I used to write for Cannonball Read as Funkyfacecat, but as my twitter handle is doombiscuits, I decided to make life simpler and update my ID here as well.
A friend of mine had enjoyed the film, so when I saw Wonder Boys available very cheaply in a January sale, I snapped it up, thinking that a disillusioned and satirical take on academia would be fun to read while waiting for the last stage of my own studies to begin. It’s the story of a wild weekend in the life of Grady Tripp, a professor of creative writing at a small American college, who has been writing the same novel – Wonder Boys - for years. The Wonder Boys within Wonder Boys is over two thousand pages long when Wonder Boys opens; it has sprawled and spread out into subplots within subplots. Over the course of a single weekend, the various narrative strands of Tripp’s own life suddenly spiral out of control–the midlife crisis he has been haphazardly brewing for himself bubbles over with venom and acid and occasional bursts of sweetness.
Tripp is almost permanently stoned, which gives his narration a hazy feel, studded with images of startling clarity when he manages to lock onto a person or an object or the emotional temperature of a room for longer than a couple of seconds. It also makes his careening from one disaster to the next not terribly interesting. His long musings on the toil and trouble he brought upon himself undercut both poignancy and comedy–and that, perhaps, is their point. Tripp’s tragedy is perhaps that his tragedy is a series of small, pathetic, everyday sins he committed rather than the thunder and lightning of true passion and the torture of being marked and blasted by the fates. If the same unlikely concatenation of events had happened to someone sober and sympathetic, it would, perhaps, have made the novel both darker and funnier, adding a desperation and peril to the weird small-town odyssey of the story.
Chabon’s commentary on the academic world and the publishing industry is bleak but amusing, and there are some interesting supporting characters. His take on symbols of American modern mythologies and the possibilities people have for creating their own myths of themselves is a cool aspect of the tale, and perhaps they does need Tripp’s corrosive insight to do them justice. And even though it’s distressing to think that 1995 is an age of which the words “period detail” can be used, an extra level of amusement is provided through the lack of mobile phones and the significance of the typewriter and the vulnerability of typewritten pages. I’d recommend Wonder Boys for people who like books about books and campus novels.
(Title: Quotation from Patrick Kavanagh’s “Advent.”)