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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.