Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wonder Boys

What is it that I loved so much about Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys? It's hard to capture now that I try to write my thoughts down. In fact, I think it's the books that I really love that I find the hardest to blog about perhaps because it's those books that are hardest to disect and analyse. Part of me wants to keep the experience of reading Wonder Boys whole and untouched. On the other hand, I want to rave about a book that I love and encourage others to read it in the hope that they have the same experience. So here goes...

One thing that I love about this book is that it is so totally different in subject matter to the two other Chabon books I've read. Compared to the noirish detective fiction of The Yiddish Policemen's Union or the epic adventure of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it could have been written by someone else. And yet... there is a certain consistency of style and language that Chabon maintains despite his amazingly wide-ranging subject matter. He writes with such confidence, with long winding sentences that never trip over themselves and feel fresh and honest and clever and... ok, I'm getting too breathily enthusiastic now.

So what's Wonder Boys actually about? The narrator is Grady Tripp, a writer and academic who has written some very successful novels in the past but finds himself now stuck on an unfinishable novel called 'Wonder Boys'. Rather than writers' block, Grady has a kind of writers' diarrhoea and his draft has reached colossal proportions with no end in sight after seven years of writing. Grady is forced to confront his failure to complete the novel (and the possibility that maybe 'Wonder Boys' isn't really very good) when his debaucherous, lecherous, old friend and editor Terry Crabtree (played by Robert Downey Jr in the film version- what perfect casting!) arrives in town for a literary festival and to see when the book will be ready.

At the same time Grady finds himself tied up in the worries of his student James Leer, a troubled and talented young writer, and his mistress who just happens to be dean of the university and is also pregnant with Grady's child.

What follows is a few days of complete chaos as Grady, fuelled by alcohol and drugs, stumbles from one disaster to the next. There's a dead dog to dispose of, a shoot out, a stolen car, a wife who has left him, a Passover dinner, Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, booze, cigarettes, dope, and all the while the sneaking suspicion that Terry will uncover the truth about the unfinished manuscript in Grady's study.

Despite the chaotic messiness of the plot, Chabon never lets his material get away from him. This book is never self-indulgent and its free-wheeling plot is actually cleverly constructed to build the picture of a character who has lost control of his life. Chabon writes very well about writing in Wonder Boys, capturing the way we can lose perspective on our own work. Through the character of student James Leer he explores the constructedness of writing- James lives through old movies and uses them to construct much of his writing and, it is revealed, his life.

There is such a wonderful use of humour in this book as Grady's adventures descend into the ridiculous, but there is also a wonderful humanity. Chabon never loses sight of his characters, and while they might land themselves in cartoonish scenarios, they themselves never become cartoons.

This is a really hard book for me to describe mostly because I just loved it so much, and I'm not sure I've done it justice here. The most I can say really is go out and read it yourself if you haven't done so already.


Matt said...

You know, I really didn't like this book, and I expected I would - I saw the movie first, and loved that, and went after the book soon after. What worked on film, for me, was tepid on the page. Now that doesn't happen often -

jess said...

That's interesting because I had the opposite reaction- I saw the movie a while ago and thought it was ok but it didn't leave much of an impression. Obviously I enjoyed the book a lot more, but I can see that it might not appeal to everyone. In fact, when I was describing the plot I was thinking that it didn't sound like much at all. But there was just something I absolutely loved about it.

verbivore said...

This was the first Chabon that I ever read and I wasn't at all sure what to expect. I found myself enjoying this book, I definitely got right into it and read it quickly (signs that I was enjoying it).
I tried the Yiddish Policeman's Union and ended up putting that down.
So I'd like to try another Chabon one of these days. Would you recommend Kavalier and Clay?

jess said...

Yes, I enjoyed Kavelier and Clay and would definitely recommend it. That said, I also loved the Yiddish Policemen's Union so I'm not sure I'm a good person to ask.:-)

Todd said...

I found it a rare moment to read a book, see the movie version, and enjoy both very much. And Chabon seems really good with dialogue; it's very snappy.