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!

Bad Motherhood for Amateurs, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon

Before writing about people writing about parenting, can I say, happy anniversary to my own lovely parents? Happy anniversary, Mumsy & Daddy! Y’all are the best ever!

Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, who are married and writers, both wrote books of essays about parenting and family. I checked them out of the library together. Waldman’s book, Bad Mother, had eighteen chapters and an introduction, and Chabon’s, Manhood for Amateurs, had thirty-nine chapters. So I would basically read a chapter of Bad Mother and then two chapters of Manhood for Amateurs until I had finished them both. This was very pleasing except that sometimes I would forget whose book I was reading and be like, Good heavens, Ayelet Waldman slept with a thirty-five-year-old woman when she was fifteen?

Can I recommend that you all read both of these books in the same manner that I did? I got such a crush on Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, even though I didn’t like the one Michael Chabon book I read before this one. It was touching to read their writing about each other and their kids, because it’s plain that they adore the kids and admire each other tremendously. And I am a sucker for couples who admire each other. Like the Brownings. Except the Brownings are still my favorite literary couple. Of course. A time will never come when this is not the case.

When I cried: Waldman’s essays “Rocketship” about having an abortion, and “The Audacity of Hope” about that guy who does that stupid dance all over the world and how parents try to portray the world as kind to their children. (Y’all, I know it’s dorky, but that video makes me tear up.) And also Chabon’s “The Binding of Isaac” about the Obama girls on election night, and “The Hand on My Shoulder” about his ex-father-in-law, and “The Story of Our Story” about telling stories to his brother.

One thing I loved about both books is the awareness of each of the writers of the mythologizing function of family. Chabon writes about this particularly in his essay “The Amateur Family.” It’s about Doctor Who. I’d really rather quote the part where Chabon says something about “the supreme and steady pleasure of watching the dazzling Scottish actor David Tennant go about the business of being the tenth man to embody the time-and-space traveling Doctor”, but instead of doing that, I’ll quote this:

Maybe all families are a kind of fandom, an endlessly elaborated, endlessly disputed, endlessly reconfigured set of commentaries, extrapolations, and variations generated by passionate amateurs on the primal text of the parents’ love for each other. Sometimes the original program is canceled by death or separation; sometimes, as with Doctor Who, it endures and flourishes for decades. And maybe love, mortality, and loss, and all the children and mythologies and sorrows they engender, make passionate amateurs–nerds, geeks, and fanboys–of us all.

As a girl who can easily spend hours arguing with her sisters about the proportional amounts of blame to be assigned each sister the time Social Sister hit me on the head with a tire iron, or discussing how Doctory Matt Smith is compared to David Tennant, I can vouch for the similarity of the two arguments. We are all very fond of Matt Smith. We just like David Tennant, in varying degrees, better. And it wasn’t at all my fault that Social Sister hit me on the head with a tire iron. If Anna hadn’t broken one of her porcelain horses on a previous occasion, she would not have thought I was serious when I was threatening to break the other one and taken preemptive action. Not my fault at all.

Waldman says this, which I also know is true because I swear I have had nearly this exact experience.

And I think, “A person does fall onto the ground screaming when she experiences a hideous, shocking pain. Remember that.” This, alas, is part of what it means to be a writer, someone whose job it is to observe closely enough to convincingly turn what she sees and feels into words. A writer stands at a distance and watches her heart break.

I wrote down so many quotations from these books! Ayelet Waldman on division of labor:

But as marriages progress, you surrender areas of your own competence, often without even knowing it. You do this in part because it’s more efficient for each individual to have his or her own area of expertise, but also as a kind of optimistic gesture. By surrendering certain skills, you are affirming your belief that the other person will remain there to care for you in that way….One of the tragedies of a lost love is the collapse of this system, and the confrontation of the ways we’ve allowed ourselves to become dependent.

Michael Chabon on escaping from life:

When the vision fades and the colored smoke disperses, we are left alone and marooned again in our skulls with nothing but our longing for connection. That longing drives writers and readers to seek the high, small window leading out, to lower the makeshift ropes of knotted bedsheet that stories and literature afford, and make a break for it. When that window can’t be found, or will no longer serve, or when it inevitably turns out to be only paint on the unchanging, impenetrable backdrop of our heads, small wonder if the longing seeks another, surer form of egress.

Maybe I would like Michael Chabon’s books after all. I mean I know all about his family now, and how to pronounce his last name, and the covers of his books are pretty. But I am still gun-shy from reading Kavalier and Clay on the plane a few years ago and finding it disappointing, so I think I’m just going to read Maps and Legends for now.

Reviews of Bad Mother:

Necromancy Never Pays
Rhapsody in Books
A Good Stopping Point
The Book Lady’s Blog (and guest review)
Devourer of Books
In Search of Giants

And reviews of Manhood for Amateurs:

Shelf Love
Stella Matutina
Amy Reads
Necromancy Never Pays
Fizzy Thoughts
The Bluestocking Society
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On with The Written World
The Captive Reader
Book Addiction
The Book Lady’s Blog
Book Dads
Killin’ Time Reading

Let me know if I missed yours!