The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (4/5)
Before reading this book I had heard point of references ranging from The Catcher in the Rye to On the Road. After reading the book the comparisons don’t quite mesh. In fact, I think the best point of reference would be The Great Gatsby. Certainly not in quality, I would never make that blasphemous claim for fear the literary gods would strike me down where I stand, but rather there are similarities in structure. Imagine, if you will, a world where, like Gatsby, there are two sets of couples (Nick/Jordan and Tom/Daisy) as well as a love triangle (Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy). Of course, in Chabon’s version Nick is sexually attracted to Gatsby.
Stick with me here. In Mysteries the narrator, Art, enters the social circle of Arthur, Cleveland, and Jane. Cleveland and Jane are a dysfunctional couple embroiled in a good old fashioned love/hate relationship. Art starts seeing Phlox, a rather annoying and unsympathetic homophobe. At the same time Art and Arthur have budding feelings. I’ll diagram it for you:
Art and Arthur (sexual attraction)
Art and Phlox (couple)
Art and Jane/Cleveland (friends through Arthur)
Arthur and Phlox (frienemies)
Arthur and Jane/Cleveland (friends)
Yeah, I know that the love triangle is all mixed up, but you have to admit that structures are similar. This leads to an obvious question: were Nick and Gatsby gay? It has been suggested in some circles that 19th century American literature is preoccupied with “blackness”, slavery in particular. After all, in a society that claims to put equality at the center of its creed, to have completely marginalized a segment of our population has to affect our national psyche and our perception of ourselves. Likewise, in the 20th century, as gender roles became more fluid, perhaps the idea of homosexuality latched on to the national sub-consciousness. I don’t have a whole lot of evidence to back this up, but it’s interesting to think about.
Back to The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Like most coming of age novels (of all ages) this one is light on plot. There is an unconvincing subplot about organized crime which leads to the eventual (albeit predictable) tragedy at the end of the book. Where the novel really shines is in the language and characters. Chabon has always had a way with metaphor and simile and it’s impressive he had all but mastered these techniques so early in his career. The characters themselves are whimsical and uncertain. In fact the only character who, my opinion is completely certain is Phlox, and she is certain of her bigotry. This uncertainty perfectly captures the feeling of teetering on the edge of adulthood. The characters are so finely drawn that when characters change their bed-partners it feels earned and not gimmicky.
At times Chabon suffers from a case of aggrandizement, something he would learn to wield more confidently in his more panoramic novels and make his drawback a strength. While this tendency to go over-the-top doesn’t work as well in a contained summer of uncertainty, it worked perfectly in the decades spanning Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
For those with an undying love for the twenty-something coming of age novel, then this should feed your hunger. For those, like me, who fell in love with Chabon’s writing when they read Kavalier and Clay, I would recommend seeing how the maestro started out. It’s a strong opener to a strong career.