Michael Chabon shows how it’s done in Wonder Boys

It would not spoil Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys to know that, about halfway through the novel, the wayward protagonist Grady Tripp speculates about the knowledge of his eccentric student, James Leer:

I wondered if perhaps it were all dawning on him at last; if he were beginning to realize that, having engaged, the night before, in activities as diverse as being dragged bodily and giggling from a crowded auditorium, committing grand larceny, and getting a hand job in a public place [from a man], he was now on hi sway to spend Passover, of all things, with the family of his dissolute professor’s estranged wife, in a dented Ford Galaxie within whose trunk lay the body of a dog he had killed.

What a sentence: its breathlessness mirrors the wild preceding 24 narrative hours. Each event described is, to be sure, unusual, and piled together they make us realize the sheer outrageousness of a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Chabon’s skill is such that that this improbable series seems not only plausible but even normal, like good fantasy novels that make supernatural powers an aspect of the landscape no more extraordinary than cars are to us. In another spot, Chabon turns cliche on its head with the chiasmus, “I suppose that I derived some kind of comfort from the fact that my relationship with young Hannah Green remained a disaster waiting to happen and not, as would normally have been the case by this time, the usual disaster.” Notice the adjective “young” placed in there to emphasize the distance between Tripp and Hannah, along with the temporal play between the expected and actual.

In another section, a character is alive more thoroughly in a paragraph than most achieve in a novel:

He was given to epigrams and I filled an entire notebook with his gnomic utterances, all of which every night I committed to the care of my memory, since ruined. I swear but cannot independently confirm that one of them ran, “At the end of every short story the reader should feel as if a cloud has been lifted from the face of the moon.” He wore a patrician manner and boots made of rattlesnake hide, and he drove an E-type Jaguar, but his teeth were bad, the fly of his trousers was always agape, and his family life was a semi-notorious farrago of legal proceedings, accidental injury, and institutionalization. He seemed, like Albert Vetch, simultaneously haunted and oblivious, the kind of person who could guess, with breathtaking coldness, at the innermost sorrow in your heart, and in the next moment turn and, with a cheery wave of farewell, march blithely through a plate-glass window, requiring twenty-two stitches in his cheek.

Wonder Boys is not flawless—the middle sags like the paunch of its middle-aged protagonist—but even in such a condition Chabon is still leaner and faster than most writers ever are, and the end picks up enough to clear that cloud from the moon—although the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere and hence doesn’t have clouds. But I feel them clearing anyway.

This is the kind of novel that reminds me why I like to read so much, and why I find bad books disappointing out of proportion to their menial sins: because those bad books suck up the time, space, and energy, both mental and physical, that could be devoted to the wonderful and extraordinary.

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