Review: Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon

With sadness, I must at last admit to myself and the world that Michael Chabon’s fiction is not for me. I loved that one book of essays he wrote. I agree with the sensible, interesting things he says about genre fiction and fandom and family. I think it is cool the high regard in which he and his wife plainly hold each other. I am in like Flynn if that show they are writing for HBO where magicians fight Nazis or whatever comes to fruition. But with his fiction I’m afraid I have decided I shall have nothing further to do. There just is no point.

Wonder Boys is about a writer called Grady Tripp who’s working on an endless novel, and his wife has just left him, and his mistress is pregnant with his child. He befriends a weird young writer in one of his classes, James Leer, and maybe stops him from committing suicide?, but then James Leer kills Grady Tripp’s mistress’s dog, and steals her husband’s valuable jacket that used to belong to Marilyn Monroe, which is a weird thing for any one grown-ass person to want, let alone two separate ones. This leaves Grady Tripp in a pickle because he is not the sort of person to put on his big-girl panties and deal with it. He just drives about with the dead dog in the trunk of his car hoping that the problem will go away.

I have probably said before that I prefer characters who want something I can sympathize with. Having given it a lot of thought over the summer, I’ll modify that and say that I prefer characters who know what they want. It doesn’t have to be a spectacular something. It could be a particularly significant piece of paper, or a ship with black sails that’s crewed by the damned. Whatever! As long as the characters want it really really really badly, I will nearly always be on board. Or if the author is not good at showing what the character wants, then having the character want a relateable thing can work nearly as well. Success in portraying what the character wants can make up for an awful lot of stuff that wouldn’t otherwise be my cup of tea. Like Mary Renault? Her books are heavy on the description, and there is not always a lot of plot. But her protagonists — all of them — want the things they want with such keenness and clarity, and it’s captivating.

Nobody in Wonder Boys seems to know what they want in the slightest, or if they do think to want something, they don’t want it very much, and definitely not enough to take steps in the direction of getting it. And nobody seems to like each other either. It’s always like everyone’s just tolerating each other’s company. Grady Tripp picks up James Leer and helps him and carts him around for a while, and I guess it’s out of pity? It doesn’t seem to be that he finds the kid appealing or interesting. His interactions with his long-time friend Terry Crabtree are tinted with disgust and weariness on both sides. It is hard to like people in a book when nobody else in the book seems to like them.

Again, this is a big thing for me and fictional characters. I don’t enjoy spending time with characters that nobody else in the book sees anything good in. It’s tiring and frustrating. The kiss of death is not that a character is unlikeable. It’s when a character isn’t liked, ever, by anyone, not even a bit, not for any of her characteristics (I’m saying her out of a desire for gender equality, not because there are any significant female characters in Wonder Boys), that I get bored. If nobody in that world has anything good to say about that character, then why on earth would I want to hang out with them for the length of a novel? I present as proof The Secret History, one of my favorite novels of all time, in which no character is the slightest bit likeable. It works because I got to know them as the protagonist gets to know them, and I saw the qualities in each of them that the protagonist finds attractive. They’re still terrible people, but it turns out not to matter.

There is, moreover, a dead dog in the trunk of the protagonist’s car for the bulk of the novel. It stressed me out. I would have been okay with Grady Tripp deciding to fess up, even if he didn’t have the opportunity to do it immediately. And I would have been okay with Grady Tripp deciding to conceal the whole thing and bury the dog and pretend he never knew anything about it, even if I knew the truth was going to come out eventually. But his not deciding anything or even thinking very much about deciding anything, and then just driving around the whole book with a dog rotting in the trunk of his car, stressed me all the entire way out. Just pick a side, Grady Tripp! Confess or conceal!

(I admire decisiveness.)

Further, I often feel when reading Michael Chabon that his sentences are slightly undercooked. Like he worked very hard to make a big fancy meal for a lot of guests, and then stopped stirring and seasoning the meal just a smidge too soon, because everyone was there and it was time to go. Even when I admire a particular description he gives, which happens pretty regularly!, I feel like it’s so, so close to being just exactly the thing, but it’s not quite the thing, and almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

I have felt these feelings about three, now, of Michael Chabon’s novels, including his Masterpiece, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Three is the magic number, y’all, and I’m calling it quits forever.

Other reviews: Stella Matutina; she treads softly; Book Maven’s Blog; The Book Brothel; Books and So Many More Books. Tell me if I missed yours, and I’ll add a link!

  • I watched the movie of this one before I read the book, and that made a difference–aimlessness in a movie is often the director’s inability to show in any other way how the characters are paralyzed by too much choice.
    I think of this as a very Walker Percyish conundrum–his character Will Barrett faces it in The Last Gentleman.
    Although it’s hard to do in fiction, I like it that Chabon tries. I am reading his new one, Telegraph Ave, and there’s plenty of that kind of paralysis in it, which I will notice more now and probably write about when I get to the point of writing up my thoughts.

    • Made a difference in a good way? I was worried that was prejudicing me against the book — I saw the movie years ago, at Indie Sister’s behest, and was not crazy about that either. I had to make a concentrated effort not to picture Toby Maguire (who I don’t like at all) as James.

      I’ll look forward to your thoughts on Telegraph Avenue!

      • Yes, it made a difference in a good way. Now I’m worried you might not like Walker Percy, but at least his characters are more intentional about being unable to decide.

  • I liked Kavalier and Clay but hated the Secret Yiddish Policeman’s Union or whatever it was called. The movie of Wonder Boys was ok, but I agree, the part with Marilyn Monroe’s jacket was just odd.

    And I’m kind of turned off by Chabon because of his wife. I know that’s irrational but it’s true.

    • Indeed? How come? I think I would find her personally a bit annoying, but I think it’s sweet how crazy they are about each other. And I really, really liked her book of essays about family and motherhood.

  • Reading Michael Chabon (except that excellent book of essays) is like watching one of those mystifying TV commercials that advertise a product so outside of your experience that you literally do not know what is being advertised. It’s not aimed at me, is the point. Or, or, it’s like being pregnant and anemic, and craving meat, and the restaurant serves you a salad. Lovely and delicious in its way – but sorry, the baby within wants meat. I am surprised that you made it through three. I just read Memory’s review of this and laughed aloud over the OH MOMMY WHEN WILL THIS BE OVER part.

    • Mm, yeah, you’re right. It’s just that way. I hope his television show, if it happens, does not have that quality. I love magicians fighting Nazis!

  • Ho I adore that phrase about putting on his big-girl panties and dealing with it. Now how soon can I work that into general conversation? I loved Chabon’s book of essays and appreciated Kavalier and Clay (although it was overwritten and the plot was bonkers) but have got no further through his oeuvre. I feel he suffers from Boy Wonder Syndrome. Huge expectations and too much cleverness, not quite enough heart.

    • Have you not heard it before? I think it’s pretty common this side of the pond. Boy Wonder Syndrome is a good syndrome to have a name for, and Lord do I agree about too much cleverness not enough heart. I have yet to feel interested in/sympathetic with any of his characters. Even the ones who were escaping from Nazis. EVEN THOSE ONES.

  • jeanlp

    I have the same problem, Karen, but anyway this kind of fiction isn’t my thing. I already don’t like most modern literary fiction. I do love this review though!

  • I’m also pretty sure Chabon’s fiction isn’t for me. I love THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY so much that the inside of my head turns into a gigant line of exclamation points whenever I think of it (like this, only moreso: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), but I didn’t much care for this one and I actually abandoned GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD, even though it was billed as a rousing tale of jewish dudes with swords. Sigh.

    I liked his essays, though. So there’s that.

    • *sigh* I wanted to feel that way about Kavalier and Clay. I did, I did. I even read it on a plane so I could get the full effect of it and never be distracted. But I didn’t feel even one exclamation point about it.

  • florinda3rs

    I adore Michael Chabon’s writing in any form, and WONDER BOYS is probably my favorite of his novels, although I won’t deny that there are parts of it that are…well, kind of nuts. I’m sad that he, and this novel, are not universally adored, but I think you have beautifully–and hilariously–articulated why he’s probably not for you.

    • I wish he were! :/

  • I actually read this book a long while ago, and liked it, but haven’t had any success with Chabon since. I get what you mean about characters feeling “unliked” and why that would bother you in a book. I can deeply understand that feeling and would have to agree with you. I know that he’s just not an author for me.

    • It might help to go in without any expectations, I think? That usually helps me, when it’s a super-hyped author that everybody loves. Not in this case probably though!

  • Hmmm, I really like Michael Chabon (although it’s been ages since I’ve read any of his fiction other than The Final Experiment, which was not that stunning), but I am with you on the unlikeable, wiffly-waffly characters. But I promise not to think you’re wrong not to like Chabon if you promise not to think I’m wrong for finding everyone in The Secret History too unlikeable to deal with. 🙂

    • Argh, The Final Solution. I don’t know where “Experiment” came from.

    • Hahaha, I don’t think you wrong! I love that book all over the place but I can understand very easily why a person wouldn’t.

  • OH dear, I can’t follow any of this. I remember seeing Wonder Boys – the Movie but don’t remember anything except the actors IN it and I have NEVER read anything by this author and go back and forth about it and might still some day but he teeters on that POPLER tag that makes me think he is Patterson or Harlan somebody and yet I do know about his cool marriage. So he must live in an other dimension. Can’t comment. Don’t know. LOVE your tags, as always. Cheers.

  • I saw the WB movie and hated it and I ALSO hated The Final Solution and only kind of have an interest in reading his other adult books (mostly because of the covers, tbh), HOWEVER I loved Summerland (his YA fantasy novel) and while I won’t tell you to read it because I’ve gotten over trying to make people read authors they hate, I WILL say that it’s probably his most likable book if you disliked all his other books. I mean, the writing style has got that thing that goes “and here is what this thing means in case you didn’t figure it out” but otherwise it’s lovely. Baseball! The end of the world! Zeppelins!

    • Yes! Summerland is what made me love him.

  • What a great review! I keep meaning to read something by Michael Chabon and never do. I really must, you have intrigued me. How do you manage to be so funny and yet so insightful? Can I be you when I grow up?

    But – a dog dies – oh nooooo! (When I went to see Dancing with Wolves in a packed cinema, the audience sat in silence during the destruction of the Native Americans but when the wolf and horse were killed there was a collected squawk of outrage, horror and disgust!)

  • Bill Bryson is the author I will probably be giving up on. I have just never loved any of the books he’s written. I still feel like I will try A Walk in the Woods just to be sure, but if that isn’t stunning then we may just be done.

    This is a lovely explanation of why you’re done not Chabon. I’ve only read Kavalier and Klay so can’t comment on him more generally, but I did like that book and have a couple of his books on my shelf that I’m looking forward to trying.

  • I have been trying to decide for a while now if I should read any of Chabon’s fiction. I really liked Manhood for Amateurs (thank you for the recommendation, btw), but wasn’t quite sure I would like him as a fiction writer. If that makes sense. I don’t think I’ll read this. It doesn’t sound very appealing to me.

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