A Review of Chabon’s Debut Novel (& TMI Re Me).

There’s a Pulitzer in the house or garage of Michael Chabon, I imagine. Also, in my mind, little children scurry below the shelf on which the prize is precariously perched, no glass or protective measure for it, other than elevation. The award acknowledges his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

I was informed by the internet (thanks, internet) that the long piece of fiction I’ve been giving my time to is classified (thanks, Aristotle) as Young Adult. The classification has to do with the age of the story’s protagonist, the content/subject matter, perspective and word count. Currently in YA, John Green is the preeminent author, the one who is selling massive amounts of books that are not serialized—which contrasts Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth. On Twitter, Green, who apparently was in Pittsburgh at the time, cited Michael Chabon’s debut novel as the “first contemporary novel I [Green] ever loved.” I read this the day that I had heard another author praise it when he was talking about first novels.

I had seen The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay on a colleague’s desk. He has voiced his admiration for Chabon twice to me. These factors were enough for me to immediately begin Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon’s debut novel, which he published as a 25-year-old. The book was his master’s thesis, from his time at UC-Irvine’s MFA program.

So what does a 26-year-old expect to find in a debut novel that was published 25 years ago and was written by a person who was younger than 26? Whatever I expected, I found something different, as is usually the case.

The last debut novel written by someone younger than me—or really just a novel written by someone younger than I was when I read it—that I also really liked was written by the preternaturally talented David Foster Wallace. It was also a master’s thesis.

Mysteries gives a love triangle from the first person perspective. And the triangle has two boys and one girl as its angles. However, one of the boys is the vertex. Like, our main character is angle A, and our “triangle” is BAC, which—as you geometrically savvy readers can see—might do some harm to the tried and true metaphor of love triangles. At any rate, this is indeed a triangle, because our main character Art (angle A) falls in love with Arthur (Art; angle B) and Phlox (angle C). And Arthur and Phlox work together at a library. And yes, our main character struggles with the bisexuality.

Art works at a bookstore. It is the summer after he graduated from college. Meeting these two wonderful people confuses him and constructs an amazingly unforgettable summer.

Art’s father is a “gangster,” which is written in the first line of the book. Like a Disney movie, Art’s mother is dead. And Art doesn’t really understand what his father does. In fact, his father keeps him out of the-know purposefully. However, Cleveland—a character who embodies and is represented as larger-than-life—is friends with Arthur, and he learns of Art’s father, and he aspires to make a name for himself via the gangster vocation.

And this all leads to some bizarre scenes. The most moving scenes involve Art and Phlox or Art and Arthur, or all three of them. This is the first book I’ve read that had a young character’s struggle with sexual orientation as one of its main arcs. And I thought the added layer of confusion resonated true. I couldn’t imagine how it would have been told from a high schooler’s perspective. It’s a coming-of-age story that is representative of the cultural directive that everyone goes to college: like you cannot come of age until you are free, and you are not free until you finish college.

Chabon crafts wonderful bits of language for action, dialogue and description, but none of these things ever seem to add to a real life character. Yeah, as I typed that, I understood it sounds tough, and I don’t mean that. What I would like to tell you is that some of the plot in this book, which seems to illustrate a fictionally large and excessive real world—some of that plot interferes with the characters.

Also, Chabon is—already in his debut—demonstrating his mastery of storytelling, which must’ve come from his reading. He knows how novels work.

Honestly, it’s sort of disconcerting, because on every page I see wonderful language or lines of dialogue. These characters say some amazing things, and usually that’s enough, but I just didn’t feel like the love triangle plights were real. I mean, they were very smart, but they each did things that seemed to me very dumb—in the name of love or because it was just really mean and careless/selfish. Also, Cleveland’s aspirations led to hyperbolic scenes, especially the culminating event, which is rich with tongue-in-cheek bigness.

Art is remembering this summer, from an indeterminately distanced future. The last line is, “No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated.” Chabon’s wonderful writing will pull you through the narrative, but when I look back on the novel, I feel those aforementioned tinges. The end does however explain—or to a cynic, cover up—the criticism.

But also the ending makes total sense to me. I get it. It just didn’t feel the way I felt when I graduated from college, but I didn’t graduate in standard time—nor was I single.

So without reading myself into the book, I can happily encourage your reading of it. There are some totally human parts and some parts that are just beautifully crafted. And when those two come together, those parts are worth your time. Some follow:

“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 red row of 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 zeppelin 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.’”

“I’m an atom, I bounce all over the place, like a mercenary. No, not a mercenary, a free agent—a free atom—isn’t that something in chemistry?”

“Hopping the low white rail, I checked as always for the little tangle of graffiti I’d scrawled on it one laughing, runny-nosed night with Claire two winters before.”

Relation and Relations

My fiance is sending text messages to my phone while I’m in class, and we’re having something of a conversation. She is on campus for her cousin’s dance recital, which is in the Fine Arts Auditorium, and she has vehemently suggested that I attend after class. But my class goes from 1810h-2140h, and the recital starts at 1930h—I didn’t think I’d be able to make any of it. Luckily, there are around 47 acts, or so, to this recital; I can make some of it (which turns out to be most of it) after class, and with more luck still, her cousin doesn’t perform any of her routines (I can’t be sure that this is the right word for what these kids did, or even if it’s the accepted word for what these kids did) until after my class gets out (but that isn’t important here).

The classroom for this particular class is on the second floor of a building that relates to the FAA via an expanse of grass, approximately fifty yards, called (with glib grimness) The Green. I’m on the second floor; my fiance is on the first floor. What is more is that The Green lays on a 10-15 degree grade downward, and once inside the FAA, an aisle-strider would notice another comparable grade (you know, stadium-seating). I’m on the second floor; my fiance is on a much-farther-down first floor. What is more is that we’re staring in opposite directions, being entertained (to different extents) by what is in front of our eyes, which are staring (again) in opposite directions.

[You’ve got to understand that a recent, domineering strand of thought is that I’ll be joined together with this woman in six weeks: one flesh. A fundamental hindrance for me with regards to relationships is a tangible understanding of experience (See: Autistic/Solipsistic)—I can’t make total sense of the existence of others’ experience. (And this other person, who has other experiences, who experiences experiences differently than I do, is joining me in flesh, which is how we experience physical things) (!).]

Bring yourself back to how my fiance and I are physically related. A straight, immaterial line around 115 yards could probably connect us. But it’d hit our backs first, as we’re back-to-back across this distance, and we’re at very different levels of height, facing different objects of interest. And I haven’t been in a dark FAA for a dance recital; nor have I ever witnessed a dance recital; i.e, I haven’t an idea as to what she’s experiencing. (Though she may have some vague, cerebral vision of what is happening in my classroom, I don’t really know, as I didn’t ask her. In fact, I haven’t brought any of this up to her, and she will most likely choose not to read this.) We’re both having singular experiences. (And I know, that last sentence incited a “Duh!” from you, but just take “singular” loosely, not as literal as normal—apply it to this situation).

But anyways, after the class finishes, I head straight (I say “straight,” but there is an erroneous, extraneous detour that is rather embarrassing) to the dance recital. An early-evening rain soaked the grass through which I tread. But I make it to the FAA, and obey her text of, “walk in the door, right to the right of the concession stand and walk all the way down til you see [my grandma] on your right.” I find them, and sit directly behind my fiance in the row behind their group, which includes my fiance, her mom, her aunt, her grandma, and a cousin.

Her family is here—that is, a lot of people I know are here. An uncanny feeling came fast upon me (it could be attributed to my having worked a 12-hour shift before such a long class). Because of the performers’ talent-level and the performances’ presentation, the recital has an air of television, and the group I joined acts like they were watching television. The situation wasn’t unlike removing us from my future grandmother-in-law’s living room and placing us in this pretty-full auditorium. It is fun, and I am sleepy. It is uncanny.

My sleepiness and bad eyesight, in addition to the incessant pointing of crowd-members to specify the kid they’d come to see to parties who couldn’t make out the children’s faces, provoked this fictionalized scene:

A father or adult or some man [it was important (rather, necessitated by realism) that it was a man] is at a dance recital, in which his daughter or a related child is performing, but he can’t figure out which one is the child he knows. At some point during the performance, he decides on one of the young children who will do, who looks similar enough. If he focuses on the wrong child during the extent of the performance, while thoughts of adoration and enjoyment of his relation encompass his mind, is anything lost? Effectually, he’s been romanced by a mirage. But that’s ok, right?

I thought about this for about half of one of the acts, and it seemed sufficiently significant or inventive for a piece of fiction I’d like to write. Then I gave up, going back to this strangely significant feeling of my own, real situation. I was with the girl I love, and I was happy. But I had to situate myself. I had to figure out why this moment I was in felt so meaningful in itself.

Not only was I let into a heretofore unexperienced experience, but I was able to jump into a place in which my fiance was already. She was there, living; I was elsewhere, living. And then I came into her place, and lived with her. But when I got there, she explained, “You didn’t miss anything. Chloe hasn’t performed yet, and they’ve all pretty much been the same.” That was it. I was able to experience this certain experience with her, but also, I was given access. By her saying that what I was experiencing was similar enough to what had preceded my attendance, I could superimpose what I knew to what I didn’t. This made the recital she viewed without me real, in a tangible way.

Obviously, most people don’t seem to need this sort of entrance, but I did. And the layers of significance erupted after inspection.