Michael Chabon was twenty-four years old when his master of fine arts thesis was published. That thesis, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, had been sent by his adviser to an editor to consider for publication. The work immediately sold for $155,000—a record figure for a first book. Reviewers hailed Chabon as a bold, original new voice. His early supporters were not wrong; in the years since then, Chabon has become one of the most important figures in the contemporary American literary landscape, writing such novels as Wonder Boys (1995), The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
The characters in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh are young, beautiful, and directionless. What makes this coming-of-age tale more than just another glib story about hard-drinking, privileged youth is Chabon’s lyrical and evocative prose. He manipulates language, images, and metaphor with playful mastery. The connection between the characters and their environment is continually reinforced, as when one of Art and Arthur’s confrontations occurs under a sky that glowed and flashed orange . . . as if volcano gods were fighting there or, it seemed to me, as if the end of the world had begun—it was an orange so tortured and final.
The images in this book function on multiple levels. The Cloud Factory, for example, is a physical place that serves as a plot device, but it is also a symbol of the beauty and mystery that even an industrial city such as Pittsburgh is capable of producing. It evokes as well the fragile and ephemeral nature of the characters’ youth. When Cleveland falls from the heights of the Cloud Factory, then, his death is both literal and heavily symbolic.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh takes place over the course of a summer—a structure whose idea, according to Chabon, came from reading Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus (1959). The passing of June, July, and August provides a framework for the plot and maps the action sequence onto the shifting dynamics of the characters’ relationships.
Chabon is insightful and compassionate about young love and...
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