Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has been lavished with praise – the mystery is…Why…?
As anyone familiar with the literary scene (at least any literary scene not composed solely of adults who read nothing but YA literature or some other highly siloed genre/subgenre) knows, Michael Chabon has been a darling of the litfic scene for about 25 years now. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize and several other awards and been touted as a literary great. His first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was called “astonishing” by the New York Times; “remarkable” by the Los Angeles Times; “extraordinary” by the Village Voice.
My own experience with Chabon’s work before reading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was watching the film version of Wonder Boys. I found it a quirky, charming, somewhat slick little film and thought about getting the book. I supposed the book would be that, too: quirky, charming, a tad slick. Still, I thought to give it a go. Something else shiny beckoned, evidently, because I never got around to it. So when I ran across this book at my favorite used book store a while back, I picked it up expecting to read the early work of a talented and celebrated writer. Given that this was his first book, I expected some flaws. I expected some rough edges…
I did not expect a creative writing program put up job.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a very – very – calculated work. Yes, Chabon writes well – albeit a little slickly in some places, a little callowly in others. That is easily forgiven in a first novel. What isn’t as easily forgiven – and what causes the old crap detector to ding – is the number of choices that Chabon makes that seem to point to one of the following: a) directions from a literary agent or editor to “make this work for an audience expecting something really Gen-X”; the advice (and influence) of a writing professor encouraging Chabon to create a “saleable” work. These amount, in the end, to the same thing: writing literary fiction with an eye to the marketplace even more than with an eye to creating literary art. Maybe this sounds like “hater gonna hate” stuff. That’s not my point. Chabon has a fine talent. But this work gives the impression that from the get go he’s been willing to subsume that fine talent to the advice of those whose only aim is to make money.
The novel tells the story of a summer in the life of one Art Bechstein who has just completed his undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Pittsburgh and plans to spend a summer basically goofing off before getting on with his life and career. Art is a diffident, ambivalent character (one could use the word wishy-washy and not be over harsh) who spends his time working in a crappy book store while deciding on a career, trying to figure out his sexuality, and coming to terms with his father’s profession.
Any one of these topics would be plenty for a novel to explore. That Chabon is able to do something with all three is impressive – sort of. There are other elements at work, too. Art makes some friends – Arthur, a stereotypically handsome and cynical gay man (who is, more than anything Art’s doppelganger in his inner struggles over his sexuality); Phlox, a stereotypical hippie chick who represents the pretensions of arty types (and likely art – i.e., writing – itself); and Cleveland, a wastrel wise guy wannabe who forces (both literally and figuratively) Art to deal with his issues with his family history.
If this sounds a little self-consciously Conradian/Dostoyevskyan, that’s because it is. All of these characters – male and female – are, in fact, aspects of the main character’s personality. And what the novel really is is that thing the late, lamented Joe David Bellamy warns about in first novels – probably Chabon working out his issues with his parents’ behavior.
In the novel Joe Bechstein is a wise guy who handles money laundering for the mob. He is also, at least indirectly, responsible for his wife’s, Art’s mother’s, death. Art’s inability to deal with his father – and himself – honestly concerning both these issues is what drives the novel. His flirtation with homosexuality through his affair with Arthur, his entanglement with Cleveland (another scion of privilege who is driven to his bad boy actions at least in part by his parent’s divorce and his father’s homosexuality), even his affair with Phlox (which may/may not be love) are all, ultimately, driven by Art’s struggle to make his peace with who and what his father Joe is.
But it is in the “resolution” of these issues where the novel falls flat and goes for somewhat pat solutions. Cleveland gets himself in over his head trying to be a mobster and ends up getting himself killed (or possibly kills himself). Art’s inability to decide honestly (a product of his avoidance behavior/slackerism) between Arthur and Phlox loses him both of them. And Art’s solution to dealing with his father is equally slacker and irresolute: he takes his bar mitzvah money and runs away to Europe, all the while mewling and puking over his resolution never to see his father again – a resolution we don’t believe for a second.
All of this sounds okay – and in theory it is. But there is a neatness, a slickness to all these resolutions that will make many readers uneasy. One sees the writer faced with decisions about resolving the novel’s cruxes – and in every case making what we might call “the cinematic” choice: he goes for what might make the best scene in the screenplay. The scene with Cleveland trying to escape the police and falling to his death feels especially designed for such a purpose.
This in itself wouldn’t be so much if it weren’t also a creakily convenient resolution. That’s the other problem with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh – Chabon’s sort of pathological desire to tie up every loose end. Except that he doesn’t. As I mentioned above, we have an irresolute main character who engages in avoidance behavior at every turn. What we have at the end of this novel is a series of resolutions that don’t mean anything. So in a sense the writer has engaged in the same behavior as his character. Resolute irresoluteness.
The fact is, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh reads like many a creative writing program first novel: as if it were written in response to the demands of a writing workshop. I’ve written about this phenomenon and its problems before. That Chabon’s work shows the strains of such a genesis is no mystery. After all, one of his CW program profs got him an agent and a book deal.
What is a mystery is why the “powers that be” (the media outlets) mentioned above gave the novel such rave reviews. While it’s an effort that shows talent, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is not remarkable, astonishing, or extraordinary. In fact, it’s closer to “meh” than to any of those hyperbolic descriptions.
That will have to, I suppose, remain The Mysteries of Pittsburgh’s real mystery.