Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bag o' Books: Michael Chabon's 'The Mysteries of Pittsburgh' (McSweeney's iPad edition)

Three quick thoughts about Michael Chabon's 'The Mysteries of Pittsburgh':

* I read this old book in a new way: On McSweeney's new iPad app. A day after I decided to give up reading fiction in digital form, McSweeney's announced its updated app would include access to a small number of e-books--each specifically designed and formatted for the digital medium, rather than (like so many e-books) merely pour text into the electronic format. McSweeney's promises to get more adventurous with future books; this one amounted to little more than a glorified PDF reader. Even at that, though, the experience of reading was a little more pleasurable than what I usually find in the Kindle or Nook apps on my iPad. Thanks to the typesetting and illustrations, Chabon's book felt like it's own thing--even within the app--instead of the Standardized Literature Content you find in so many of the main e-reading applications. That's the good thing. The bad thing is that nobody seemed to copyedit the McSweeney's version of the book, and it is replete with what appear to be electronic transcription errors of the type that happen when you convert (say) a Word document to a new format. Irritating, and shockingly shoddy. Still, I commend McSweeney's for attempting to utilize the format to its best, and I'm intrigued to see where it goes.

* As for the novel itself: This is Michael Chabon's first novel--written waaaaay back in the 1980s--with all the good and bad it implies. The good: it's lyrically written, with the mixture of good humor and tragedy that Chabon brings to his art. The bad: It feels less than fully formed, or less than fully Chabon's own. It's a coming-of-age-sexual-awakening story with gay men and Jewish gangsters thrown in, and it feels a bit like how F. Scott Fitzgerald might've written 'The Great Gatsby' had he been a fresh-faced novelist some sixty years later. Don't get me wrong: Chabon can do pastiche and homage, and do it well. But he was less able to pull it off successfully early in his career; here it feels more like imitation than his own hat-tipping creation.

* As for the Jewish gangster subplot: I'd rather see a full Chabon novel about these guys than what we get here. Instead, the thread feels designed to lend narrative structure to what would otherwise be a lovely, perhaps slightly rambling novella about The Summer I Started Having Sex With Men. But it feels churlish to complain; an early, half-formed Chabon is still strikingly readable. He's one of our best novelists, and it's fascinating to peek back in time to watch the seeds of his career start to sprout.

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