I’ve just finished reading Michael Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), which I started a couple of weeks ago because 1) I loved his breakthrough novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) and enjoyed his latest, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007); and 2) I was visiting Pittsburgh for the first time, and it seemed like a good thing to be reading.
Most of the people that I met there who had read Chabon’s first two novels, which are set in Pittsburgh (the second was Wonder Boys , which was made into a film starring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire), didn’t care for them. They found them a bit sophomoric and precious. And to be sure Mysteries of Pittsburgh is both of those things at times. It is to Kavalier & Clay what F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920) is to The Great Gatsby (1925), a precursor in which the author’s talent hasn’t yet been fully realized. And yet, there are things to admire in both Fitzgerald’s and Chabon’s first novels. There’s something about the narrator’s voice in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh that does indeed capture the simultaneous world-weariness and naivete that are often found in recent college graduates. To quote a colleague of mine, who was reflecting on a piece of writing that he had penned when he was 23: “It reads very much like I was in my early twenties: the sort of heavily crafted sentences and quirky details that all of my undergraduate friends tried so hard to write.”
I had Fitzgerald in mind as I was reading the novel, and Chabon, I suppose, would be happy about that. In the afterward that he included in a 2005 paperback reprint, he described the process of writing the novel as a young MFA student in the UC Irvine writing program and noted that it was a rereading of The Great Gatsby that got him jump-started. To which he added a reading of Philip Roth’s first book, Goodbye Columbus (1959). One of the crucial observations that the juxtaposition allowed him to make was this: “Roth’s book was a hell of a lot funner than Fitzgerald’s, which almost isn’t funny at all, especially when, as in the famous party-guest catalog, it tries its hardest to amuse.”
I’m taking that as a sign. After I finish Wonder Boys (which I ordered at the same time as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), I’m going to start on a reading project that I’ve been thinking about lately: reading all of Roth’s Zuckerman novels, ending with the new one, Exit Ghost (2007).
I’m glad to find out that The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is being made into a film. The cast looks promising, and it’s in post-production. The film’s website is http://www.mysteriesofpittsburgh.com/ and you can find the IMDB entry here.
As for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, it’s not as “important” a book as Kavalier & Clay (whatever that means), but I love the fact that it is a speculative fiction. (Chabon talks about wanting to impart, as a young writer, the sense of “wonder” that he found in science fiction, without actually wanting to write science fiction). But I enjoyed it, both because of its roots in hard-boiled fiction, and because it struck me as akin to another Roth novel, The Plot Against America, because it offers an alternative history of America and its relation to the Jewish diaspora. Yiddish Policeman’s Union isn’t as cleverly plotted as Kavalier & Clay, but what’s delightful about it is the way in which it sets up its premise, a Jewish state in Sitka, Alaska, about to revert to US control a la Hong Kong, and then imagines what daily life might be like for a down-on-his-luck detective. It’s full of wonderful linguistics turns: like latke instead of “flatfoot” and shammes instead of “shamus.”
I’d re-read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (1967) the previous fall, which gave me a special appreciation for both the irony and the aptness of Chabon’s depiction of orthodox sects — the “black hats” — as the gangsters of Sitka. I often think that the power of speculative fiction — its ability to provoke what Chabon calls “wonder” — has to do with the larger conceptual frames into which it encourages us to enter. But sometimes the pleasure is in the details of the alternative reality into which we enter. The strength of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is its ability to imagine those details; what it lacks, I think, is the conceptual power that marks the greatest speculative fictions.