Before we get down to cases, allow me to tell you a little personal anecdote of the sort that makes me so universally respected ’round these parts.
Way back in 1989—yes, the Internet tells me there was such a year, and in America, too—I was a doomed high-school dropout who really only loved two things: elegantly written fiction and elegantly written humor. (I’ve since learned to love more things, but those two still have a special place in my black, meat-clogged heart.) There was, in the late ’80s, something of a mini-Renaissance of hot young fiction writers, annoyingly if accurately referred to as “the Literary Brat Pack”—men and women, mostly the product of expensive schools in the Northeast, only a few years older than I was, yet landing astonishingly lucrative book deals. (This was back in the day where you could actually make money writing fiction. No, I assure you.) The part of me that loved elegantly written fiction wanted to be excited about this group, because they held out the promise that young writers could be taken seriously and could make scads of money, but I couldn’t help noticing that most of them, well, kind of sucked.
In what turned out to be a nice little bit of timing, the part of me that loved elegantly written humor happened to pick up, about the same time, a long-forgotten publication by the late, great Spy magazine called Spy Notes. It was a parody of the lazy student’s bible known as Cliff Notes, and most of it was written by Paul Simms, who went on to create the beloved sitcom NewsRadio. It focused a dry, razor-keen, merciless wit on these writers, telling me some things I already knew (like that Bret Easton Ellis was a terrible writer), some things I didn’t yet know (like that Jay McInerney was a terrible writer), and one thing that I desperately needed to know: that yes, these books were awful, and that was okay. I didn’t have to beat myself up for being a dumb, undereducated rube in the Low Desert who just wasn’t smart enough to “get” how masterful half-assed garbage like The Rules Of Attraction was, because here was a gin-u-wine New York smartypants from the funniest magazine in America telling me that yes, From Rockaway really is as insufferable as you think it is.
So what does this have to do with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, you ask, just before hitting “post” on a comment calling me an asshole? Well, Simms and his co-writers weren’t entirely drunk on Haterade. They singled out a handful of examples of writers who got, fairly or not, lumped in with the Brat Packers, but whose work was not entirely revolting. I took special note of these folks, and two of them in particular became writers I followed throughout the rest of their careers, with generally good results (if not happy endings): David Foster Wallace, whose book The Broom Of The System was singled out for its Pynchon-esque complexity, and a young novelist named Michael Chabon, whose debut, The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh, was cited as an especially worthwhile book that might be the start of a brilliant career.
And now, here we are, 20 years later (typing that phrase is becoming a recurrent and completely unpleasant feature of my life), and I return to Mysteries for the first time since I read it, way back then. I remember liking it at the time, but when I read his next novel, Wonder Boys, it was such a great leap forward in skill and confidence that I could barely believe it was by the same writer. (Almost the exact same scenario played itself out when I read his next novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay). When I returned to it earlier this month, I was afraid that, placing it in the structure of his entire body of work rather than approaching it as one young man reading the first novel of another, it would suffer pretty heavily in comparison with his later material, which, with a few exceptions—I’m no fan of Summerland or Gentlemen Of The Road—I find pretty stellar.
As it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried. With a few exceptions (the prose is beautiful and usually not overwrought, but on a few occasions, Chabon lets himself be a bit overimpressed with some of his own sentences, and the ending isn’t too stylistically out-of-bounds with the rest of his work, but it still seems pretty jarring after what has come before), I enjoyed The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh far more than I thought I would—certainly more than I did back in 1989. It’s tonally perfect for much of its length, and nicely anticipates much of his later work; the dialogue has a nicety that few writers seem capable of, and the sense of place is nearly magnificent. His Pittsburgh, from the banal to the fantastic, is simply a perfect realization of setting, and it forms the ideal background for the narrative. The characters are flawed in conception at times, but never so much so that they sink, and if the emotional stakes of the book are attenuated to the snapping point, it’s forgivable, because what Chabon is trying to conjure is that delicate moment where Art, Arthur, and Phlox (and Phlox could so easily have become a cringingly bad archetype, something he never lets happen) are trying to hold on to the perfect endless moments of youth while stretching their lives forward into the adult future.
The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh certainly isn’t perfect, and it far too often reads like what it is—a first novel by someone who sometimes reads as if he’s directing toward other people writing their first novels. But the thing I thought would hurt it the most on re-read, its relationship to his later work, is instead what redeemed it, because it lays a clear, solid bedding for what would come later. This book gives Chabon room to make mistakes that he would wisely avoid in the future, and establishes themes, styles, and tones that would make readers want to return to him when he was an older and better writer. And for all those reasons, I’ll always be thankful to that Spy book for teaching me a lesson that I’ve tried to carry through even to my work with The A.V. Club: sometimes learning about something horrible can lead you to something wonderful.
To Ellen’s points:
• I definitely feel like we were a bit confined to Art’s perspective, but I don’t think this is entirely a bad thing, because the entire premise of the book is dependent on us identifying with how passionately (or obsessively) he locks on to his surroundings. It might have bothered me more if Chabon wasn’t so skillful at describing them.
• The escape from the mundane, whether real or imagined, is a huge factor in all of Chabon’s work, and I read Art’s intense involvement with Cleveland as an expression of this—a love affair, even one as heavily weighted as the Art/Arthur/Phlox triangle, is one thing, but an honest-to-goodness bad man like Cleveland is quite another.
• Oddly enough, one of the aspects of Literary Brat Packism that Spy singled out for mockery was the “bad dad” angle—in almost all of these books, the main character’s father is dead, or diseased, or distant, or just generally unsupportive, and this provides a hook on which the authors get to hang their doppelgängers’ bad behavior. I didn’t think Mysteries was that bad about Art and his father, but it definitely felt underdeveloped and unexplored, more tossed in out of forgotten necessity than anything Chabon really wanted to write about.
• I’ll have to give your last question a miss, Ellen, since I’ve only recently started reading Philip Roth and don’t feel confident enough in answering the question; I’m not nearly as familiar with the dynamics of his books as I am with Fitzgerald’s, so any answer I’d give would be more half-assed than usual. Instead, I’ll ask another one: has anyone noticed, or commented on, the threads of the “Chaboniverse” that show up here? Cleveland’s last name is the same as that of the building where the English Department is headquartered in Wonder Boys, and I’m wondering if there are any other bits and bobs here that show up elsewhere in his work. (There’s a recurring figure in his books, a Pittsburgh Pirates catcher named Eli Drinkwater, who may have been named in reference to our last Wrapped Up In Books selection, Little, Big…)