In Michael Chabon's novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, it can be said that the story could happen anywhere, in any American college town. However, the question at hand is, "how does the story...

In Michael Chabon's novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, it can be said that the story could happen anywhere, in any American college town. However, the question at hand is, "how does the story function as a representation of Pittsburgh?" Answer the question by focusing on the significance of the setting in which the story is told. 

 

 

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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When speaking about Pittsburg in Michael Chabon's novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, one is speaking specifically about setting of place. Even though the story “could” be set anywhere, there are specific reasons Chabon set his story in Pittsburgh. Because Michael Chabon specifically named his novel as he did, with Pittsburgh in the title, you can be assured that this particular part of the setting is very important. As a result, it is very appropriate for you to discuss this in class as "how it functions as a representation of Pittsburgh." In this regard, the novel represents Pittsburg through landmarks and specifics that are characteristic to the very “industrial” Pittsburgh.

If one is going to talk about Pittsburgh as the setting, then one has to talk about the importance of “The Cloud Factory.” The real name for this place, an actual business in Pittsburgh, is the Bellefield Boiler Plant. Quite simply, it was built a century ago to provide heat, in the form of steam, for Carnegie Museum. In regards to specifics, it is in Junction Hollow (often called “The Lost Neighborhood” by Chabon) and can be found in the Oakland district between the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. As an important plot device in the story, it also becomes one of the “mysteries” that Chabon speaks of in his title. It is definitely an industrial (and certainly not a rural) landmark, for sure. The Cloud Factory shows that the industrial city, specifically of Pittsburgh, is capable of mystery. Cleveland falls from the top of The Cloud Factory, showing how fragile life is and how little of our lives actually constitute youth. Therefore, this important landmark also becomes an important symbol.

Now let us look at some specifics (and quotations) that are important to the actual city of Pittsburgh. First, Art has just graduated from University of Pittsburgh. Because he is disgusted with his father’s job, he ends up working at a run-down bookseller that could only be found in an industrial area. His observations at this point, absolutely “scream” the city of Pittsburgh, and Chabon is quite liberal with the use of the name of the city:

I smoked and looked down at the bottom of Pittsburgh for a little while, watching the kids playing tiny baseball, the distant figures of dogs snatching at a little passing car, a miniature housewife on her back porch shaking out a snippet of red rug, and I made a sudden, frightened vow never to become that small, and to devote myself to getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

From the top of a building, Art can see a baseball diamond and dogs chasing many cars and women doing housework. These are varied activities that can all be observed with anonymity in this large industrial city. Even a ride on a city bus becomes very exclusively Pittsburgh.

That evening I rode downtown on an unaccountably empty bus, sitting in the last row. At the front I saw a thin cloud of smoke rising around the driver’s head. ‘Hey, bus driver,’ I said. ‘Can I smoke?’ ‘May I,’ said the bus driver. “I love you,” I said.

Smoking on a city bus, what a freedom in an industrial city like Pittsburgh.

In conclusion, please realize that when you say, “From my point of view, the story could happen anywhere in an American college town,” you are talking about another important concept: the fact that Michael Chabon's novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is not only a good novel, but it is “universal” which simply means it is relevant to everyone, everywhere, at any time. (This is not unlike William Shakespeare’s plays.) By saying this, you are giving Chabon a large compliment. Perhaps you could bring this point up in class and discuss how it can be viewed as separate from the setting of place (which, of course, is also important). The mysteries discussed here are not just the mysteries of the city of Pittsburgh, but the mysteries of our existence. Pittsburgh, then, is truly a representative city.

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