First things first: I highly recommend Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Go. Read it.
Oddly enough, my initial response was less rosy. After a few pages I didn’t much care for the narrator’s voice. By page 50 I was at least comfortable with it. And by page 92 I loved it. At the risk of severely oversimplifying things, I knew that I would love the rest of the book when I read the following line:
“A gin and tonic under its tiny canopy of lime, I said, elevates character and makes for enlightened conversation.”
My love of gin is such that, even though that line was spoken by an inebriated, libidinous, and fairly untrustworthy narrator, I can’t help but love it. Gin worship aside, the book is well written, the characters and their dilemmas are interesting, and there seems to be symbolism and metaphor dripping off of each and every word.
So yes. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a good book and you should read it.
Now, onto the nitpicking.
The part of the story that kept jumping out at me, more than the story’s dalliances in homo- and bisexuality, was its depiction of women (as prefaced here). For all the good that Chabon does describing a sexually diverse selection of men, he falls back onto a series of old tropes that minimizes and depersonalizes the women in this book. (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was first published in 1988, if you want to consider the then-current state of social affairs.)
The book’s first female principal is Jane who turns out to be no more than an image of idyllically desirable womanhood. She is pretty, from a wealthy family, and dates a bad-boy type. There’s little else to know about her. In an exceptionally illustrative scene, Jane arrives unannounced at a boy’s-weekend type event; symbolism ensues. The boys, without any female contact in the initial stages of their sausage fest, have not had any vegetables lately. Jane brings a salad because metaphor.
It’s also probably worth noting that, in the one scene in which she appears, Jane’s mother is a shrieking, out of touch harpy driven to near madness by Jane’s bad-boy boyfriend. Women, amirite?
So Phlox, then. The novel’s primary female character is, of course, the narrator’s primary female love interest, who just so happens to be named after a flower. The trouble with Phlox is that she kind of is a flower, an inhuman thing to be admired and enjoyed. She’s presented as a series of traits and characteristics stacked on top of one another with no real connection and the result is that she never really appears to be a person in any way. Chabon is a singular talent. He created Phlox with a purpose (he picked that flowery name, after all) and she is intended to appear as she appears. I do not doubt that, though I may disagree with the necessity of it.
Introduced into the story in a casual summer romance that grows into a significant relationship only by convenience and the fear of being alone, Phlox is not a person, she is the momentary absence of loneliness.
I understand that part of this is intentional – that college aged men like the book’s narrator often really do feel that women are an alien species, built out of a series of seemingly unrelated personality quirks that men cannot hope to understand. But this is a demeaning and dehumanizing way to look at someone and this detachment is very much a part of real world prejudices. Chabon – considering how well he handles the nuances of his male characters’ complex psyches – is better than this, and it’s frustrating.
Phlox is constantly desperate to build herself into something new, which would be fine it she were doing all that building in order to try to find herself instead of doing it in order to try to find a man. She lacks agency and self, and instead wants to define herself by her men, onto which she gloms like some kind of barnacle with a vagina.
In another telling scene, Phlox, despite being horrified by the narrator’s foray into homosexuality, desperately wants to please her man and so she proclaims mid-coitus that “she wished she could fuck me, that there must be a way.” Even though she considers homosexuality deplorable, she’d abandon her beliefs and try to replicate that type of sexual experience rather than not satisfy her man. You know, because she’s a woman, and all she really wants is to be a vessel of pleasure for her man.
That’s not to say that there aren’t women, or men, like this – people dependent upon their mate for an identity. There are. Chabon – and fiction in general – does not have an obligation to present only strong and self-confident women (or men). Weak characters are not only allowed but necessary. But as Phlox is the only functional woman in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a story of self-discovery, she and her experiences become symbolic of all women. And that symbol says this to male readers: women are unknowable, utterly different, and to be tolerated only when we are desirous or in need. For a book that provides such a complex view of the oft-misrepresented homosexual male, I would have expected more in its treatment of women.
Again, Chabon is not entirely to blame here. This is an institutionalized problem. Literature has long treated women as objects. And part of the reason that this is problematic is because first it presents women as aliens, as things that exist only for the satisfaction of men, as anything but actual Homo sapiens sapiens. And then that depiction gets internalized by readers.
Maybe most telling is a final bit of association. What Phlox reminded me of more than anything was the misogyny somewhat inherent in a lot of mid-2000s emo music. She becomes a Death Cab for Cutie lyric. Through the eyes of the narrator, Phlox – like so many other fictional women before and after – is beautiful but she doesn’t mean a thing to him.