Thursday, November 21, 2019

Book 208: Wonder Boys



"I’d spent my whole life waiting to awake on an ordinary morning in the town that was destined to be my home, in the arms of the woman I was destined to love, knowing the people and doing the work that would make up the changing but essentially invariable landscape of my particular destiny. Instead here I was, forty-one years old, having left behind dozens of houses, spent a lot of money on vanished possessions and momentary entertainments, fallen desperately in and abruptly out of love with at least seventeen women, lost my mother in infancy and my father to suicide, and everything was about to change once more, with unforeseeable result."

Dates read: February 9-15, 2018

Rating: 6/10

When I was a kid, I was on the "gifted" track...or at least the closest thing my small district had to one. I tested in the 99th percentile for virtually everything except (much to my parents' chagrin) ability to do basic math in my head. I was in the 99th percentile on the ACT. I read at a 12th grade level in 4th grade. It has a way of kind of getting in your head, when you're constantly told how smart you are. It makes you feel like you're destined for greatness, when the reality is that you'll probably end up working a more-or-less normal job and leading a more-or-less normal life. Which ends up feeling underwhelming even if you're actually very happy, because what about that greatness that was supposed to happen?

Michael Chabon himself was a young phenom, publishing his debut novel when he was only 25. He found himself stuck when he tried to pen his follow-up, though, and from this experience he found the inspiration for what became his second book, Wonder Boys. The novel tells the story of Grady Tripp, a one-time literary wunderkind who's published two books to both critical acclaim and popular success but has gotten completely mired in his third. Tripp works as a professor at a small liberal arts school in his native Pennsylvania, and his life is a bit of a mess when we meet him. His agent, who has also been his best friend since college, is coming into town to talk about his book, which he is nowhere near finishing even though he's written over 2,000 pages. An odd but talented student, James, is exhibiting strange behavior. His wife, the third Mrs. Tripp, has just apparently left him. And his mistress, who is the dean of the college and who is married to the head of Tripp's department, is pregnant.

It makes for a wild weekend, as Grady tries to keep his agent from actually reading his manuscript in the hopes that he can figure out what to actually do with it, keep track of James, who turns out to be a bit of a pathological liar and compulsive thief, attend a seder dinner with his in-laws (with James in tow) to see if he can patch things up with his wife, and figure out what to do about his mistress's pregnancy. There's also a running plotline about the car Tripp is driving, which he won in a poker game and might actually be stolen, and Tripp's crush on the young student that rents out the basement in his house and is never seen without her red cowboy boots. In the end, somehow, improbably, it all turns out about as well as it could have.

I don't even necessarily think that's a spoiler there, because there is a movie version out there of this book and it's fairly faithful to the text, though it does cut out some plot threads while giving others greater weight. The movie bombed, though I actually quite liked it myself, and I honestly think it might work better in some ways than the book...mostly for its willingness to purge extraneous details. Chabon's a wonderful writer with a great sense of how to tell a story and clear, insightful prose, but there was really just too much going on here. Too many characters, too many "side quests" (so to speak), too much detail...it feels cluttered and starts to strain the bounds of credulity. How much weird stuff, after all, can happen to one guy over the course of one weekend?

While I've loved the two books of Chabon's that I've read before (Kavalier and Clay was my favorite of last year!), this one just didn't resonate with me. I think part of it was let-down, because what I've read from him before has been so good that I had very high expectations going in, and part of it is that I'm just not in a place where stories about overgrown man-children are especially charming to me. The thought of the amount of emotional labor a person like Tripp pushes onto the women in his life because he can't be assed to get himself together is enraging, so I actually kind of hated him. Comedy-of-errors-style plots like this one aren't my cup of tea either. I think my lack of connection with this book is as much about me and my preferences as it is about the book itself, though, so while I can't recommend it, I'm not going to affirmatively suggest avoiding it either. If reading this has made you think that this sounds like a delightful narrative, you'll probably like it. If not though, skip.

One year ago, I was reading: Dark Places (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The House of Mirth

Three years ago, I was reading: The Emigrants

Four years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

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