Wonder Boys opens as Grady's college celebrates WordFest, an annual gathering of writers, publishers, and other industry people. Some lucky students walk away from WordFest with contracts, but the event is mostly just an opportunity for big shots to have their egos stroked. At the party at the college chancellor's house that night, Grady is informed by his lover that she's pregnant. As usual, Grady can't decide what he wants to do. Should he try to get his latest wife back? Should he try to make a go of things with Sara?
After this, things get decidedly strange for Grady. Chabon plays events for comedic effect, in a macabre sort of way. I'll admit that I was laughing at Grady's ineffectual flailing even as I pitied him. There's too much plot to summarize, but I will say that Wonder Boys reads like a picaresque of misadventure with a haze of marijuana smoke over the whole. There is a simple solution to a lot of Grady's problems. He has to give up his pot and start being honest, with himself and everyone else. Like all simple solutions, this is easier said than done.
Grady Tripp is a sad sack, a pothead who can't get through his day without a toke or twenty. He blames his behavior on "the midnight disease," which he claims all authors are infected with to one degree or another. "The midnight disease," according to Grady, "is a kind of emotional insomnia" (22*). He continues:
at every conscious moment its victim...feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the windows thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and airplanes, listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a Coke bottle, while all around him the neighbors soundly sleep. (22)Another writer in the novel, known only as Q., blames his bad behavior on a doppelgänger personality that periodically takes over and ruins his life. The midnight disease or Q.'s doppelgänger take the blame for a lot of bad decisions.
In moments when Grady is feeling biographical, he tells us about the first author he met, who he diagnoses with the midnight disease. This author lived at Grady's grandmother's hotel until his death. Grady saw firsthand how lack of success drove this author further and further into himself. I'm tempted to psychoanalyze Grady's inability to finish his latest novel as a reaction to that long ago author's death in obscurity. But that seems too easy—just like blaming the midnight disease or a doppelgänger personality is too facile.
The 48 hours of personal disaster Grady faces bring him to a crisis point. There's a real risky that Grady's story will end just like that forgotten, suicidal author in his grandmother's hotel. Perhaps what pulls Grady back from the edge, more than incipient parenthood, is seeing his protégé drink too much and take too many drugs for the first time. For once, Grady can see what his own addlement** looks like to others. It's a sobering sight, in more than one sense.
As I read Wonder Boys, it felt like my second time through—even though I haven't actually read it before. I watched the 2000 film version I don't know how many years ago. There are entire passages and word-for-word dialog reproduced in the film version. I read Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas' voice in my head, narrating just like he did in the movie.
* Quotes are from the 2011 kindle edition published by Open Road Integrated Media.
** Not actually a word, but I like the sound of it.