Friday, May 22, 2009

Book Review: The Mysteries of Pittsburg

Title The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
Author Michael Chabon
Genre Literary Fiction
Rating A+

Summary The ultimate coming-of-age novel: Art Bechstein spends one relatively wild and crazy summer in Pittsburgh learning that he has no idea who he is.

First Line "At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business."

Review I read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh way too fast--not in that I can't remember it, but that I wish I was still reading it because it was so fantastic. Let's break down its fantastic qualities, shall we?

One: the writing. I really shouldn't have to expound on that because it's Michael Chabon, it's a given, but knowing that this was a reworked masters' thesis is evidence of his genius. What young guy is writing about other young guys with this much self-awareness? Or maybe it's not self-awareness, maybe its just his willingness to admit that people are confused and not at all self-aware and that's what made this book so great. But, just because I love him so much, let me give you an example of some of his lyrical prose:
"[My father] asked me what my plans were for the summer, and in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less: It's the beginning of the summer and I'm standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless row of red monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zepplin mooring at the art deco summit, where they keep the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties, I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink. I said, 'I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray,'" (pp 9-10).
Don't you love that? Don't you love that yin/yang of what a 22-year-old hirsute young man thinks in his head and then how he expresses it verbally? Comic and so beautiful.

Two: the characters. I'm going to admit something to you all: I've never struggled with bisexual urges. Never. Not once. But somehow, and God bless him for it, Michael Chabon drew Art Bechstein so beautifully that I didn't know how he'd pick between Phlox and Arthur. How could you? They were beautiful too and filled in Art's gaps so perfectly. The other accessory characters (Jane, Cleveland, Art's dad, sundry gangsters, even Jane's parents and the [perhaps] retarded neighbor) were all so colorful and "round" that they made the story sufficiently complex and beautiful. There were no throw-aways.

Three: the ending. The ending is not what I wanted. It wasn't what I expected. Would I change it? Not for a million dollars. (Okay, maybe for a million, but not a penny less.) I've actually hearkened back to the ending on several occasions since reading it, revisiting what happened and what I thought of it, and (although it saddens me) I love the book because Chabon was unconventional. The pieces aren't all neatly tied off at the end, and that's gorgeous because life rarely has neatly tied-off ends. If you're looking for a "happy ending," then you'll need to go find a Stephenie Meyer book to read because Michael Chabon is never going to be your guy.

Four: the descriptions of plot and setting. I'm not a huge fan of overly-descriptive settings (I find that many books in the literary fiction category go overboard with sights, sounds, smells, textures, to the point where you're overloaded), but Chabon strikes a perfect balance. I saw the cloud factory, heard the click of heels on the library floor, rode with Art on the back of Cleveland's bike, but never once thought Chabon was being too wordy. He also does a fantastic job in describing sensual scenes as such--sensual, not overly smutty (although there is a heck of a lot of sex of all shapes and sizes going on in this book)--and the confusion, exploration, embarrassment, release, etc., of those scenes comes through swimmingly.

I'll be working on getting Wonder Boys, The Final Solution, Yiddish Policeman's Union, Gentlemen of the Road, and his short story and essay collections read in the not too distant future. He's also got a YA/middle grade book, Adventureland, that I should probably read too. Chabon's cannon is one that everyone should consume. Also (even though I've neglected to do so), I'd advise to read his work chronologically and watch his evolution and his fusion of literary fiction with genre fiction.


Marie said...

what a great sell on Chabon. Can you believe I've never read him? I have a couple of his books sitting around- really gotta get going on him! :-)

Anonymous said...

i've read only yiddish policeman's union. but it was fabulous. thanks for the reminder to get more chabon.

Heather said...

@Marie - Thanks, Chabon kind of sells himself... I think you'll love Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay because you can appreciate a good "comic."

@wheelsonthebus - I actually got the chance to pick up a hardback copy of Yiddish Policeman's Union this weekeend from my big box bookstore's remainder table for only $7. What a steal... can't wait to read it.

Frank Anthony Polito said...

What a great review! My all-time fave book, which is why I launched the official boycott against the film version.

Chabon's Y/A is actually called SUMMERLAND... For some reason, I couldn't get through it.