Friday, February 26, 2010

Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
by Michael Chabon

(10: 9/50)

"'Yes, the Cloud Factory. Haven't you ever noticed it? When you walk across the Schenley Park bridge, there, from the park into Oakland, you pass above the Cloud Factory. What does it do? we used to wonder.'"

The entry below will openly analyse Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and address specifically its possible themes, symbols and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

My general rule of thumb for reading fiction is fifty pages a day. Paced, but not glacial. That I finished Chabon's first novel of roughly three-hundred in four days rather than six can be attributed to its quality or its generous font size. I'll leave it up to you. I'm really not certain myself.

The novel is very quick to get on its feet, which is something of an anomaly among literary fiction writers, and which I suppose is a testament to Chabon's future interest in genre fiction. In Chabon there is a genuine interest in the structured plot, which has been corroding for decades, and for which its presense I suppose I'm thankful for. There's a cool ambivalence to most modern fiction, like watching a sporting event and simply being pleased to be there. There's a lack of invested interest, and I feel -- though this may only be my relation to the work, rather than the work itself-- that Chabon supplies those things in Pittsburgh where most other writers of his present stature fail to.

Chabon's characters also have blood in their veins, another unfortunate rarity, I feel, in modern fiction. Not to say that I haven't encountered well-crafted characters yet this year, but none that feel so alive. None who speak vaguely, or act surprisingly, none who have said something and made me wonder why they said it. It speaks to a higher understanding of inner-consciousness. Perhaps it's only something that comes from writing autobiographically, but it's admirable regardless. Kooky Phlox, catty Arthur, and stiff-jawed Cleveland are real enough that you're forced to have an opinion of them.

Perhaps all this dancing around in a reviewish style is an attempt to avoid analyzing the book. At it's heart I feel Pittsburgh is about the quest to establish identity: What we were, what we want to be, What we might be, What we don't want to be, What others don't want us to be. It's a theme Chabon explores through sexuality, profession, idolization and relationships. Therein lies why it was so imperative that Chabon's characters come through the page: without a will of their own his premise would falter. It's not a revolutionary idea, but knowing that Chabon lived some of these events, and that this book was written in his twenties, there's a certain touching relateability. And as always it's often not what you say, but how you say it.

I'd be remiss if I didn't address the Cloud Factory, though I'd be lying if I said I knew exactly what it symbolized. Its unrevealed purpose seems to suggest that it plays into, like so much else, finding identity but I feel that it also is representative of dreams and ambition. The promise of bigness, as Cleveland might phrase it.

I certainly understand Chabon's detractors. The man does love the adjective a bit too much, but hardly to severity. And true, the novel isn't perfect. I have no significant complaints and yet while I feel I have every reason to love this novel, I don't. I simply enjoyed it very much.

Up next: Paul Auster's Travels in the Scriptorium

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