Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

A small declaration: the film adaptation of Wonder Boys is one of my all-time cherished film experiences. And I suspect you will probably hear the same thing from many writers, both of the prolific and broad ilk, in addition to the hermetic and oblique. Belonging to a sub-tribe of people who spend a lot of time in the shadows can promote a feeling of loneliness or longing. Fortuitously, along comes a major motion picture with major star power where that sub-tribe is put on show for all the world to see: their intellects and foibles; their addictions and over-abundant capacity to love. Although I don’t know for sure, I'll wager there were wordsmiths all over the world celebrating Wonder Boys. A writers time in the spotlight is brief, and any air-time at all, no matter how momentary, is a brief salve to that ever-present loneliness.

So why did it take such a long time to come around to Michael Chabon’s original novel? Primarily, the man dabbles in genres I seldom haunt. Which is a pithy excuse. Though I think it bears mentioning the author seldom writes about subjects that interest me: (topics such as Judaism, spiritual heritage, among other things). However, something I do know as a certain truth: one's storytelling aptitude can eclipse any theme on show. Or, put more bluntly: an elegant turn of insightful phrase can be the sole reason I plow through a novel, plot be damned. In any case, I am an undergraduate of Michael Chabon’s prose, but foresee steaming ahead with his entire resume.

For those yet to read the novelization, Wonder Boys (for the most part) adheres to all the clever comedy and drama up there in Curtis Hanson’s interpretation. Writer and teacher Grady Tripp is a likable protagonist because he’s all too human. Whether we as a species like to admit it or not, a huge number of us are entirely prone to making mistakes and dabbling in narcissism. And Grady Tripp, over the course of a weekend, frequently does both. But he does so in way that is endearing because we, the observers of his headspace, are given an intimate glimpse into private thought processes; the entire lynchpin of the novel medium itself. (And the reason many books feel like marriages, whereas movies can feel like one-night-stands; but that’s a whole different editorial). Complimenting Grady Tripp in his downfall from literary lion to underdog are characters every bit as flawed: James Leer, Hannah Green, and Terry Crabtree. Except for minor deviations in hair color and attire, what you experience on the page is every bit as nuanced as the laid back performances given by Michael Douglas, Katie Holmes, and Robert Downey Jr, respectively. Filtered through the ringer of Chabon’s quirky prose, I would go so far as to say these individuals are even more entertaining. I’ve known creatives like these; I’ve broken bread with them and gotten blind drunk. (Although I’ve never shot a dog or carried a tuba).

One thing needs to be said: halfway through this novel is an extended dinner scene, and it was during this interlude where I almost abandoned the novel altogether. Let it be known I loathe dinner scenes in any book. And this one, featuring an immersion into Jewish ritual, is the granddaddy of them all. If you can overcome such hurdles (and I have no doubt some out there will actually find the scene hilarious), then keep on trucking. Regarding the novels third act and climax - Grady Tripp’s epiphany and subsequent redemption - some of the film scenes were altered dramatically … although this is the nature of any adaptation. Cinema is a different language, and translations need to take place.

Wonder Boys as a novel is witty, and it’s absorbent. Sure, the grand appeal here might be a writer writing about writers. But as the old saying goes, somebody has to do it.