- Author: Michael Chabon (b. 1963)
- Rank: #49
- Published: 1995
- Publisher: Villard Books
- Pages: 368
- First Line: “The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn.”
- Last Line: “The young men listen dutifully, for the most part, and from time to time some of them even take the trouble to go over to the college library, and dig up one or another of his novels, and crouch there, among the stacks, flipping impatiently through the pages, looking for the parts that sound true.”
- ML Edition: none
- Film Version: 2000 (**** – dir. Curtis Hanson)
- First Read: January, 2000
The Novel: My first introduction to the novel was actually seeing the trailer in the theater in late 1999. I was not, at the time, familiar with the novel or with Chabon at all. I had only recently started working at Barnes and Noble and was still getting used to the current world of literary fiction. But the trailer was enough to completely win me over. I had copies of the book ordered in to be my staff pick before the movie cover version was released and before I had even read it. And I was right about it – it was the perfect book for me, and as it turned out, the perfect film for me as well. It introduced me to one of my favorite authors, one of the best writers in the business today. And so much of his work and the directions it has taken can be found in these pages.
First, there is the absolutely love of the writing life, the way he so magically captures what the urge to write feels like: “I say that Albert Vetch was the first real writer I knew not because he was, for a while, able to sell his work to magazines, but because he was the first one to have the midnight disease.” Also, having been a wunderkind who stumbled badly while trying to finish his second novel, Chabon knew the feeling of suddenly springing onto the scene as a young published writer: “After one last innocent moment of feeling like an alien probe, he spread out his hands and hung his head and, as he must, took his first sweet bow as a wonder boy.” Chabon’s novel of academia covers some of the same ground as other writers had before (Bellow’s Dean’s December, Updike’s Roger’s Version) and later (Roth’s Human Stain, Russo’s The Straight Man), but it is the best of them, not in any small part at how well he understands the academic community, but also because of the humor (so many of the wonderful lines from the film are straight from the book) and because of his understanding of not just the desire, but the need to write. He understands exactly what writing is about (“Every story is the story of somebody’s hard luck.”) and what the young writers in us all have hoped to do: “The narrative had drive and sureness of tone, and like most good first novels it possessed an imperturbable, mistaken confidence that all the shocking incidents and extremes of human behavior it dished up would strike new chords of outrage and amazement in the reader.”
But there is also, hidden in the narrative, the other aspects of Chabon’s writing, not yet made explicit to his readers. There is the love of comic books (Grady’s wife works at Reed, Richards in the Baxter Building – an allusion that made me smile the first time I read it). There is also his love for the pulp work of the early part of the twentieth century, in the love and care that both Grady and Crabtree have for the work of August Van Zorn, so obviously modeled on Lovecraft. For anyone reading the book carefully, it would be no surprise when Chabon would edit the McSweeney’s book of pulp tales.
But most of all, at the core of this, is the life of the writer. Chabon brings Grady Tripp to life. He hasn’t made any choices in his life and he’s made some very serious mistakes and he can be a very dangerous man to be around, but you would want to be in his class and to learn what you can. Anyone who has ever deemed themselves a writer, can feel for him when he thinks “Ending the book this way, I told myself, would work out for the best; this was in fact the very ending my book had been straining toward all along. Crabtree’s visit, viewed properly, was a kind of creative accident, a gift from God, a hammer blow to loosen all the windows my imagination had painted shut.” And of course, that becomes truer than he could have possibly imagined.
This is one of those books I constantly return to, like The Straight Man or The World According to Garp, books that warm my heart. They make me laugh and smile and I am sorry when they are over because I have become so immersed in the lives of these characters. But I also read it now with a tinge of melancholy. I read it first as a 25 year old. I am now 36. I am reminded of a professor of mine who said that he used to introduce himself as a “fledgling poet” but now that he was past 40, he figured he would have to start introducing himself as a “failed poet.” My fiction, once thriving every night, has failed to grow for years now and remains unpublished, even though I have finally started logging rejection slips from actual places rather than just friends who can’t be bothered to read my stuff. I will never be a wonder boy, nor even a teacher to one, and so it pains me to read of those who are. But I still, in my heart, wish to be, and the love for writing, the love for this writing, keeps bringing me back.
The Film: As I said above, the trailer won me over at first sight. It was a movie about writers, about how they write, about the very act of writing itself. I went and saw it on opening weekend and loved it and was subsequently horrified when it sank like a stone at the box office. It was so wonderfully made, so absolutely true, both to the college experience and to the experience of writing itself. And people just didn’t go to it. My hope was that the year end awards frenzy would help it. It seemed like it had a shot, winning several critics awards and earning Golden Globe nominations for Picture and Actor (in Drama, though the film is really a Comedy). But then the Academy decided that Chocolat was a better film, that Joaquin Phoenix had given a better performance than Robert Downey and that five different actors were on a higher level than Michael Douglas. Which is absurd.
This film is wonderful written – so absolutely full of a great story, but also great lines of dialogue, in the way the characters interact (“It’s Mrs. Gaskell’s hobby.” “I thought you were Mrs. Gaskell’s hobby.”), in the smart, sarcastic responses (“Do you owe him a book, too?”), in the sexual tension (“I wear the same scent as a transvestite.”), in the knowledge about how universities work (when James questions the thought of a professor killing the chancellor’s dog, that wonderful response of “I’ve got tenure). The film doesn’t make a greatest hits of the book, though it does have some of the best lines in the book translated to the screen verbatim (especially the wonderful line about the size of the trunk). It finds the core story of the book and sticks to it, and though it excises some wonderful scenes (including just about everything when Grady goes to see his wife and all of the wonderful stuff about August Van Zorn), it stays true to the relationships. It is able to do this for primarily two reasons – one, it is an exceptionally well-written adaptation and two, it has an absolutely wonderful cast.
First, there is Michael Douglas. He won his Oscar for Wall Street, but this is the best performance of a great career. He absolutely encompasses everything I would have imagined of Grady Tripp. Then there is Tobey Maguire, his distance from the screen perfectly embodying the mystery and oddity of James Leer. There is Frances McDormand, who probably would have earned an Oscar nomination if she wasn’t already getting nominated for Almost Famous. And the last, perfect piece of the picture is Robert Downey, in a wonderful reminder of what we had been missing through all the years of drugs and rehab. This film was the essential key in the rebirth that would eventually bring forth Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes. It’s not enough that all of the lines that he utters are great – it’s the ironic spin that he manages to add to each line to make it his own, from “He’s fine. He’s narrating.” to “Am I interrupting a teacher-student conference?” to “Can we go now, den mother?”
Outside of Woody Allen films, and his films are mostly about the character himself, there just aren’t enough great films about writing. Oh, sure, there are films about writers. But not enough about writing itself and what it does to you. And for anyone who has been a writer, you can feel the words when Grady Tripp thinks about poor James Leer’s novel and says “It’s true.”