Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Read Harder: Last-Ditch Adolesence

It's official—I've begun the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge! First up?

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
Category: A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25

"Riding on a city bus along the route that you have taken from your job, from the movies, from a hundred Chinese meals, with the same late sun going down over the same peeling buildings and the same hot smell of water in the after shower air, can be, in the wake of a catastrophe, either a surrealistic nightmare of the ordinary or a plunge into the warm waters of beautiful routine."

Chabon was twenty-four when his debut novel was published in 1988. It was quite the fairytale success for a budding young writer. Chabon began writing The Mysteries of Pittsburgh as an undergrad, continued to work on it in grad school, and submitted it as his thesis for his MFA, at which time his advisor sent it to a literary agent, it was published, and became a bestseller, quickly escalating Chabon to literary celebrity.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is the story of Art Bechstein, a young man who has just graduated college and is making his way through that restless summer before real life must, inevitably, begin. His dad is tied to mob work in some vague financial way—all we're sure of is the connection, never what he actually does. Art, though, is trying to find something legitimate to do with his life. Things are already weird enough without his mom around anymore, further straining the unusual relationship with his dad.

Art's summer adventure begins without a climactic event, but it does begin swiftly with an introduction to a charming young man named Arthur Lecomte, unlike anyone Art has ever before met. Arthur and his small ring of acquaintances quickly seduce Art with their opinions, their lifestyles, and their relationships, causing Art to deeply re-evaluate his own life, self, beliefs, and actions.

Chabon has crafted a coming-of-age story, post-adolescent years, of a young man who is very much a product of his time and place (in this case, 1980s Pittsburgh) but feeling a great deal of uncertainty about himself. Art begins a relationship with a young woman named Phlox, but his growing connection to Arthur, a captivating young gay man, essentially destabilizes his entire sense of self. Further, he's unnerved by the new connections his friends are forging to his father's organized crime world, and he still can't figure out what normal is, or should be, between himself and Dad. There are too many confusing connections between too many confusing parts of his life that make each piece difficult to figure out.

Now, it's been a very long time since I last read Catcher in the Rye, but I was constantly making connections as I read Chabon's debut. [Thankfully,] Art isn't quite so cynical and rebellious as his 1940s counterpart, but the themes are nearly identical—alienation, identity, belonging, loss. To me, it feels like Chabon has crafted an updated (at the time) take on a somewhat familiar story—and that's not to say it feels entirely derivative or simply rehashed; the beauty with both stories is that these big ideas, these themes, are ones that endure in life and literature from era to era, and they can always benefit from a retelling.

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