will certainly look to read some more by him.

Reading it immediately after another book about writers, (Sean O'Brien's "The Afterlife"), the contrasts are interesting. In many ways Chabon's plot is hackneyed, generic and there are characters that are underused (Hannah) or tossed away (the transvestite), yet the writing is never less than up to the task in hand. In "The Afterlife" the story is an original one, the setting specific in time and place, and the aims laudable, but the execution was poor. Chabon has been a great fan of pulp fiction (and its one of the sub-themes of "The Wonder Boys") and storytelling, and this imbues the novel. I'm wondering if it's not poets' obsessiveness with language that so often undermines their attempts at novels, but their undervaluing of the joys of the story? It's a theme I might come back to..

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