As Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Karenina goes, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Like so many broad summaries of human behavior, this one is patently false, but still mighty tempting in its pat tidiness. It’s certainly true that there are an awful lot of ways to be unhappy, and an awful lot of ways to disagree. Which is why it’s sort of fascinated me, watching all the Clubbers and commentators weighing in on exactly why they didn’t like Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh. Everyone who didn’t love it has a different approach and a different reason: the style, the way it failed to meet expectations, the shoehorned-in gangster plot, the abrupt ending, the way it didn’t live up to Chabon’s later, better work.
Without disagreeing with any of those issues, I have another one: I had no sympathy for the protagonist’s useless, selfish flailing.
I seem to have an ongoing failure of empathy when it comes to a certain type of directionless, self-absorbed person of privilege, characters whose main problem is just not knowing exactly what they want out of life or themselves or their friends or their future. It isn’t that I’ve never been there and that I hold such characters in contempt, in a “How dare anyone not have a laser-like focus on their goals, as I do” kind of way. It’s the opposite problem: I’ve been there, and when I get into a state of dithering weakness like the one Art experiences throughout The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh, I annoy the hell out of myself. So watching him wibble through his little love triangle, I mostly wanted to smack him and demand he make a decision, any decision. Instead, he follows helplessly where his stronger-willed friends lead. At one point, torn between two lovers (feelin’ like a foo-oo-ool), he literally flips a coin to decide which one to go back to. This is not a guy I wanted to spend 300 pages with.
Truth be told, I had the same problem with the book’s supposed inspiration, The Great Gatsby, and I had a similar problem a few years ago when I finally got around to reading John Updike’s Rabbit, Run for the first time. It even tinged my youthful enjoyment of The Catcher In The Rye. Ellen asked whether Mysteries is more “Fitzgeraldian or Rothish”—to that, I can only say that it reminded me of Gatsby and my indifference to it before I knew there was a connection between the two. Maybe there’s a similarity between Art and Alexander Portnoy of Portnoy’s Complaint in that both are self-pitying, confused, sex-steeped, and at times self-loathing, but what little I’ve read of Philip Roth has all had more texture, more of a sense of wry humor, and more thematic and personal depth than Pittsburgh.
In the abstract, I can appreciate the idea of literature about modern anomie. I agree with the idea that American civilization has robbed us of coming-of-age rituals and given many of us softer lives and glorified the pleasure-seeking urge above all else, such that those who can afford to, often remain in a twilight state of arrested adolescence longer and later these days. I similarly accept the (perhaps a bit overplayed in literature, but still valid) idea that the same civilization can leave people feeling disconnected from the land, from base survival issues, and from themselves, like they’re going through a series of increasingly meaningless forms that are accepted as the path to an abstracted success: go to school, take tests, get degrees, get a job, push papers around, make money, kill time, die. I’m sure that somewhere, vital and provocative stories are being written about all this. Nonetheless, I personally tend to be bored by novels about unhappy, unfocused, indecisive people with no particular idea about how to escape what's wrong with their lives. Virtually nothing about The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh grabbed me.
The exception, oddly enough, was one of the aspects everyone else liked least: The gangster-dad angle. For me, the complications between Art and his father Joe were one of the book’s most poignant elements. Our glimpses of Joe’s life and world are like little peeks into a more dynamic story, one in which people make the kind of decisions that change or even end other people’s lives. I respected the complexities of the push-and-pull between Art and Joe: Joe wants Art to have a better and more respectable life than he did, and wants Art to stay out of his world entirely, and yet he wants to steer and control Art’s actions via the power, privilege, and entitlement that world gives him. Art is disgusted by his father’s work, and yet it fascinates him as well. His version of youthful rebellion and pulling away from his parents paradoxically leads him to force himself into his dad’s realm, because that’s the last place Joe wants him. Rebelling by conforming: I liked the irony of that. It was one of the few things in the book that dipped below the surface level of Art’s unconsidered actions. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t ultimately go anywhere particularly interesting.
Another thing Ellen invited us to consider—Chabon’s focus on Art’s surroundings and the details of Pittsburgh—was also a saving grace for me. At least when Chabon is illustrating the intricacies of the Cloud Factory or Phlox’s library, or even the topology of Arthur’s body, he’s providing an admirable level of detail about something. By comparison with his city, his characters’ who’s-fucking-who maneuvers never really came into focus.
And generally, that's the fault of the narrator, a hapless, fickle schmoe who, like a donkey, is too often focused solely on whatever carrot is hanging directly in front of his face at any given moment, whether it's Jane as fantasy ideal, or Phlox or Arthur as sexual partners, or the hope of being as cool as Cleveland and earning his respect, or the prospect of pleasing his father. If any of these drives had emerged as meaningful for him over time—if I'd ever gotten the sense that he wasn't just being led around by the nose (or the cock)—then I might have cared about where he ended up. As it was, I couldn't sink myself into any scene where he decided to spend time, because while it was all tremendously meaningful for him as he was experiencing it, there was no reason to believe he'd continue to care past the moment when he moved on to the next thing.
In that sense, the ending that many of the people discussing the book here are dismissing as abrupt and tacked on sort of worked for me a little. It's as though when something real happens, Art has the chance to wake up from his summer dreams. As much as anyone else, he put Cleveland up on that scaffolding with his own easily led indecision. Surely this is the moment where he'll realize that being other people's toy or enabler isn't the way to wander through life. If only there'd been a clearer sense for where he'll go in life if he's actually wised up, I at least would have wound up more satisfied with the book's final destination.
Of course, none of this weakens Chabon’s standing as the author of a Pulitzer-winning modern classic. We’re examining his juvenilia here; no wonder some of us are finding it wanting, except as a possible Rosetta Stone to later works, or a curiosity. (I hear Keith has a more positive take on it than the last couple of weigh-ins, though.) All in all, though, I wish I had finally cracked Wonder Boys instead.