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Book Review: "Wonder Boys" by Michael Chabon (1995)

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Finally got around to reading Michael Chabon's second novel Wonder Boys. Much as I love Michael Chabon's writing, his ties to Pittsburgh, and my own personal connection to this book, I found it a bit of a slog. That said, Chabon, of course, has some priceless moments and turns of phrase that -- in the end -- made the book worth getting under my belt.

Brief Personal Note: They filmed the movie version of Wonder Boys (2000) on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the brief time I went to school there. In fact, I distinctly remember standing near the set for the "dog in the trunk" scene outside Margaret Morrison Hall, on a cold winter night, with two friends and a bottle of Bacardi limon, trying to catch a glimpse of Michael Douglas or Robert Downey Jr. or really anyone. We waited for like three hours for filming to begin before realizing what anyone in the film industry already knows: anything related to filming a big-budget movie takes a long, long, long time. Eventually we got fed up and retreated to a nearby class building so we could at least get drunk in warmth. We never saw anyone famous that night and I'm told no one else did either; filming never commenced. The movie, however, did get finished and it's one of the rare instances -- from what I can remember having seen the movie 20 years ago -- in which the film holds up to and is even better than the book. Thank you, Michael Douglas.

Anyway...the book takes place in Pittsburgh and focuses on a middle-aged writing professor -- Grady Tripp -- who is in the middle of a personal crisis. Not necessarily a mid-life crisis, mind-you, but a personal one: his third marriage is cracking up, he has gotten his lover pregnant, he's assisted one of his precocious but odd students in committing an act of burglary, all while he's coming to grips with the fact that his latest novel -- a 2,000 page behemoth -- royally sucks. Various hi-jinks ensue as we meet the other mad-cap characters in Grady Tripp's universe -- his eccentric agent, his kooky soon-to-be-former in-laws, his sexy, cowboy-boot wearing tenant (who is of course in love with him) -- and you'll never guess what happens in the end...

It sounds so fun and "nineties," and at times, it is fun and nineties; however, I have some gripes. Namely, that the book is about 100 pages too long and sags in the middle so much so that I almost didn't find my way back to finishing it. In fact, I had started it this past Fall, gotten about 80 pages in, then had to go back and start over because I'd forgotten what happened.

How could this titan of contemporary literature have written such a plodding, seemingly inconsequential cross between literature and mad-cap farce, succeeding only halfway at either one? I don't know, but he did. This is what confuses me about modern-day literature (if you can call 1995 "modern-day" which, you probably cannot any more): every teacher, class, and fiction editor cautions you against writing "beautifully written stories in which nothing happens." It's not that nothing happens in Wonder Boys, it's just the pace and the style have that flaccid lack of urgency that -- as an MFA student, or just a contemporary, wanna-be writer -- we are warned to avoid like the plague. And his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh had it, too! But Mysteries had that raw "first novel" kind of charm, so Chabon gets away with it.

It astonishes and even pains me to realize that 1995 was now 25 years ago. That was around the time when I myself was hatching my own dreams to become a "writer" and figuring out what that might mean for me. But it was an entirely different time, and therefore a different time for literature. Some writers are "of their time" and I think, if that description can be applied to anyone, it's Michael Chabon. It seems as though his work developed right along with the way contemporary literature developed. I don't think he or anyone else could get a book like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh or even Wonder Boys published today; our world is different, our demands on literature and art are different, and our artists are different. In my opinion, Wonder Boys exists now almost as an artifact of Chabon's career and of a different time in the history of American Literature, and not the kind of book that "feels as immediate today as when it was written" or whatever. I'm glad I read it, glad a few of Chabon's lines are now etched into my head, but I don't think I'll find the need to revisit it, ever.

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