Every writer wants a killer first line, and Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel, Wonder Boys, has one: ‘The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn.’ It’s unassuming, not exactly pithy, but it feels natural: introducing us to a mystery that symbolises the essence of the novel — who was August Van Zorn, and why was he so important for Grady Tripp, the narrator?
Van Zorn, a legendary figure, who wrote long forgotten gothic horror stories, is remembered from Tripp’s childhood, as the representation of a ‘real’ writer. Van Zorn has the ‘midnight disease’ as Tripp calls it, the compulsion to write. He wasn’t there to schmooze the literary agents at fancy dinner parties — all he wanted was to write. Wonder Boys is essentially the story of Tripp nurturing a young writer in his writing class (James Leer), who also has the ‘midnight disease’. And, in the process of helping James, he reconnects with himself, with his own inner-Van Zorn. Tripp’s bloated manuscript, a virtuoso piece, designed to be his great magnum opus, reeks of self-indulgence, and is deadened by its own technical brilliance. It’s a monument to his faded brilliance — and a complete dead end. To move on, he must re-learn how to be a humble storyteller.
The plot is a pretty straightforward, nice guy gets screwed around Film Noir-style, which works well with Tripp’s sardonic narration. Tripp’s character is the story, and as a character he is worthy of that pivotal role. For the most part it’s a pleasure to see the world through his eyes, but when he drives out to visit his ex-wife (who’s living at her parents house) the narrative stumbles into what feels like another story (a short story inserted into the novel). Here, Chabon’s observations about middle-class Jewish domesticity — clearly something that he cherishes as a writer — gets in the way of this story.
Another oddity is the way James Leer (Tripp’s ‘wonder boy’) is presented as a liar. His lies about his background, telling Tripp that he’s Catholic, and from an impoverished background (when he’s from a wealthy WASP family) — this completely undermines his credibility. Why did Chabon include this? Are his lies symbolic of writers in general; how writers invent fictions about themselves before they go on to create fictions about their characters? Are the lies a way of ensuring that we only empathise with Tripp?
Tripp’s magnanimous visit to his ex-wife (where he displays no malice), and his generous accommodation of Leer’s bullshit makes him look like a bigger person. If Tripp is viewed as a bit of a selfish loser, this kind of plotted character bolstering could make him more likeable, but I enjoyed him as he was, and I didn’t think it was necessary. Both these issues are rectified in the film adaption, which, as a story, improves on the novel. Tripp is funny and honest enough that we can excuse his faults — the fact that he’s a rogue and a misfit makes him human. Tripp’s narration is glorious — full of writerly observations about life — as honest as he is comically jaded. And for all the novel’s faults, his character packs in the charm.