If I hadn’t been reading Mysteries Of Pittsburgh for Wrapped Up in Books, I don’t think I would’ve gotten past the third chapter. Hell, I don’t know if I would’ve picked it up at all; I thought The Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union were both terrific, but they appealed to me as much for their subjects as their writing, and Pittsburgh just doesn’t have a hook that would’ve grabbed my attention on its own. First novels are often more interesting for what they promise than what they deliver, and I’m not enough invested in Michael Chabon to want to see him before he had all his pieces in place.
As for why I would’ve abandoned this three chapters in, well, Ellen already touched on it, but I really couldn’t stand the style. If you’ve ever tried to write something in first person before, you probably already know this, but self-conscious wit is a trap. A very well-baited, comfortable-seeming, respect-from-your-peers-earning trap. Pittsburgh is, at least initially, rife with unnecessary adjectives and a sort of simpering, “Oh, but I don’t really mean this” wink that made my eyes roll. It wasn’t bad exactly, and I could definitely see a sort of proto-Chabon in the making, but, well, I already knew he would write much better books, so why would I bother with this one? I haven’t even read Wonder Boys.
But duty called, so I finished the whole thing. (It helped knowing that even if I kept on hating it, I would get paid to vent afterward.) And hey, it wasn’t so bad after all. Once I got over my initial reaction, either the style settled down or I did, because I stopped being so bothered by it, and I had a lot of fun with the rest. The love triangle between the narrator, Arthur, and Phlox was emotionally involving and consistently surprising. The narrator’s passivity managed to come down on the right side of the line between authorial indecision and honest confusion more often than not, and his sexual confusion was really well-handled. (Hey, was that a pun?) And Phlox was fascinating; I appreciated how Art kept going back to her even when it was obvious there was nothing healthy there, and I appreciated even more how Chabon managed to justify their relationship without either condoning or condemning it.
Pittsburgh is still, I think, an overall failure as a novel—the stuff with Cleveland, while potentially interesting, never really went anywhere, and the narrator’s relationship with his father was frustratingly sketchy. Even worse, the gangster angle never paid off, and it always seemed so shallow and uninteresting compared to the rest of the story. I’d say this is about two-thirds of a really excellent story, and it’s only the fact that so much of the ending takes its cues from Cleveland’s fall that the other elements collapse. I can imagine reading this when it was first published and being somewhat let down by the final page, but still tremendously excited. Chabon was clearly going places. It’s nice to reach the end now and know he’s already got there.
As to Ellen’s questions:
• I didn’t really have much interest one way or the other in Art’s descriptions of place. Like the ending, it seemed like good writing that wasn’t quite settled into itself yet; more a series of sketches that were waiting for Chabon to find a stronger reason to join them together.
• Art’s emotional unreliability was more compelling to me when he was pulled between Phlox and Arthur than when he was around Cleveland. Cleveland had a lot of potential (and the build-up to his first entrance was great), but Art’s connections with his dad and the crime world took the wind out of the relationship for me. The section of the book that has the narrator bouncing between lovers over and over again was, to me, the best part of the whole thing, and the fact that we were never quite sure what he really wanted—was he just going along with whoever wanted him next?—worked best in that section. With Cleveland, I never got the same feeling of uncertain honesty.
• Art’s relationship with his dad is just distracting. I’m going to guess that Chabon needed the gangster background to get into the book, and I can definitely believe that, once the book was finished, he was unable to shake those bits loose. (Or, if we’re imagining things, maybe he thought they were great; I mean, it is his book.) As a reader, though, I found that those were the parts that rang false. Apart from Art’s ride-along with Cleveland on his collection run (which admittedly was pretty good), the crime plot lacked the insight and depth that made the rest of the book so good.