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!