Wonder Boys Paperback – 3 Mar 2008
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‘The natural exuberance and extravagance of Chabon’s writing is matched by dazzling wit.’ Sunday Telegraph
‘A deliriously funny novel…Chabon’s elegant style, perfectly realised characters and comic vision combine to make the most enjoyable novel of the year.’ Esquire
‘A wonderfully teasing comic novel…Chabon juggles all these preoccupations with a quirky deftness he employs in his first novel.’ Independent
‘“Wonder Boys” is a superb creation, a raucously comic yet deeply lyrical work. Chabon has evolved into a seriously funny writer, a master of the comic set-up.’ Sunday Times
About the Author
Michael Chabon is the author of two collections of short stories, ‘A Model World’ and ‘Werewolves in their Youth’, the novels ‘The Mysteries of Pittsburgh’, ‘Wonder Boys’, ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’, ‘The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’ and ‘Telegraph Avenue’, and the non-fiction books ‘Maps and Legends and Manhood for Amateurs’. ‘Wonder Boys’ has been made into a film starring Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. and ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’ won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His short stories have appeared in the New Yorker, GQ, Esquire and Playboy. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and their four children.
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For me Wonder Boys is Chabon's one real success and one of my favourite novels of all time. I loved this novel so much that I've tried to read all of his other novels but none reach anywhere the perfection that is Wonder Boys. Since Wonder Boys Chabon has unfortunately fallen into the trap that so many American writer's seem to fall - trying to write the next "great american novel". This seems to involve writing self important novels with depressing arcs that try to win prizes. Wonder Boys is light years ahead of his critically acclaimed Kavalier and Clay (which is frankly over long, depressing and has a very silly plot).
The first part of this book is very good, establishing the very unsavoury character of the narrator, Professor Grady Tripp, a creative writing professor at a minor Pittsburgh college, and his relationships with his gay publisher, Terry Crabtree, his third wife, Emily, whom we hear about but only briefly ‘meet’, his lover Sara and two students, the brilliant but self-loathing James Leer with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Hollywood films and stars, and Hannah who, naturally, has a crush on Grady. Given all that we learn about him, Grady’s sudden decision not to respond to Hannah’s advances seemed unlikely.
However, when the action moves from the campus and Grady and Leek set off on a journey to celebrate Passover at the home of his Korean-Jewish wife [?], the novel begins to sprawl and lose its sense of urgency.
Tripp, overweight, happily addicted to pot and a serial womaniser, is involved in a series of events many of which are individually funny but which do not coalesce into a narrative whole. After marital disharmony, a shock from his lover, falling over numerous times, getting bitten by a blind dog that quickly gets his come-uppance and realising the true worth of his manuscript, weighing in at over 2500 pages, his career sags but he ends up smiling.
The terseness of the campus WordFest annual writing gathering in the first part and the sentimentality of the Passover visit in the second are two central points in this book that impress and bore, respectively. Having hammered home his point about Tripp’s inability to cut his book down to size as the book progresses I had the same feeling about Chabon’s. Perhaps this is exactly the response that he meant to create in the reader?
Whilst some of Chabon’s characters are interesting, several including Hannah, and Miss Sloviak/Tony, the transvestite whom Crabtree meets en route to Pittsburgh for the disastrous WordFest, are left adrift. There may be a deeper significance to a musical instrument that is threaded through the book, but I could not see it. It smacked of affectation as did Tripp’s repeated references to the transvestite.
The American campus element of this book has been dealt with much more deftly by authors from this side of the Atlantic. Tripp meanders through life in a fugg of pot, avoids any decisions and seems to be as useless as a teacher as he now is as an author, his earlier moderate successes long forgotten - except by Hannah. It is quite impossible to understand the reason for Sara’s attraction to him.
Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, his Master's dissertation, was published in 1988 to great acclaim making him the real Wonder Boy. Here he has used the traumatic experiences associated with his decision to abandon his second novel Fountain City. Regrettably this novel does nothing to make me want to explore any of the author’s remaining books.
I saw the film (with Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire) many years ago, and this has been on the 'to read' list for a while. It's a lot easier to get through than I expected, and has a lot of funny characters and incidents.
A writing teacher in a Pittsburgh college just can't get to the end of his second book, now reaching 2,000 pages and still not over. This delay prompts a visit by his larger-than-life editor Terry Crabtree, and precipitates a weekend of literary soirées, unexpected deaths, transvestite companionship and student angst.
Grady Tripp has troubles in his private life as well - a pregnant mistress and a wife who's left him but whose family wants him to visit for a Jewish holiday.
Juggling the women in his life, a suicidal writing student, the editor whose taken up with a cross-dresser, will his novel Wonder Boys ever get finished in time for his deadline? ANd how will he sort out the tangled muddle his life has become?
I couldn't help but feel a little for the pot-smoking writing teacher. Though his novel sounds unreadable, he's an ageing man struggling to find his way now his best years are over. I didn't find student James as empathetic as I did in the film, and can only picture Terry as portrayed by Robert Downey Jr - for me, the pregnant Sara is the most likeable in the whole book.
I love books about books and writing, and did enjoy this aspect of the story. The quirky nature of the plot was also very funny, with dead animal and a jacket belonging to Marilyn Monroe seeming bizarre and out of place but all coming together by the end.
You may not respect the characters (smoking marijuana, extra-marital affairs) but this mad weekend is a hilarious ride to share in.
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