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Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

By fff | Books | September 16, 2010 |

By fff | Books | September 16, 2010 |

There’s a point partway into Wonder Boys when the main character, Grady Tripp, remembers his wife’s response to reading his meandering, 2,000+ page novel: ‘It’s awfully male.’ While this is a valid criticism of Chabon’s work, it also endears the reader who would make that criticism to his writing. While I can easily find small things to criticize in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, those criticisms grow even smaller because of the immense likeability and humanity of the novel.

Wonder Boys tells the story of Grady Tripp, a middle-aged professor and writer who is going through personal and professional crises. He has been immersed for years in finishing an unwieldy follow-up to a successful novel, but he doesn’t want anybody to read it. His wife leaves him, and he finds out that his mistress is pregnant. That’s the plot, but it’s really about a man who’s made a lot of mistakes finally coming to terms with the fact that he can’t continue to skate by on charm and reputation. Grady doesn’t quite get to the point of actually facing up to his mistakes, but he at least realizes he needs to do something different as he moves forward.

The plot, and some of the specifics of various characters, sound a lot like that old cliche of a novel (or movie) about an aging writer who inexplicably attracts and beds various pretty young women as he comes to terms with his aging, while somehow maintaining a moral and intellectual superiority to these women (see Tiger Beatdown’s Fond Memories of Vagina). This is a tired old warhorse, usually written by (surprise!) an aging white male writer who has a superiority complex.

Chabon’s novel, while it does indulge in some of these cliches, also turns some of them inside out. Hannah Green, the grad student who shows some interest in Grady, ends up criticizing his manuscript harshly, and calling him out for constantly writing while stoned. Grady’s wife, Emily, is shown as completely justified in leaving him, even before she learns of his affair. Perhaps Chabon’s avoidance of these cliches can be attributed to the fact that Wonder Boys is by no means autobiographical, as Chabon was only 32 when it was published, so he can sidestep the delusional grandiosity and self-importance that makes so many of these tales insufferable.

What makes Wonder Boys ultimately successful is the characters and the bonds they form. In the present day, ‘quirk’ often replaces actual character development, but Chabon writes actual strange, quirky, and original characters that the reader cares about. I won’t spoil too much of the plot — not that it depends on twists and turns — but it’s best to discover Wonder Boys on your own, warts and all.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of fff’s reviews, check out the blog.