Book Review: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

The details:

Title: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
Author: Michael Chabon
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1988)
Pages: 320
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

The narrator of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Art, decides to spend the summer after graduation working in a bookstore in Pittsburgh, where he attended university, while avoiding the next steps of his life. His father is some sort of gangster, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that Art doesn’t know precisely what his father does, mostly by design. His father protects him from that life. In fact, Art doesn’t talk about his past much, including the details of what happened to his deceased mother. While in the library finishing one final assignment, he meets Arthur, and they decide to go to a nearby bar to have a drink. Art becomes friends with Arthur’s high school friend, Cleveland, and starts dating Arthur’s co-worker at the library, Phlox.

While working at the bookstore, Art is abducted. He assumes that his father’s disreputable work is finally catching up to him, but the abduction turns humorous in one of the book’s funnier scenes. As the summer progresses, Art’s relationships with those around him grow more complex. Cleveland works as a money collector for a gangster and wants Art’s help getting a better job. Phlox, who unfortunately is never well-developed as a character and is by far the weakest part of the book, believes she is in love with Art. The most interesting part of the story is Arthur, who is gay, and Art’s increasing attraction to him. They spend most of their summer eating lunch together near the Cloud Factory, a mysterious structure that seems to function only to make perfect clouds (and which, in reality, is a boiler plant), overlooking the Lost Neighborhood. Chabon deftly makes the setting as important as the characters, giving each place quirky characteristics.

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. Why do these great clouds, perfectly white and clean, white as new baseballs, come out of that building by the tracks?

All of the things about the Pittsburgh landscape that Art is trying to figure out, including the Cloud Factory, mirror his own internal battle to figure out who he is. He has lived most of his life avoiding confrontation. When his father comes into town, he tries to keep his friends firmly separated from his family, but the two worlds start to mesh during the summer of this novel. He and his father have a tense relationship. If his father criticizes him, Art starts to get weepy and sick to his stomach. He hasn’t yet learned to fight back, to make his life his own. He is setting down a path unconsciously, perhaps because he thinks it is something his father would approve of, studying economics when it is clear, while he is writing an essay on Freud, that his interests lie elsewhere. But he learns, from Cleveland and Arthur, how to become more independent.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a very good first novel, not quite as accomplished as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which I enjoyed much more. I think this novel would be vastly more engrossing if you were familiar with the places named in the book, the various neighborhoods and landmarks. Thanks to the power of internet searches, it is very easy to see what the Cloud Factory looks like or to see the outside of the library where Art and Arthur met. This is a well-crafted coming-of-age novel, but probably not one that will go on my re-read list.


Book Review: The Madwoman Upstairs

The details:

Title: The Madwoman Upstairs
Author: Catherine Lowell
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 368
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

After reading a few books in a row published over 100 years ago (including The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a review of which will come later), it was nice to get back into the present day with this literary mystery. Samantha Whipple, our American narrator, is the last living descendant of a sibling of Patrick Brontë, the Brontë sisters’ father, and is the so-called heiress to the Vast Brontë Estate. This estate is non-existent, Samantha tells us, even though the media persists in writing articles about it. The books are in public domain, and nothing valuable has been passed down to her. Still, the name has its advantages, and, during her interview for Oxford, she can tell that the person interviewing her wants to talk about the Brontës. She obliges and finds herself at Oxford, in a room in a freezing, ancient tower that was once used to quarantine victims of the plague.

Since the death of her father, Samantha has come to hate the Brontës and purports to hate the vast majority of writers despite the fact that she is studying English Literature at Oxford. Her tutor, Orville, asks her what the purpose of literature is, and Samantha runs through a list of cliché answers. Orville challenges her, both about her definition of literature and its relation to the world. Orville at first refuses to study the Brontës with Samantha, for reasons he won’t explain, but he eventually relents and they discuss the novels. He is silent on the subject of The Warnings of Experience, which is the only hint Samantha’s father gave her about her inheritance. Having just finished The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I recognized the reference, even though Samantha does not, and Orville does not tell her until the novel is nearing the end.

There are many literary references, both within and outside of the Brontë canon (Samantha’s father died in a fire, he had a mistress named Rebecca who supposedly died in a boating accident). Catherine Lowell has a good grasp of literature, and her theories about the Brontës are interesting. The only thing that bothered me is that there was a long discussion of the reliability of narrators, and (slight spoiler) in the end Samantha says that she’ll have to write her own happy ending. It made the ending feel more ambiguous than it had to be. I personally like my books to be free of literary theory of that sort; I don’t want to finish a book and wonder if the ending really happened within the narrative or was fabricated by an unreliable narrator.

That said, I still really enjoyed this novel. Samantha is a quirky narrator who may come across as a bit twee, but I related to her more than I was annoyed by her. I enjoyed the dialogue:

“Are there any leading men in your life?”

“Several, but they’re all fictional.”

Samantha is sometimes a bit thick about researching things to get answers (a quick internet search would have led her to the source of The Warnings of Experience, to find out what Orville’s connection to the Brontës is, or even just to find out who has been writing about her in the college newspaper). But I thought the coming-of-age aspects of the novel were excellent. Samantha believes that her father set up a literary scavenger hunt to find her inheritance, reminiscent of clues he would leave for her to find when she was a child. By the end, her growth felt both hard-earned and believable. Overall, this was an amusing book with a lot of quotable passages.