"Wonder Boys" by Michael Chabon

A recent post discussed a book by Michael Chabon called “Maps and Legends”, a collection of essays about books, the art of writing, reading, genre fiction, among other things. I bought the book mainly because I wanted to read his thoughts on the modern short story and his essay on Cormac McCarthy. I had been hearing much about this author over the years but I never got around to reading him. Along with this purchase, I bought one of his novels, “Wonder Boys”, his second, to get an idea of his fiction. Much has been said of this writer (who was in his early 30s when this novel came out) and naturally curiosity had finally gotten the better of me. I was impressed with his ideas and sentiments in his essay collection so I was eager to read a work of fiction to see how it fared. 
 
“Wonder Boys” is an interesting novel on many different levels. Many novels have been written about writers who are struggling to write a novel and I suppose it’s a natural thing for writers to explore being that each author has their own experiences and their own input on the subject. The story here is interesting to me for the mere fact that it had literally grown out of the real situation of Chabon himself having trouble writing his follow up to “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.” That abandoned novel, "Fountain City", was supposedly a sprawling piece about the construction of the perfect baseball park in Florida, and in an essay in "Maps and Legends" he discusses how he just couldn't get a handle on it and began writing another book, in which the main character is a writer having trouble writing his follow-up novel. You could feel him working out this frustration throughout the entire story of "Wonder Boys" and in the end, wound up coming up with a new work out of that frustration, which plays a key role in this story and ultimately what this work is really about.  


The protagonist in "Wonder Boys" is a burned out college professor who is struggling to complete his follow up novel to his successful debut, a 2,000 plus page rambling opus that he himself is even unsure of. A visit from a friend - his editor - comes on the very day that his wife leaves him and he finds out that his mistress is pregnant; add to that, one of his students - an arty, depressive named James Leer, has killed his neighbor’s dog and stolen a jacket that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe. It is the relationship between the narrator - Grady Tripp - and his student that makes up the bulk of the novel. 
 
You get the sense that Tripp, middle aged and world weary, is burnt out, unsure of himself and struggling with creative and personal issues in some small way envies the young Leer, although he is a very troubled kid. He sees a little of himself in him and what he has now lost - that innocence, that wide-eyed expectation of youth and although he cares about and friends the young student, he is symbolic of something he lost long ago. But Leer is not all that he seems either, and the slow revelation unfolds as the novel progresses. Meanwhile, you follow a distancing between Tripp and his long time editor and friend throughout the story, and also sense that their relationship is at an end, leaving Tripp to try to not only figure out the shards and scraps of his own messy life but also that of his creation, his gigantic unfinished novel - 7 years in the making - which turns out to be as fragmented and unruly as his own life. 
 
It’s not a story that hasn’t been told before (many authors have covered the same ground before) and the writing in it is very good. Chabon definitely has a way with words and is often quite funny. The novel was slow in some parts but this is more a character study than anything else but more than anything else it is an exploration into creativity and what drives creative people to do what they do and the struggles they sometimes endure to express themselves - something all creative people could relate to. Over all, I liked this book, but it wasn’t anything revelatory. I’d like to read more of his work to get a more rounded idea of his fiction. This is a good one to start if you haven’t read him before. 
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