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Monday, August 31, 2009

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

My father has a history major's appreciation of chronology. This extends even into his reading in fiction. He does not like to read novels out of order, whether or not the books are serial or not. After reading Michael Chabon's first novel, written as his MFA thesis and published when the author was 24 years old, I have realized the true wisdom of my father's seemingly capricious stance.

Great first novels are so mythologized, i.e. To Kill A Mockingbird and A Confederacy of Dunces, that it can often be forgotten that authors, like other professionals, can and do get better with experience. This certainly hold true with Chabon, whose other novels, even Wonder Boys, which I disliked, far outpace The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in terms of plotting, complexity and character development.

There is, naturally, ample evidence of the author's talent on display. Chabon writes sentences with apparent effortless grace, an enviable ability. He has a talent for creating memorable moments and distinguishing features. And if one makes allowances for age and inexperience the novel can truly be said to be almost annoyingly well-written.

Still there is a lot wanting in this story of one summer in the life of a gangster's son, a summer spent carousing, and sleeping with, an unsavory assortment of delinquents and airily artificial college graduates. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel is that this assortment of partners includes members of both genders. Here Chabon seems to go astray, narrator Art Bechstein's vacillation between women and men never seems either authentic or sympathetic, but then I've never been sympathetic to literary characters who intentionally subvert their romantic relationships, especially to female characters as appealing as Phlox, the French major and film-buff Bechstein deserts.

I wonder especially what gay readers of the novel think of Chabon's treatment in this novel. Bechstein's male lover Arthur Lecomte comes across as a sort of homosexual Svengali, manipulating our hero into wayward sex. In a somewhat bold authorial move Chabon has Phlox, a more or less sympathetic character, display a pathological homophobia. It is my understanding that Chabon had at this age already been romantically involved with both men and women, so the lack of authenticity I perceived is surprising, unless I am just so unfamiliar as to be unable to be perceptive.

Chabon raises some interesting possibilities with the intriguing backstory of Bechstein's family life. His father is a money-man for the mafia and his mother was assassinated in message killing, and her death seems to haunt the sensitive, lachrymose Bechstein, but Chabon denies, whether through intent or lack of developed skill, his readers any moment of revelation or insight. The novel's down-note ending leaves the reader unssatisfied and curiously unmoved by the plight of the main characters.

If you've read and enjoyed other novels by Michael Chabon, including the wonderful Pulitzer winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, perhaps you would be better off consigning The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to the bin of rough drafts or promising debuts. As a novel to be read it is unsatisfactory.

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