Tuesday, September 22, 2009

WONDER BOYS by Michael Chabon

The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer, The Yiddish Policemen's Union earned reams of good reviews, but in my opinion Wonder Boys remains Michael Chabon's best book. It's one of the most purely enjoyable American novels of the past 20 years, and in terms of craft it's a novelistic masterpiece: the first 80 pages are a textbook example of how to complicate a narrative, and the remainder is a master class in the inventive extension and ultimate resolution of those complications. That said, this is no groundbreaking, mind-blowing work of literature, no Gravity's Rainbow or Ulysses, nor is it meant to be. Rather, and no less impressively, it's a masterful work of 'traditional' narrative craftsmanship, as well-written and expertly constructed as any of the novels in Philip Roth's 'American trilogy.' It's a book that engages not only on the macro level of novelistic structure, the pleasure of watching a writer successfully juggling a host of characters and situations, keeping them all in the air, and bringing them to a fitting denouement, but also at the micro level of sentence and image. Chabon's comic metaphors rarely misfire and are sometimes painfully apt (e.g. Tripp comparing his bearlike self and a young student to Picasso's blind minotaur being led by an angelic girl). And at a level somewhere between the macro and micro, Wonder Boys offers a plenitude of surprising local pleasures. The brief tale of the washed-up writer Joe Fahey, who waves a loaded gun at his writing students to instruct them in fear, is an example that comes immediately to mind. But enough praise. We don't really do a novel justice until we can see where it fails, where its ostensible intentions break apart and other, perhaps unintended, meanings peek through. Where does Wonder Boys fail? What are its weaknesses? One is immediately apparent: This novel narrated by that pseudo-Faulknerian novelist Grady Tripp is, like all of Tripp's other works, excessively 'male.' Chabon/Tripp's women--even the most complex of them, Sara Gaskell--don't rise far above the role of detachable male appendage and object of desire. Also, I doubt that Chabon fully considered all the implications of the novel's consistent depictions of adult male happiness as a regression to adolescence and a flight from the feminine: Irving Warshaw's spring house, James Leer's basement, Tripp's endless and apparently rather juvenile Wonder Boys manuscript, Terry Crabtree's life. By novel's end Tripp seems to have broken out of this regressive trap, but such a reading is undermined by indications that his new life is even more deeply regressive: he has returned to his childhood home, accompanied by the only maternal figure among the major characters. The ending is sentimental, matrimonial, classically comedic, but it remains haunted by the old unrest and self-loathing that eat at Tripp's matricidal heart.

It might also be interesting to consider this theme of male regression with respect to the shape of Chabon's career to date. Beginning with an impressive Fitzgeraldian debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he fulfilled most of its promises with Wonder Boys. But then something strange happened. Instead of continuing along this path and sharpening and polishing his literary chops, Chabon flew off on a series of tangents, writing the kinds of books and stories that minor characters in Wonder Boys might have written. It has been a disappointingly unoriginal, regressive course, from the MGM 1940s comic book world of Kavalier to the alternative history / detective noir pastiche of Yiddish Policemen's Union and so forth. It is as though Chabon has entered his own novel and become several of his characters--a fate that Wonder Boys recognizes as an occupational hazard. But Chabon is still relatively young, he still has talent to burn, and there's still a chance that he'll return to comic realism and write the great novel that's still inside him.

A couple more random thoughts:

Grady Tripp is not a standard unreliable narrator; he's an accurate, lucid narrator stoned into unreliability--Chabon's clever method of showing us the effects of the various drugs Tripp ingests.

Another thing that impresses me about this book is the wisdom of its reflections on writers and writing, on writerly self-loathing and self-destruction, alcoholism, the "midnight disease," and on the most perverse thing in the world: the unaccountable attraction of it all.

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