Michael Chabon’s Midnight Disease

Go and find a writer. Ask this writer to explain to you what makes him or her a writer—ask this person what a writer actually is. Ask them to define writing. Chances are they will mention something about being creative, or using their powers of perception to capture details and create characters and stories. Chances are you will be told that telling a story is the most important part of being a writer. Chances are this person is probably not really a writer, at least not the kind of writer Michael Chabon portrays in his works. In the Chabon universe, writers are sad and complex creatures: beginning in his second novel Wonder Boys [1995], Chabon’s idea of the writer is usually a male, a loner, and a destructive force. With creativity flowing through his veins, Chabon’s writer is one who, while striving to create something beautiful and potentially life altering, destroys the beauty that is already around him. And he is not ignorant of the destruction or pain he causes. In fact, he acknowledges it but continues down this path of self destruction. Chabon’ writer is alone—he is isolated, he is self-loathing. He has little self control and he becomes obsessed with his faults and failures and vices while never trying to overcome them. He wants to be great, but cannot accept his fate or his reality, which is his downfall. In order words, Chabon’s writer is one who is destined for mediocrity but refuses to believe this and, because of his denial, ends up destroying himself. Most of all, Chabon’s writer gives in to the act of imitation (many consider this most self-destructive behavior mentioned here), by which I mean he strives to be like the writers who have influenced him, but never manages to overcome this influence and ends up being just an imposter of a great writer. The writer must emulate or overcome. If he attempts to copy or remake an already established writer, he will never be great and he will destroy himself, an idea borrowed from Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence.

Why is the writer portrayed in such a pessimistic and cynical view in the universe of Michael Chabon? Chabon, part of the first generation of students to go through a writing workshop under the wings of established writers and professors, based Grady Tripp— the narrator of Wonder Boys— off of a writing professor he had while attending under graduate school. Reportedly, this professor is not the self-destructive, pot-smoking whirlwind that Tripp is. He did, however, spend a tremendous amount of time working on what he projected to be his opus, a three-thousand page novel which he never completed. (The work was later cut down to novella length and published, some twenty years later.) It was in this obsession to create greatness and to not give up on a book that was clearly failing that Chabon found his inspiration for The Midnight Disease, a plague that torments the writer figures in many of works, beginning in Wonder Boys.

Grady Tripp, a writer who wrote one great book and has spent over five years trying to emulate that critical success, introduces us to “the first real writer he ever knew,” August Van Zorn (WB 3). Van Zorn, whom we can consider the first real writer in the Chabon universe, was a schlock writer of pulp horror stories who experienced great success with serials and magazines during the pre-war days. I write “was” a writer because he is long dead by the time we vicariously meet him through Tripp in Wonder Boys. A self-admitted fan of formula fiction, Chabon has cleverly chosen a horror writer, someone not considered “literary” or widely acknowledged by scholars and teachers, as the archetype writer. Because, as Tripp tells us, it is not his stories or his success in publishing that makes Van Zorn a true writer—it is the disease.

[He 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; to have the rocking chair and the faithful bottle of bourbon and the staring eye, lucid with insomnia even in the daytime. In any case he was, now that I consider it, the first writer of any sort to cross my path, real or otherwise, in a life that has on the whole been a little too crowded with representatives of that sour and squirrely race. He set a kind of example that, as a writer, I’ve been living up to ever since. I only hope that I haven’t invented him.

(WB 5).

Tripp’s mammoth opus, the book-within-a-book Wonder Boys, is like Sisyphus’ boulder: he keeps pushing it forward, only to have it nearly crush him, with no ending ever in sight. It is a constant exercise in futility. Sarah, young student whom Tripp rents a room in his house to, approaches Tripp to discuss his novel after reading his manuscript:

Okay, first you have the Indians come, they build the thing, they die out, it falls apart, hundreds of years go by, it gets buried, in the fifties some scientist finds it and digs it out, kills himself—all that goes on and on and on for like, forty pages, and, I don’t know…it doesn’t really seem to have anything to do with your characters… and all that about the town cemetery? All the headstones, and their inscriptions, and the bones and bodies underneath them? And the part about their different guns in the cabinet in the old house? And the genealogies of their horses?

(WB 302).

Tripp is impersonating Thomas Pynchon’s post-modern writing here. One might argue that he is trying to write his own Gravity’s Rainbow. By excluding characters and writing about genealogies of horses and describing things in great detail, Tripp is giving in to a post-modern way of thinking about literature. His digressions are not integral to the plot or characters. He is trying to re-create an old experiment in literature and pass it off as his opus. Grady is failing because he is trying to be a different writer. Van Zorn killed himself when the market for pulp horror dried up and he was forced to write a different style—one the post-war suburbs wanted to read, and he could not change. He could not let go of his horror writing and move on to a new style of his own, so he chose to write what he thought the people wanted and it killed him. Tripp is drawling on in lengthy and generally heartless prose, trying to steal Pynchon and other 1960s experimentalists’ style in an attempt to please the critics. He cannot accept that he is not the great first-write writer that he was believed to be. Tripp describes himself as, “A broken down old illusionist carrying his moth-eaten scarves, greasy tarot cards, and amazed testimonies from defunct Czars and countesses in a paper suitcase” (WB 305).

For those who are interested in getting into Chabon’s fiction—whether it be his best-selling coming-of-age debut The Mysteries of Pittsburgh or his Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—should check out Wonder Boys to look at his concept of the Midnight Disease. It is a theme he revisits often and this concept of the tortured artist seems to stretch into other mediums as well, as seen by Chabon’s depictions of comics and Salvador Dali in Kavalier. While certainly not his most popular novel (and surprisingly bested by the 2000 film version starring Michael Douglas as Tripp), Wonder Boys is a fun read that contains a heavy amount of literary criticism and commentary. It was a novel that was ahead of its time in a way in that it straddled the line between satire and absurd tragedy, and may have been even better had Chabon been a little older and more developed, perhaps more disciplined in his style-heavy prose. It is the kind of tragicomedy novel that would regain popularity in the 2000s thanks to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections [2001] and Chabon’s own Kavalier and Clay. In his now re-titled 1996 essay “Why Bother?” Franzen examines the importance of the social novel, which he considers Delillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy masters of. (The kind of writers Chabon seems to be poking fun at in Wonder Boys.) Franzen describes the social novel as “the darkness of sorrow that has no easy answers.”

Sounds like something Chabon’s writer figure would say.

Greg Cwik, Editor

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