The last time I tried to read Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon was just after I had finished watching all of The Wire, and why I gave up was because of relevance - as in why should I read this? The Wire was so immediate and serious and about the world that reading a novel about a bunch of drunk authors seemed so frivolous, so useless, so self-indulgent. After finishing Freedom by Franzen, I thought about giving it another try, as maybe I was in the right mindset for it.
Wonder Boys is the story of Grady Tripp, novelist and professor, James Leer, his bizarre highly talented student, and Crabtree, Tripp's sexually ambiguous editor, and visitor to the annual WordFest party that the college holds. Tripp is stuck in a two thousand page novel that doesn't seem to end, his wife left me due to the hot co-ed leaving in his basement, and his lover, the Chancellor of the college, has just announced she's pregnant. Will he be able to keep afloat during all this zaniness?
Surely Wonder Boys is the literary equivalent of the stereotypical indie flick, with calculated wackiness and characters defined only by their quirks. Except, this novel was published in 1995, so it can be forgiven for presaging the indie movement.
Chabon's writing style is clever enough, with clear enough prose, and crisp enough dialogue. The plot moves quickly, getting the wackiness from Point A to B and back again, and the use of motifs and symbols is adequate.
I wasn't really super excited about this novel the entire time. It starts out strong, and then derails slowly in the middle section when James and Tripp visit his ex-wife's family for Passover, a scene that goes on way too long.
Wonder Boys is so middle ground that I'm sure I will forget everything about it in a couple months. There's nothing that stands out, nothing that made me think this novel was fantastic or outstanding or impressive. Everything is so standard and workmanlike.
Going back to my opening statement, I was again plagued by questions of why am I reading this. Why does this novel exist? Why should I listen to Tripp and Chabon? There's nothing immediate and timely about this book, and nothing that screams for attention. This book seems only relevant to those in the know, those living on college campuses, those working on never-ending novels. I can't say this an accurate portrait of campus life, if only because I've never lived in this style of campus, and therefore Chabon could have either been super accurate, or have made it up completely.
I liked Wonder Boys only in that it entertained me for a few hours, but otherwise I don't think I'm ever going to read it again. I can't think of any outstanding or memorable element that will stand the test of a re-read. For literary insiders, I'm sure it's interesting or humorous, but for everybody else, it's merely an exercise in self-indulgence, quirkiness for its own sake, and workmanlike construction.