not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
this post was originally published on my Goodreads account.
About midway through Wonder Boys, pot-addled writer and professor Grady Tripp is at Seder dinner with his in-laws (who don’t know his marriage to their daughter is for all purposes over) and asks the patriarch, “Hey Irv, how come old Yahweh let the Jews wander around in the desert like that for forty years, anyway? How come he didn’t just, like, show them the right way to go?” He gets two answers from two different people:
“They weren’t ready to enter the Holy Land,” says the first one. “It took forty years to get the slavery out of them.”
The second one says, “That could be. Or maybe they just got lost.”
These two interpretations of the Exodus could apply equally to the character of Tripp, a man who seems to have spent his whole life wandering without putting roots down. His current manuscript, at 1400 pages and growing, serves as a testament to this tendency, and the central question of Wonder Boys is whether this wandering has some final purpose, some Holy Land to reach, or whether it’s merely the haphazard navigation of a man who is hopelessly lost.
This was my second time reading Chabon’s novel, and once again I noticed the effortless beauty of his language, but this was the first time I noticed how utilitarian it frequently was. Lots of “literary fiction” gets a bad rap because readers feel as though the novel’s action is stymied by the literary quality of the writing; they can appreciate the beauty Updike, Roth, and others bring to their prose, but feel as though large heaps of this prose are there to reinforce themes or imbue the story with deeper meaning, rather than telling them what every reader wants to know: what happens next. Chabon’s writing, on the other hand, is always load-bearing. Every artful turn of phrase gives us some information about these characters and their situation, every seeming digression ends up being important to what happens further down the line. Rather than interrupting our attempt to find out what happens next, Chabon’s prose speeds the process along by virtue of being so fun to read, we keep deciding “sure, one more chapter,” the most important response for any writer to get.
Wonder Boys was written partly as an attempt to escape from another novel that Chabon had been working on for seven years, one that was eventually left unfinished and apparently bears some resemblance, in its heft and excessive ambition, to the novel Grady Tripp is trying to complete. It’s not too surprising, then, that the limited scope and fleet storytelling serves as a rebuke to the whole idea of the doorstop novel. Literature can do many things, after all, but the only two that are absolutely indispensable were figured out by Horace 2035 years ago: delight and instruct. And if you can do both in less than 400 pages, why on Earth wouldn’t you?