Novels set in a university creative writing department are a dime a dozen. It seems to be a rite of passage for a certain type of mid-list and/or mid-career author to tackle the hallowed (if somewhat Kafkaesque) halls of academia, seeing how so many of these writers gain steady employment there. The books inevitably deal with a garden variety of topics: sexual tension between teachers and students, the back-stabbing cattiness of colleagues, the pall of thwarted ambition that hangs over everything. Two novels that I read recently stand out from the pack, not because they deviate from these stock subjects but because their authors work harder at the underlying themes that serve as subtext on the writerly life: the internal and external projections of self.
Both Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel Wonder Boys and Francine Prose’s 2000 novel Blue Angel are wildly entertaining reads, though for very different reasons. Prose’s work is a meticulous, vacuum-sealed examination of one man’s rapid fall from grace, a professor’s romantic entanglements with a talented student. Chabon’s novel is more expansive, idiosyncratic, imbued with a larger sense of in medias res: his protagonist is unmistakably near rock bottom, with his various proclivities coming to a head during one fateful weekend’s literary festival. Both books deal with the notion of “writer-as-teacher”, and how this notion can refract what a writer’s life actually is and turn it into something close to myth.
Ted Swenson, the hero of Prose’s Blue Angel, has no allusions about what his writerly life has amounted to. Stranded at a small liberal arts college in Vermont, Swenson hasn’t published a book in 10 years and makes his living teaching creative writing once a week to a class of mostly subliterate undergrads. His new novel-in-progress is languishing on his desk, he’s recently become estranged from his college-aged daughter, and his marriage to wife Sherrie, though reliable and loving, has started taking on a stale quality that makes him uneasy. Prose goes to great lengths to show the obvious disconnect between what Swenson once thought a writer’s life should be and what his own life has inevitably become:
Dinner’s a celebration. Of sorts. Sherrie’s car’s been fixed. Swenson’s attention drifts while she explains what the problem was. The garage only charged them – he can focus on that – half as much as they’d feared. So that’s what they’re celebrating: painless car repair. Tonight, all over America, writers are toasting works of genius, six-figure advances, successes and romances, new friendships and BMWs. While Swenson, on his desert island, clinks glasses with his wife because the Civic only needed a two-hundred-dollar alternator.
It’s no wonder, then, that Swenson is jostled from this pouting lethargy when he meets Angela Argo – a tattooed, multi-pierced 19-year-old and the only person among his current crop of creative writing students who shows any real talent. Half the term has gone by and Angela has not shared a single story of her own during workshop, but she comes to Swenson privately to show him the opening chapter of a novel she has been working on. Not surprising, it’s a precocious work of semi-genius that blows Swenson’s socks off. In fact, Angela’s talent reawakens in Swenson not so much his passion for writing as his passion for what a writer is – or supposed to be. His obsession with Angela’s work (and it is an obsession: he treats her writing almost like a stash of pornography he hides from his wife as Angela delivers chapter after chapter to him) soon becomes an obsession with Angela the person. And since there can be a sexual overtone to any intimate professor-student relationship, he allows his encounters with Angela to drift into the realm of the inappropriate.
Of course, Prose would have us consider that this was the young girl’s intention all along: Angela steers Swenson into a sexual relationship, or so the book alleges, strictly to gain access to his New York editor and a potential book deal for her novel. I don’t want to linger on the various gaps in motivation and plausibility that these circumstances raise; nor do I want to harp on the somewhat amateurish use of symbolism that Prose employs during a crucial moment in the story. (Swenson develops a problem with a tooth filling around the same time that his relationship with Angela begins; the tooth finally breaks just as he’s about to have sex with her. Get it?) I think what’s important here is how Swenson falls into whatever trap that Angela has put down for him because of his enduring faith in what he thinks a writer is, and what a professor should be. His communion with that faith ends disastrously: his dalliances with Angela ruin his marriage, destroy his position at the college, alienate him from his few friends, and set him up to be skewered at a public inquiry by colleagues that loath him.
Yet, Blue Angel does end on a positive note. As Swenson leaves the inquiry, he takes a moment to marvel at how these dramatic occurrences may very well lead him to re-connect with a life of writing, rather than a life of attempting to be a writer and all that that entails. His faith in professorship is shattered, but his faith in himself is strangely invigorated. “He’s glad to be out of that future,” he thinks, “and headed into his own.”
Anyone familiar with the popular film version of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys knows that it ends on a similar note. Grady Tripp shares a number of qualities with Ted Swenson, and a similar fate: he ruins his academic career but finds redemption in his writing. There is no arguing that Chabon’s novel is far more sprawling than its film version (which stars Michael Douglas, Katie Holmes and Toby Maguire); and, in many ways, it’s a more generous work of fiction than Blue Angel. Chabon’s overarching theme is one of proclivity’s dominion over the artistic sensibility: most of the characters in this novel are, in some way, undone by their vices in the name of art. For Tripp, his predilections are actually indivisible from his writerly temperament, and this is a value he tries to instill in his star creative student, the moody and mysterious James Leer. It’s curious to see how Tripp’s mentorship of James is almost entirely behavioural: while he is very protective of him, he’s also more concerned with getting the boy to grab life fully by the testicles than he is at getting him to improve his sentences or narrative structures.
There is almost a picaresque quality to Wonder Boys as a result of Tripp allowing James into his world, though this does degenerate into slapstick at certain points. There is a shooting of a dog, a running over of a snake, lots of drug use, a stolen tuba, scorned women, and all manner of vehicular tomfoolery. You get the sense reading Wonder Boys that these fantastical adventures, concentrated into one weekend, will become the foundation that young James eventually builds his writing career on. They are the best gift that Tripp can give his student, and yet they also conspire to destroy the life that Tripp has enjoyed for more than a decade.
Then there is also the matter of Tripp’s colossal 2000+ page novel in progress. If his identity as a professor is threatened by the precarious grip he has on his life, then his new book is even more so. Unlike Swenson in Blue Angel, who can barely stand to look at his unfinished manuscript, Tripp has buried himself headlong into the various folds and undulations of his magnum opus. But just as he has lost sight of what makes for a respectable professor, he has also lost sight of what makes for good writing. His manuscript dances off in an array of directions and themes, with countless characters and endless digressions. It takes the cold-eyed judgment of another star student – the gorgeous Hannah, who begins reading the manuscript behind Tripp’s back – to tell him what he has probably known for some time: his book is a disaster.
Chabon frames it all around the idea of writers being, in one sense, their own doppelgangers. There is the image, the life, that writers project to the outside world, an image that they need to invest themselves in even if it’s not entirely truthful. And then there’s that other image, the purer, more idealistic image of Writer with a capital W. These two personae are, at least for Tripp, forever at odds. As he puts it: “While I worked I told myself lies. Writers, unlike most people, tell their best lies when they are alone.” Even James, no stranger to lying himself, picks up on this and shares a moment of undiluted honesty with Tripp:
“Grady, you how that was talking last night about, you know, having a double? Who goes around wrecking his life for him? So that he’ll have plenty to write about?” He was looking at the impression of a pair of buttocks stamped into the hood of my car. “Do you think that was all bullshit?”
“No,” I said. “I’m afraid I didn’t.”
“I didn’t either,” he said.
And therein lies the biggest connection I want to make between these two novels. Both of their protagonist-writers are held captive by their proclivities, their weaknesses of character. And yet from the residual symptoms of all this dishonest thinking, they both expect that some meaningful work of art will emerge from the wreckage. Swenson spends his novel trying to keep several plates of self identity spinning at once: that of a loving husband, a good father, a dedicated teacher, and, above all, a writer who still has a career ahead of him. In the end, he is left with nothing – nothing except the nebulous idealism that every author feels at some point: that he or she can do better next time. Tripp’s tale ends a bit more optimistically. He marries his pregnant mistress to raise their son together, abandons his catastrophe of a novel (he literally buries it in the backyard) and tries to write something else, something better. At the end of both Wonder Boys and Blue Angel, it is the professors, and not the students, who have learned the most valuable lessons.