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The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

By kingsmartarse | Books | March 16, 2010 |

By kingsmartarse | Books | March 16, 2010 |

My first experience with Michael Chabon was the magnificent work, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I had never heard of Chabon, and instead picked up the suggested work as a comic-book fan who revels in the behind-the-scenes of making comics and its storied history. It easily became a favorite, and is widely considered Chabon’s “magnum opus.” Having never heard of Chabon before Kavalier, I was surprised to learn it was, in fact, his third novel. Possessed by the incredible quality of Kavalier, I found myself wondering about his first book, which served as his thesis in grad school, and the vehicle between his status as an amateur student-writer and praised professional. And now, I’ve finally come to the beginning.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a story about the summer after college graduation for Art Bechstein. It’s that odd time between the fairy tale of youth without responsibility and stepping into the real world and the person you will be for nearly the rest of your life. It was meant to be an easygoing time, a lazy time, but it quickly turns into a summer of loss and gain and learning for Art. By August, Art is changed by the questions he had never tried to answer, thoughts and discussions he’s avoided, and people from whom he had shielded himself.

In terms of writing, Chabon accomplishes what he continues to accomplish in his later work: A balance between detailed narrative and interesting dialogue. I’m typically a fan of character dialogue; it can tell you more about a character personally, and if done well, helps you empathize with those characters more easily and wholly than a narrative. It makes the characters seem less fictional. With Chabon, I think he actually is able to achieve this equally through both narrative and dialogue. His narratives are so telling; Chabon picks exactly the right details to tell you about a person, he tells just the right story, the right fictional anecdote, that you feel as though you know exactly who this person is without having to hear his/her entire life history. When you read the dialogue and speech of the characters, it reinforces these personalities, these likes and dislikes and quirks, and makes the characters real. You don’t feel like you’re reading a work of fiction, that you’re reading invented characters. Chabon’s story telling makes every character seem like a real person, someone you might meet out in the street, at work, or at school.

Perhaps it’s Chabon’s gift for characterization that makes Art Bechstein and his story worthy of standing beside characters like Tom Sawyer and Holden Caufield, and novels like On the Road and Catcher in the Rye (as some literary critics have put it). After reading Bright Lights, Big City, I touched on the similarities and differences in character I saw between Holden Caufield and the Unnamed Protagonist of Bright Lights. Holden had a way of thinking and speaking, but he seemed cynical of the “real” world and unable to grow and adapt or prepare himself for it. Unnamed Protagonist was similar in his quirks of thought and speech, but he was on a road of redemption; having tasted and experienced the lower levels of “Hell,” he realized and strove for personal growth. Art Bechstein is faced with this “coming of age” point in his life, but he neither refuses it like Holden or embraces it (at the end) like Unnamed Protagonist. He kind of just lives it. He has no agenda, no plans for this life. Art just seems to react and live through the moments and the people who enter his world, and I think it’s that quality that makes him easy to relate to, and easy to believe. The strings attached from story teller and story are not easily visible, therefore, Mysteries feels like a story you might have seen before, in yourself or in someone you know.

In that sense, the pieces seem to fit. Chabon wrote The Mysteries of Pittsburgh as he was graduating from grad school. Even though the events and characters are fictional, since Chabon was in a similar time in his life, he was able to wonderfully narrate the emotions and thoughts of that time in Art Bechstein’s life. The last few pages seem a bit cliche and rehearsed, with Art recounting the memories of that summer in the way that still-young people look back and reminisce about even younger times from which they grew. But it’s fitting. There is no one better to tell the nostalgia of so-called glory days of youth than a youth himself.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of kingsmarte’s reviews, check out his blog, Feeling Red.

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