Monday, 6 June 2011

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Michael Chabon

There's something bittersweet about delving into a favourite author's early work. It's pretty exciting to see how an author has grown over the years; what talents they always had, what weaknesses they have or haven't lost, which aspects were seeded long before they were developed.

But on the other, more emotive and less rational, hand; what tainted greatness, how boringly humanising, how utterly demythologising. I mean, it's really comfortable to believe that greatness is something separate, inherent and unchanging; that it is emergent, changable and the outcome of (shudder) work is far more awkward.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a great example of this bubble-bursting, but an even better example of the growth of an author. For all it's weaknesses, it is still undeniably from the same hand as The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Kavalier & Clay (although I know there's people who don't agree with that).

Thematically Pittsburgh is completely on-canon. It's almost a mission statement for the rest of his ouvre to date, complete with a nod to the world of genre in its hidden mafia background. The weaknesses mentioned are not thematic, they're in the prose and structure.

Much of it is overwritten, and the cleverness is pushed too far forward. The structure feels somehow naive, complete with unsatisfying but overly-ended ending. 'But he was only 23 when he wrote it!', some might say. And while that is fantastically impressive, it's not an excuse.

A lot of the novel's strength, its perfect render of the intensity of youth, are due to Chabon's age when writing it; if he gets the praise for age-related pros, he can take the criticism for age-related cons. 23 is not an excuse.

My favourite thing about this novel is what's wrong with it. Unsatisfying structure and unwieldly prose? This is Chabon! Those are among his greatest strengths, in recent works. And greatness as the outcome of (shudder) work is not so bad after all.


  1. I remember liking this book more than you do. But I do agree that it is weaker than his later book. For me, Mr. Chabon's best work is The Wonder Boys, though my personal favorite is Kavalier and Clay. I think he's been dallying and coasting since those two, and really should get back to serious work.

  2. I don't think The Yiddish Policemen's Union is in any way coasting! But apart from that, I can see your point.

    Apparently his next novel is present day, non-genre stuff. Something in the way it's been talked about makes me think it might be a landmark of his career one way or another, I'm not sure why.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post. I remember my excitement when I wandered into a used bookstore and found a really nice copy of Mysteries of Pittsburgh in a first edition soon after his Pulitzer Prize--apparently the store didn't know they had it. I'm afraid I didn't make it very far into the book. I admire Chabon but I guess I don't count among his true fans because I couldn't finish it. But I'm still really happy to have such a nice copy of his early work!

  4. I preferred "Pittsburgh" to Chabon's later work, but then - I've never been able to finish "Yiddish Policemen" or "K & C" despite having started both countless times. Chabon's always been a writer I like in theory, in his interest and promotion of genre fiction, but when I get down to reading his stuff....

    (Despite this, I am still desperate to actually read and like "K & C." That I've inexplicably never made it more than 100 pages into the book never ceases to baffle me.)

    I do recognize that feeling of turning back to an author's early works, though. When I read Nabokov's "Look at the Harlequins!" I can see the writer he is & is becoming, but I also think it's one of the worst books I've ever read. I probably wouldn't be so harsh in assessing it had it been written by a lesser writer, but I can't read it without holding it up against books like Ada, Lolita, Sebastian Knight.

    -- Ellen

  5. @ As The Crow Flies: I don't think it makes you any less of a fan that you didn't finish it -- maybe just a more discerning one. Also, what does your edition look like? I spent ages trying to find a copy in the same 'cover series' as all the others, that deco look, but the pictured one is as close as I could get.

    @ Ellen: Finish it! It's so worth it. It's ages since I read it, but I remember reeling after I finished the last page, it's one of those books that gets inside you and gets a hold of you. In a good way.

  6. Looks fun and quirky!
    I like quirky.

  7. Hi Ben, do you ever write on children's books?

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  9. I have not read anything by Michael Chabon, so I may be a little out of my depth here; however, if his present works are fantastic, then they may make up (to a certain extent) for an overwritten, naive book written when he was only twenty-three. Great review; thank you.