A Tripp too far

THE WONDER BOYS Michael Chabon Fourth Estate £15.99

"The hardest part of writing a novel is the contemplation of the distance to the end," Michael Chabon wrote in the New Yorker recently, explaining the trauma he had suffered with a novel he found impossible to finish. He had worked on Fountain City for over five years, but his material continually spooled out of control. 1,500 pages of manuscript later, he finally called it a day. Within a year of throwing City's heavy hull off his back he produced the first draft of Wonder Boys.

In accordance with the tried-and-testeds of metafiction, Wonder Boys is also the title of the novel Chabon's hero, Grady Tripp, is working on: like its authorial antecedent it is a sprawling, uncontrollable narrative quagmire. Tripp has tried to construct a generic family saga, but has instead concocted a delirious nightmare of endless narrative possibility: "I had too much to write: too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trysts to arrange, letters to misdirect into evil hands, children to slay with rheumatic fever, fires to ignite at the hearts of ancient houses."

Tripp's problem is quite the opposite of "block" then. Indeed, he imagines what ails him is a madness exclusive to the writer, an "emotional insomnia" that keeps him awake at night, or the "concomitant inability to let go of a subject, even when urged repeatedly to do so" - an eloquent summary of how Wonder Boys has become so complicated. A more immediate problem for him, though, is how to keep his editor sweet. The latter is visiting the university where Tripp lectures in creative writing, to join in the annual literary shindig, and wants to check up on his author's progress.

Around this, Chabon constructs a wonderfully teasing, comic novel. Not only must Tripp negotiate Crabtree's attention to his own unfinished work, but must also cope with the breakdown of his marriage, alongside the destabilising presences of an indestructible tuba, a dead snake, a stunning drag queen, and the glazed gaze of James Leer, a sexually ambivalent, grungey student prodigy with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the golden age of Holly-wood. As he gawkily ascends as a writer, Tripp, his mentor, declines. It is a gradient sensitively observed.

Chabon juggles all these preoccupations with the acute, quirky deftness he employed in his first novel, the spiky rites-of-passage comedy The Mysteries of Pittsburgh that pinioned him to fame in 1987, aged 23. In Wonder Boys, though, he employs a far darker set of comic voices - in some degree due to the semi-autobiographical nature of the book itself, but also marking a real development in his attention to character. Chabon fillets people and places with a startlingly expansive use of language. Tripp notes, for example, his wife's sister's teeth which "wandered across her smile like the kernels at the tip of an ear of corn"; James Leer's odd insouciance is captured as "an expression halfway between pity and disapproval, the way you look at a drunken man who stands up to find that he has been sitting for an hour on his hat." A nightclub in daytime is "unplugged, unmagical, closed up like a frozen custard stand on a deserted stretch of roadwalk in the winter".

The crazed sequence of weekend events, which echo the stuff of the Capraesque screwballs Lee is so fascinated by, eventually draws to a close. Tripp ends the novel teaching another set of college "wonder boys", "whose hearts are filled with the dread and mystery of the books they believe themselves destined to write". It is indicative of the exacting, but never dark, comedy of the book that Chabon ends by emphasising the pain each boy will undergo as a slave to his imagination. All good writers, Tripp notes, "suffer, inevitably, the quintessential fate of their characters". With that pearl, Chabon has got the ending right at last.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past