January 11th, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews *The Mysteries of Pittsburgh* by Michael Chabon

I was quite impressed by Michael Chabon’s later books, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and especially Wonder Boys–such wild and different novels,original, weird and very funny. So when I found a used copy of his first book, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and found it completely covered in exclamations of delight from various reviewers, I thought I couldn’t miss enjoying it.

I missed.

Don’t get me wrong–there’s a reason why The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Village Voice, Cosmopolitan and Playboy wrote blurbable raves about this book–“Astonishing,” “remarkable,” “extraordinary” and all the rest, it’s a linguistically gleeful, almost acrobatic novel, and I took real pleasure in the flights of language throughout. On almost any page you’ve find something like, “In the big, posh, and stale lobby of the Duquesne Hotel–in a city where some men, like my father, still wear felt hats–one can still get one’s hair cut, one’s shoes shined, and buy a racing form or a Tootsie Roll.” Or how about, “He stood up, inhaled deeply, and cried, ‘Ah, the sweet piss odor of cedar!'”

There’s a real flare for sentences here that goes much deep than fireworks–the images make sense as long as you care to think about them, and the metaphors are joyous and flamboyant, but true at the core. And oh, what an evocation, a mythologization of Pittsburgh–that’s the main thing I loved about this book. Pittsburgh seemed a magical and beloved place–interesting that the narrator was supposed to have lived there only 4 years, because he seemed to have known and loved it forward. And yet some mysteries never get solved, and I loved that about this urban dream, too–cities are just too big to ever know anything about them.

So what didn’t I love? The plot, I guess, and its various machinations. Art Bechstein is graduating from university, about to start working in a bookstore and have one last magical summer before he buckles down to some unknown serious grownup career. While working on his last academic paper, he meets a guy at the library who tries to flirt with him. Art politely turns him down, and they become friends. The new guy, also named Arthur (this worked just fine, much better than you’d think) draws him into an exciting, glamourous world of new friends and various sexual imbroglios, money and power.

Well, that’s how it’s set up and marketed. In truth, it’s a profoundly episodic novel, with characters making centre-stage appearances for pages on end, only to never be seen again. This happens in the first clangourous party that Arthur takes Art to–it seemed so intense that it all must mean something, but it was just a set-piece; Chabon could write a good party scene, so he did so. Even this girl, glimpsed on the back lawn of the party after a long search for her: “She stood alone in the dim centre of the huge yard, driving imperceptible balls all across the neighbourhood. As we clunked down the wooden steps to the quiet crunch of grass, I watched her stroke. It was my father’s ideal: a slight, philosophical tilt to her neck, her backswing a tacit threat, her rigid, exultant follow-through held for one aristocratic fraction of a second too long.”

Wow. Doesn’t it break your heart to know that this character, Jane, hangs around until the end of the book without doing anything else interesting ever again? In her one other big scene, she makes a salad.

Virtuosic writing for its own sake annoys me. I can’t be called plot-obsessed, but I’d like what’s on the page to deepen my understanding of character, setting, mood, something. There is a heavy plot running through the final third of the book, to do with the mafia (I’m not spoiling anything) and another with Arthur’s wildly annoying new girlfriend, Phlox (yes, really). I could be in a sensitive mood, but I felt that women didn’t fare too well in this novel–Chabon is well-known for his intimate understanding of men, and perhaps in his early days it was at the expense of understanding women. Phlox felt more like a scrap heap of wild outfits, quotations, beauty tricks and tears. A whole novel reading about her, and when she writes in a letter towards the end, “There’s only one place in the world where you are supposed to put your penis–inside of me,” I couldn’t tell if any spark of humour intended by character, or by author.

I was truly baffled by how the plot wrapped up at the end of the book, and though I don’t know much about the mafia in Pittsburgh, what I could understand struck me as terribly unlikely. Though I realized about midway through the book that the narrator was being constructed as unreliable, I wasn’t able to glean anything from that fact other than that the narrator was unreliable. In the great unreliably voiced books (*A Prayer for Owen Meaney* or *Money,* or even *The Great Gatsby,* which inspired this one) the absence of “truth” in the narration allows the readers to solve their own riddles, or create their own truth. But what can we do with the fact that Art never mentions having one friend–even a friendly acquaintance–that he did not meet after page 1 of this book. Are we to suppose that Art the narrator elides these memories as too painful or difficult? Or that Michael the writer couldn’t be bothered to write characters who existed prior to page 1?

I read the bookclub notes at the back (I have a 2001 edition, after Chabon was famous for *Kavalier and Clay*) and as an apology for having had wild ambitions for the breadth and amazingness of this novel, Chabon says, “Twenty-two, I was twenty-two!” But somehow he doesn’t see that as being inherent in the text itself; I think it is. I think this is a wild brilliant first effort from an author that had not really learned to marshal himself, to be true to his characters and his stories, and not just to his own writing. Later on, he did learn those things. So you should probably read this book–it’s got a lot to recommend it–but you should definitely read those later ones.

This is my first book for the Roofbeam Reader challenge
Off the Shelf. 11 to go!

10 Responses to “Rose-coloured reviews *The Mysteries of Pittsburgh* by Michael Chabon”

  • Kerry says:

    Rebecca, this review is wonderful. I have not read this book and never will, but I read the review all the way through and loved it. You are such a talented writer.

  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks so much, Kerry–coming from one who reviews as well as you do, that’s an amazing compliment!!

  • Amy Jones says:

    Cory just finished reading this book and had very similar things to say about it, although not half as eloquently (“What was the point of that?!” was his most frequent saying). But then we saw that the movie was on tv (yes, there is a movie) so we watched it, and he was even more upset with that. He didn’t like the way things happened in the book, but he missed them when they were gone (I think they actually conflated two characters, from what I could understand of his sputterings). I don’t know what the moral of this story is. The book is always better than the movie, even if the book isn’t very good? I don’t know.

  • Rebecca says:

    Why do I suddenly want to see that movie? *Intense* curiosity!! There is, in my opinion, a short list of movies that are better than their books, eg., *Interview with a Vampire*. But in all of those cases, neither is very good.

  • Lana says:

    You’ve articulated the ups and downs of this book *so* well!

    I, too, started with later books and loved them – Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. They are very high on my list of all-time books. And then I felt so let down by The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I enjoyed the work at the sentence level, but in the end the book felt lacking. All the same, I was glad to have read it – I really liked being able to see the differences between Chabon’s early and later work.

    I have also seen the movie. You should see it! For Peter Saarsgard if for nothing else. And, of course, to satisfy your curiosity!

  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks for the tip, Lana–ok, I will try to see the movie! I really loved the *Wonder Boys* movie (that’s what brought me to the book, actually), so I hold out high hopes! Nevertheless, if there are characters amalgomated, I will probably be driven crazy by it, as Cory was. I can never get my head around that sort of thing!

  • Andrew M says:

    Dunno how I didn’t see this before. Funny, my favourite aspects of the book are the parts that don’t do it for you. The Mafioso thing, the plot, elevated the novel above the tired old buildungsroman. I loved the way it tired together, and I thought what happened to C_ was terribly, terribly sad. I love Chabon, but he does overwrite. It wasn’t so bad in Mysteries, was tolerable in K&C, was par for the course in Yiddish Policeman’s Union, on account of the genre, but my goodness, Telegraph Avenue needed an editor willing to tell him to chill out a bit. Not every sentence needs to be a knockout.

  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks for the comment, Andrew! This book was a while ago now, but as I recall, I just didn’t believe anything the mafia characters were up to. I didn’t believe what most people were up to in this book. I think if I could’ve talked myself into reading it as fantasy, it would’ve been more enjoyable.

    And yes, a harsher editor would really help Chabon. A gorgeous sentence that doesn’t *do* anything isn’t helping anyone.

  • Felix says:

    I just discovered the book myself (haven’t seen the movie) and was trolling for opinions when I stumbled on your review. And thank goodness for that! :-) You have articulated –in a wonderfully limpid prose– a lot of the reservations I have about it.

    We don’t really get enough of any of the characters. Yes, there’s too little Jane and too much Phlox, but even of Arthur and Cleveland and Art himself what we get is not much more than a “scrap heap” of fragments, like you so aptly put it.

    I agree that the whole mafia thing is “terribly unlikely,” but that did not bother me. I don’t think it’s meant to be anything but entertaining.

    What did bother me –a lot– was that the whole novel revolves around a supposedly Gatsby-like character that is nothing but profoundly unpleasant. I never got a sense of why everybody adored Cleveland so much (even Art agrees that people who did not know Cleveland before refer to him as “That creep”), or why should anybody adore him, for that matter. He does nothing but drag Art (and sometimes Arthur and Jane) into one mess after another, and bullies his way to an untimely… well, I should lay off the spoilers, shouldn’t I?

    Nevertheless, the fact remains that Cleveland is a self-serving, drunken bully who nearly blinded his little sister. It does sound a little harsh, but there you have it.

  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks so much for your comment, Felix! Yes, I’m afraid “self-serving, drunken bully” really sums things up for Cleveland. It’s nice that Chabon’s later novels improved as he went along, at least.

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