Sunday, November 22, 2015

Wonder Boys (1995)

Wonder Boys may or may not be typical of Michael Chabon—it's certainly different from his better known and more widely honored The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which came five years later—but it is typical of a certain strain of mainstream fiction with its sources in MFA college creative writing programs. So we have a dissolute middle-aged white man who is just such an MFA professor in the process of ruining his own life. In fact, the book concerns the climax of exactly that. Our hero, Grady Tripp, is all appetite: an obese whale who spends all his waking moments smoking marijuana, whose marriage is dissolving because he is having an affair (yet another, of course), whose literary agent and publisher are hounding him for the manuscript of a novel that is overdue by years, the advance for which (of course, again) has long since been spent. All events related are in the mode of a desperate slapstick farce, as everything in this sad sack's life is conveniently coming to a head at once. We know the tales of these ne'er-do-well WASPs in academia-land well—started to see them even in the '50s. Let me be clear that I enjoyed Wonder Boys and got a big kick out of it, even as I recognize I've already said enough to steer some (or most) away by now. Enjoyed it, to be clear, even as I noted the generally hackneyed paces. Chabon brings minor new elements of interest to it, such as the descriptions of chronic marijuana use, which I think are good, as well as a more normative sense of gays. In the long run, it's homophobia that is likely to be the death of many of these exercises, so at least Chabon escapes that. Small consolation. They are so ubiquitous now they actually have genre labels and a Wikipedia page—"campus novel, also known as academic novel." Of the "significant examples" listed there (including Wonder Boys), most of those I knew are roughly contemporaneous: Changing Places by David Lodge (1975), Straight Man by Richard Russo (1997), The Human Stain by Philip Roth (2000), for example. Early examples include The Masters by C. P. Snow (1951), The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy (1952), and Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954). It is a pretty long list, and even for someone like me who is tolerant of them, I blanch a little at the imposing volume. So I am all caveats, but that said, I did like Wonder Boys. The narrative current is strong, it is packed with rich incident and evocative detail, and it never slows. You can do worse.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Aren't there some Saul Bellow novels, that far back, that figure in this discussion somehow? Richard Ford? The dyspeptic dissolution of aging intellectual curmudgeons chasing and/or spoiling the tenure track lifestyle? Best when black comedies. (Or young enough that the self-important histrionics are funny anyway. Early Dostoevsky, Mailer, Franzen, etc?) I liked Kavalier & Clay and Telegraph Ave, though. Although, right, seems worth noting Chabon is not a character in either of those-- unlike in the Wonder Boys or is he riffing on the academic novel genre?