Review of the Week–Wonder Boys

Apologies for my late review this week–technically I guess I’m not even on schedule, because it’s now NEXT week already. I just haven’t gotten out to see many movies recently or had much to talk about in the way of TV shows. That said, I did recently finish reading the first book on my reading list for the upcoming grad school semester–so I figured, why not? I’ll talk about this. It’s Wonder Boys, published in 1995 by one of my favorite authors, Michael Chabon.

Wonder Boys features an ensemble cast of characters all living in a college community in the Pittsburgh area. Middle-aged writing professor Grady Tripp is struggling to finish his latest novel, “Wonder Boys”–thousands of pages long and no closer to ending. One fateful weekend, with a literary festival taking place on campus, his life becomes entangled with that of one of his students, the quiet and troubled James Leer. Together with his longtime friend and editor Terry Crabtree, Grady and James embark on a series of increasingly ludicrous misadventures in their quest to understand each other and their writing issues. But how much of what James tells Grady is actually true? And what even is truth anyway?

Okay, I’ll start by being honest–Wonder Boys isn’t my favorite Michael Chabon book. The first book of his I read was Summerland, and the second was The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, both of which have grounds in alternative universe, relatively out-there fiction which I really enjoy. This book is way, way more grounded and talks about what could easily be a real-life situation, something that I’m not as crazy about. I read my books to escape from reality, not be reminded of it. So on first brush I wasn’t that thrilled about the premise of Wonder Boys. It reminds me a lot of something like Catcher in the Rye, or if you want to go with a movie comparison, The Big Lebowski: a story about the darkly comical misadventures of its clueless characters, who contemplate in their own warped yet wise way the meaning of life in general and what their purpose is. Most of the characters are chronically lost and can’t seem to do anything right, which also works its way into their existential troubles as writers–something I can totally identify with. In fact, this book is pretty much written about writers and the demons and doubts they often face. So in that respect, I actually can get behind it pretty strongly because it represents that kind of thing very well.

And it is funny. I won’t lie. It’s not your typical ha-ha type funny, but more of a just ludicrous misadventure and series of one farcical mistake after another strung together in a weekend that’s about as bad as it can possibly be for all the characters involved. It more or less ends happily though (or at least with the promise of a light at the end of the tunnel), so that’s something! Like I said, if you like down to earth, seemingly pointless wackiness in the nature of what the Coen brothers like to do, this is probably a book you’d really enjoy. Especially Grady Tripp, with his dry and cynical wit, reminds me a lot of someone like Bill Murray in any given Bill Murray movie–somebody who just rolls with all the stupid, crazy things that happen around them while keeping a perfectly straight face, accepts it all, and moves on. Definitely a black comedy, but a comedy nonetheless.

One of the main points the novel brings up is how a writer’s actual life can relate to and give meaning to their story, and honestly I’m not sure how I feel about this. When Grady learns that most of the things James has told him about his background were lies–including that his parents are very much alive and not dead–it makes him question whether anything he’s read in James’s manuscript has value. Up to this point it had seemed to parallel James’s life, but when that is revealed as a falsehood, he struggles with whether it invalidates the story or not. The question is largely left unresolved and up to the reader to decide. But that’s just one example of how Wonder Boys tackles all the struggles writers, and creators of anything really, face from time to time. I can certainly relate to feeling lost and directionless with writer’s block, not being able to finish something I started, and the frustration that leaks out into the rest of life because of it. So if you’re not a writer, will you appreciate this book as much? Maybe not. But it could still be compelling.

And that’s the other thing about Wonder Boys–despite the fact that I’m not sure if I’m crazy about the story as a whole, I can’t deny that it’s very, very well written for all of the reasons I’ve already described. There’s well-crafted, believable characters who act like real people would, and such vivid descriptions of setting and emotions that you can’t help but be in awe of an artist like Chabon. While I may not like it as much as his other books, it’s definitely just as good from a writing standpoint. Everything makes sense and comes together nicely in the end, and overall the narrative reflects the chaotic, nonsensical messiness of real life, and the things both bad and good that can come out of it–including that sometimes, starting fresh is what you really need.

My Rating: 7/10

I can’t say that I’m personally ecstatic over reading Wonder Boys, or that it’s my favorite Michael Chabon book, but I have to admit that it’s an extremely well-written novel and worth a read for people who enjoy the kinds of themes and ideas it puts forward. I can definitely understand why it would be part of a college curriculum, and I look forward to dissecting all the elements of story that make this such a fine example of fiction. It’s also nice to know that someone else out there feels the same as me when it comes to difficulties in writing and understands them, especially such a big-name author. It’s not quite my cup of tea, but still definitely worth a read if you like fine literature.

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