SURVIVOR: anna karenina (leo tolstoy)*
CHALLENGER: wonder boys (michael chabon)

i won't pretend to have started reading wonder boys with anything like neutrality. the flawed-but-glorious film version (c. 2000, with michael douglas, tobey maguire, and robert downey, jr.) has a special place in my heart for being one of the first things both joe and i found riotously funny; i worried that the book couldn't possibly be as pleasurable as the movie had been. could the errol flynn conversation work twice?

wonder boys (1995) is michael chabon's second novel, written when he was a slightly larger fetus than he was when he wrote the mysteries of pittsburgh (which was pleasant enough, as i recall, though the only bit of it which really stuck with me was that the main character's love interest was called phlox).** it's a novel about grady tripp, a skirt-chasing, pot-smoking old author who hits the bar and the road with james leer, one of his writing students, as their university is consumed for the weekend by wordfest, a series of self-congratulatory lectures and parties for writers-, publishers-, and agents-to-be. here's a get-together at grady's place, left empty (except for his sexpot student boarder, hannah) after his wife learns of his affair with the dean's wife and leaves him:
On the sofa behind them a pair of my students, young writers of the Angry School who pierced their lips and favored iron-buckled storm-trooper footwear, had welded themselves into a kind of impromptu David Smith. On the stairs leading up to my bedroom sat three New York agents, better dressed and less drunk than the writers, exchanging among themselves delicate constructions of confidentiality and disinformation. And there were so many Pittsburgh poets in my hallway that if, at that instant, a meteorite had come smashing through my roof, there would never have been another stanza written about rusting fathers and impotent steelworks and the Bessemer converter of love.
this inside-baseball, writer-on-writers stuff could be terrifically annoying, but chabon marbles his wordfest with broad veins of absurdity; some of the more ridiculous conversations reminded me of twin peaks, or twin peaks if david lynch had decided to think about The Great American Novel instead of, you know, The Owls.***

more on that sexpot student boarder (played in the film by a pre-scientology katie holmes): as another reader notes, chabon does a decent job of steering clear of writing what garland grey at tiger beatdown calls a fond memories of vagina novel.**** this could of course simply be because he isn't yet a nasty old man, but i like to think that it's because hannah has some substance; she's fond of grady, but he's been overcooking his latest novel (wonder boys, and it's actually about a couple of guys named wonder) for a long time, and she knows it. happily, we never have to deal with the tragedy of a physical relationship between them.*****

we do have to deal with a physical relationship between the ass of a man named vernon hardapple and the hood of grady's galaxie after an ill-advised night at a local dive; for reasons i don't completely understand, the ass-denting scene gave and continues to give me great joy. it functions a bit like one of shakespeare's scenes for the groundlings: chabon layers his more serious observations about writers and their art between these marvelous little set pieces.
"Chaos," he said, rolling his window down, breathing it in like the smell of cut grass or the ocean. He shook his head admiringly. "What a mess."

"No kidding," I said, looking down at the pathetic remnant of Wonder Boys in my lap. I ought to have been pounding on the dashboard, I thought, and eulogizing sweet chaos, the opposite and the inhibitor of death, and stating, for the record, that Vernon Hardapple's breath had carried an anise whiff of Italian sausage and a rusty tang of beer. Ever since the day, nearly twenty-five years before, that I'd first fallen under the spell of Jack Kerouac and his free-form Arthurian hobo jazz, with all its dangerous softheartedness and poor punctuation, I had always, consciously and by some unthinking reflex of my heart, taken it as an article of faith that escapades like the rescue of James Leer from his Sewickley Heights dungeon, or the retrieval of the missing jacket, were intrinsically good: good for the production of literature, good for barroom conversation, good for the soul. Chaos! I ought to have been gulping it down the way Knut Hamsun, perched atop a locomotive as it hurtled across the American heartland, swallowed a thousand miles of icy air in a successful attempt to rid his body of tubercules. I ought to have been welcoming the bright angel of disorder into my life like the prickling flow of blood into a limb that had fallen asleep.
grady doesn't actually live in the absurd moments his agent (the first speaker above) and i love so well; he has a rakish side, but he's domesticated and he knows it.
On a day when my work hasn't gone well, I like to spend a couple of hours behind The Alibi's dented steel bar, and you can find me there on Tuesday nights after the advanced workshop lets out. You can look for the half-blind minotaur with the corduroy sport coat and the battered horsehair briefcase, at the far end of the bar by the jukebox, holding on to a mug of Iron City cut, for the sake of his health, with thin, sweet lemonade.
chabon would have a hell of a time spinning four novels out of him, as john updike did with harry angstrom - but i almost wish he would. fiction needs that kind of guy.

VICTOR: i'd really like to throw this one to chabon, but i think the beast from the east still has some fight in him. anna karenina continues, though i threw my knickers at wonder boys.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 have you read or seen wonder boys? if both, what'd you think of the casting?

02 "phlox" as a hot-girl name: inspired or questionable?

03 is it less annoying when a young male novelist writes about an old male novelist than it is when an old male novelist writes about an old male novelist?

04 if you found yourself full of tubercules, what cure would you take?

05 have you ever had a briefcase?

06 with what do you cut your beer?

*previous battle here.

**he was 25 when he published pittsburgh and 32 for wonder boys.

***to be clear, i am by no means suggesting lynch should have thought about The Great American Novel. i love The Owls, though they scare the crap out of me.

****“I am a writer in the twilight of my years, bored with life and my sexual powers. Oh, wait: pussy." see amis, martin; marquez, gabriel garcia; roth, philip; rushdie, salman; updike, john, &c.

*****while grady lacks self-control, he never goes so far off the rails that we stop liking him. almost all of chabon's central characters here, now that i think about it, are quite likeable.


Amanda said...

01 No, though I've tried to read it twice.
02 Yes.
03 No.
04 Death by Moomins.
05 It was red.
06 Phlox.

(Welcome back, gal)

naurnie said...

1) YES! I have both seen the movie AND read the book. Actually, I saw the movie first. I was a senior in high school and was particularly excited that Dylan wrote the song for the movie (and subsuquently won an Oscar for the tune). The casting was pretty good, I'd say, except for the Katie Holmes bit. She wasn't a believeable "writer". Maybe it is because it was too soon after her stint on Dawson's Creek. Who knows. But Robert Downey, Jr. made the entire movie for me. And who was the actor who played Vernon Hardapple? He was spot on.

2) Hot, I think.

3) I don't know. Or care, really. All I know was that the book was so good...

4) Antibiotics.

5) I used to play "office" with my dad's briefcase when I was but a child.

6) I don't.

kidchamp said...

it may not count as cutting beer, but joe and i were at this surf bar a couple of weeks ago and decided to let a summer drinks article from the times trick us into ordering an IPA with a shot of campari. it was the single most disgusting drink i've ever had. 

kidchamp said...

i will have to know more about this trying to read wonder boys. whence the chabombing?

(i will catch up on THUNDERTOMES or die trying!)

Rachel (heart of light) said...

01. Both. I think. I've definitely seen the movie. Hmmm ... maybe I need to revisit the book. 
02. Too close to a phlegmy sound. 
03. Not really. 
04. Oh god. Can't even think about tubercules before lunch.
05. No, but my current purse is larger than most briefcases, if less structurally sound.
06. More beer? This weekend we had a framboise-stout combo that was particularly good. And I'll cop to several years of Irish car bombs, but only under pressure. 

holli said...

1. read, rather recently, and i dispute your choice of victor!
2. fantastic. phloxy lady.
3. more.
4. dose myself with some A180, clear that shit up right quick!
5. i have my grandfathers. we don't know the passcode & don't have the heart to cut the lock. will be an interesting time capsule one day once cracked.
6. agreed with rachel, "more beer?"

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

01: Both- and super good. I can’t think of who I’d substitute, although I will say, on a whole, the movie is best remembered. 02: It sounds nice when you say it aloud, but written out it looks ugly as sin. It’s like Brittni or Kaytlinn or some other whopping parental miscalculation. 03: It’s annoying always. (I am troubled, though, by your footnoted insinuation—merely inverting the first and last name didn’t hide their identities all that well—that Mr. Updike should be included in the FMOV group.  I’ve never seen any textual evidence proving such a thing, and certainly not on kidchamp dot net, and certainly not in the ‘tome™, and certainly not in multiple battles, and most certainly not featuring unfortunate similes involving baby dogs.) 04: Knut’s sounds dependable, or maybe a laborious visit to a magic mountain or something. 0?: Just finished The Bell Jar- be sure not to “tackle the avocado and crab meat salad” or entertain any poetry with “image after image about watermelon lights and turtle-green palms and shells fluted like bits of Greek architecture”.

kidchamp said...

i haven't read the bell jar since moving to new york and working for a magazine and, er, having poetry published; the thought of the re-read makes my madeleines quake, to tell the truth. see didion, j.

kidchamp said...

god, i love it when you talk veterinary antibiotics.

re: 05, i've forgotten the passcode on my own (second) briefcase. 

jacob said...

01 i have seen but not read wonder boys. didn't a film adaptation of mysteries of pittsburgh come out last year? that's an odd length of time between book publication and film release. i wonder what the story was behind that production?

02 on the positive side, our phlox has survived an iowa winter. so it certainly implies a hardiness. hotness, i'm not sure, though it is a pleasant plant to look at.

03 well, philip roth has done both (the early zuckerman novels for the former, the human stain for the latter). since that's a fair fight, i found the early zuckerman marginally better.

g said...

01 Seen, most of.
02 Leaning towards questionable.
03 Neither.
04 Horatio T. Hogswaddle's Patented Expectorative Rejuvinating Tonic
05 It was full of, you know, uh, papers... business papers.
06 Sorrow.  Also limes.

maggie said...

I enjoyed Wonder Boys too.  I think you should consider a second place for this contest! AK is such a heavyweight, it almost seems unfair.  Just my 2 cents.