The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon

This is problem with slang, especially old (80’s) slang like this, the minute you step out of the relevant circles you begin missing out on the experience and it becomes difficult to distinguish the passé from the hip. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (TMOP), the coming of age story of Art Bechstein is set in an era that is clearly defined by flamboyant details like knitted ties, white blazers, spandex and loop earrings. It also happens to be an era I could – however I would rather not – remember in the context of my teenage years.

This third meeting of our book club was held in Cihangir, the East Village/Notting Hill of Istanbul where our two fortunate members live. It was a nice change to get out of our stuffy neighborhood and feel humored amongst those who were once called hippies, bobos (Bohemian Bourgeois) and guppies (a gay yuppie). I’m not sure if this slang still holds, but observing the abundence of kids in the neighborhood I couldn’t help thinking some of them will soon become dinkys (Double Income No Kids Yet), yappies (Young Affluent Parent) and silkies (Single Income, Loads of Kids) if they haven’t already. At least the lombards (Lots of Money but a Real Dickhead) have not yet invaded, they stick to where we live because in Cihangir the streets are too narrow for their Range Rovers and there isn’t enough parking.

This is the problem with slang, especially old (80’s) slang like this, the minute you step out of the relevant circles you begin missing out on the experience and it becomes difficult to distinguish the passé from the hip. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (TMOP), the coming of age story of Art Bechstein is set in an era that is clearly defined by flamboyant details like knitted ties, white blazers, spandex and loop earrings. It also happens to be an era I could – and rather not – remember in the context of my teenage years.

The 80’s for me were ephemeral years that entailed immense changes inside out. Testosterone which was not put into good use surfaced in the form of pimples which led to even more wasted testosterone. This vicious circle mixed with the mood swings blurred my vision and thinking. Sometimes I find it difficult to disentangle how I really felt back then from how I feel about those days as my reminiscing current self.

One thing has not changed though: in books and films, I strive to be a firm believer of authenticity and do my best to stand as a bulwark against cliché. And I must say my experience with the 80’s made it more difficult for me to judge the cast of colorful characters in TMOP. One of the commenters in Amazon got me more confused by saying “The characters out of context may seem unreal, yet if you have ever lived in the city, you know they are commonplace”.

The main characters in the book are “free atoms” as Arthur puts it. Art, the narrator, is torn between a good looking young man called Arthur and a weirdly sexy girl called Phlox. At the same time, he is also torn from his close family of which we only get to know his father, well, vaguely – the book would’ve been a lot more interesting if this father-son conflict was explored in more detail. Arthur the trendy gay character has disconnected himself from his past and has created his own projection, a facade that he seems to be supporting very well in the confines of a college town. Cleveland (aptly named after the main rival city to Pittsburgh) the rebel friend, is torn from his upper class past as a teenage idol “on his way down”, “a star that has passed from yellow to red” as Art observes. Phlox the girlfriend, like her name, is distant from everyone. Her only connection – a torn connection that is – seems to be Art. And Jane, (Cleveland’s attractive girlfriend) why is Jane left so lame when she is gorgeous at the beginning of summer party in the opening chapters of the book?

Hikmet, one of our co-members in the book club thought TMOP was very nicely written but was not intricate enough to generate a fulfilling discussion. He added that the main characters’ reactions are bizarre and especially the confused Art and justifiably suspicious Phlox seem like they are immature high school kids. Seha commented that Art’s uncontrollable tears whenever he confronts his gangster father were just too absurd.

In the discussion, I begged to differ. I remember my college years when I was fragile, immature, confused and hated being alone. The definition of ‘cool’ back then was different and a lot more superficial. Strangely enough these feelings had slipped out of my mind, were pushed away into my subconscious until I began reading TMOP.

Michael Chabon is very successful at bringing back the feeling of those carefree college days when part-time jobs were the careers we didn’t care about and the family was a safety net to fall back on when needed, not something for ongoing support. Love was about competition and tough choices, friendship was a tightrope that required a good balance and a firm stand. I found it easy to relate to Art when he describes an incident which leaves him “relieved, curious, confused, nauseated and admiring” all at the same time.

Mena Suvari, Brilliant Casting as Foxy Girlfriend Phlox Lombardi
(Picture from DailyCeleb.com)

There is a recent film adaptation of TMOP which is loathed by the fans of the book. There is even a facebook group dedicated to hating it that must have caused the film to receive a measly 4.5 out of 10 on Internet Movie Database. The director has – for the sake of an “efficient and more cinematic engine” (whatever that means) eliminated Arthur and merged the character with Cleveland who has become bisexual!

In the book, Arthur is the link that binds all the characters, the nexus of the story. He also happens to be the most interesting character. So the idiocy (and may I add disrespect) of cutting him out of the screenplay is beyond comprehension. But from what I’ve read, the role of Jane (played by Siena Miller) has been expanded, which is good news. Another good news is the brilliant casting of Mena Suvari as Phlox.

The film was shot on location in Pittsburgh which seems to be beautifully portrayed in the book. I’ve never been there and I can’t comment on this, but I will see the film out of curiosity and to get a better feel of the city. However I find it difficult to grasp how Michael Chabon let Rawson Marshall Thurber (the writer/director of the film) adapt his first book so “liberally”. I guess we don’t know “who holds the strings” in the industry as an up-and-coming novel character (whose name I cannot disclose yet) puts it.

Chabon has a witty sense of humor. I especially enjoyed a few pages devoted to French Literature and more specifically to the strange girls studying it in college and how as a result, their emotions become difficult and theatrical. It’s also nice how he has developed Phlox, sexy yet with “poor taste that one accepts as a system and finds it beautiful and fun”, someone who lacks a sense of humor yet makes up for it by memorizing passages from here and there and using them as necessary, a girl who ranks everything!

I also enjoyed the myriad of allusions/references in the book from The Cask of Amontillado to The Story of O to Edgar Allan Poe, from Golden Girls to Adam And The Ants and to The Supremes. These gave me a better sense of time to bring the story alive, because at times it felt like a fairy tale in a happy town far far away until the end came and slapped me in the face.

But not all of my fellow book club members thought so and our discussion did not last as long as the previous ones and was not as fiery. The ex-bobos around us were playing with the cats in the garden and our bottle of wine had already dried up. So we concluded the meeting and began thinking about our next book, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Jose Saramago. I must say I have very high expectations of it, my brief research showed me it’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of fun reading it. However, in all honesty, I must add that it was chosen after Dead Souls by Gogol was overthrown by a “judicial coup” claiming reading it would be the end of us as a club.

We were in breezy Cihangir in a chilly summer night, Cihangir named after the hunchbacked sensitive son of Suleyman the Magnificent. Cihangir, the bastion of liberalism (with a capital L) in Turkey. I felt feeble and hapless like Prince Cihangir who died of sorrow after his brother was strangled by his father and his scheming stepmother, and I could not help Gogol whose overcoat we had all come out of.

2 thoughts on “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon”

  1. Chabon indeed gets under your skin- the way he sweeps you right into the story, takes you from Rina’s to Jane’s, to the library, then to the lakehouse,…- it’s almost impossible not to relate to Art or to some of his experiences on some level.

    With that said, when I think of Art, I hear a Sezen Aksu (cannot remember the name) song echoing in the background, “..bir kedim bile yok, anneme kustum,..” Throughout the book, I could not help myself but roll my eyes, shake him up a little, and scream from the top of my lungs, “Get over yourself, and [please] stop crying!” Then again, didn’t (or don’t) we all have to get over ourselves at one point?

    Coincidentally enough, as I made my way over to our local library this morning to pick up the books I had put on hold, I came across Chabon’s ‘The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’ on the “Favorites” shelf… Hmmm, maybe a little later, I thought to myself, after I digest MOH…

  2. Hello, I read your post and thanks for mentioning the Facebook group opposed to the film version of MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH. I’m the leader of that group.

    If you’d like to read a copy of the MOP screenplay, I’d be willing to send you one via email. Just contact me @ bechstein[at]yahoo[dot]com

    If you enjoy books about/set in the 80s, you might want to check out my debut novel, BAND FAGS! which is available from Kensington Books. You can read more about it at http://www.bandfags.com

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