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REVIEW: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh | Women & The Campus Novel

51d4obbekqlI have just finished Michael Chabon‘s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), the unforgettable but certainly not unmissable story of the rather tears-prone Art Bechstein, college student and gangster’s son, and how he spends a summer. I say ‘not unmissable’ because you’ve probably read it already. The trio of neurotic and rather boring narrator, attractive/irritating/enigmatic girl and enticing/enigmatic/somewhat homosexual male friend is also to be found in The Talented Mr. Ripley (aren’t the current Radio 4 versions dreadful?), The Secret History and Brideshead Revisited ; all of which function to a greater or lesser degree as examples of the genre. The remainder of Pittsburgh, Highsmith- Tartt- and Waugh-free, owes a great deal to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and a bad case of genre confusion, but already I know I’ll reread it. As a whole, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh doesn’t live up to its opening, which has a brilliance of style and a kind of enormous narrative swoop that promises golden prose and enjoyable heartbreak. Read it for the opening. If you’re reading this and know me, I’ll lend you my copy. If you like books about crime, America, colleges, homosexuality, doomed youth and doomed love, you’ll like this and quite frankly I do and that’s why. I’ll definitely be reading other Chabon soon. Oh, and the bastard wrote the book for his MFA thesis. Life’s not fair.

BUT. There is a but. There’s a big but, and one which brings us right back to Brideshead. Apparently, they’ve (by which I mean director  made a film of Pittsburgh. A film, which, on its ‘Story‘ and ‘Meet the Cast‘ pages, makes no mention of anybody playing the novel’s second main character – Art’s namesake, corruptor and sometime lover, the (as I mentioned) enticing/enigmatic/somewhat homosexual Arthur Lecomte. With Art’s mostly unseen father (the gangster – no, really, it’s brilliant, the Mafia’s in it lots), Lecomte is the most interesting part of the story. I fear that the film of Pittsburgh, in sidelining Arthur/Art for the heterosexual romance between Art and Phlox, makes the same mistake as the airless, degayed and de-Catholicked Brideshead (re)-adaptation last year. Phlox is played by Mena Suvari, and if Phlox is the film’s heroine, it’s going to be a film with a vacuum at its centre.

Phlox is at the kind of girl who only exists in the campus novel. Like Jane, she’s unreal; less real even than Julia Marchmain, or Howard’s various sad-eyed victims in The History Man (1975). I wondered if this was an I-Blame-The-Patriarchy moment with something to be imputed to male authorship, but no. In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), the most successful campus novel of recent years and (to my mind) the most beautiful (and heavily indebted to Chabon), Camilla is completely unreal, only a grey-eyed little image (albeit a beautiful one) about whom we know things, rather than knowing her. The other women, central to the story are Papen’s California friend Judy (to be unfavourably contrasted with Camilla – loud, brash, freckled, promiscuous) and Bunny’s girlfriend Marion (a ‘little thing’ who’s ‘not afraid to wear a dress – [Bunny] likes that’).

Perhaps, depressingly, it’s impossible for the female to be anything other than the Other in a novel about education. Alan Bennet makes the point admirably in The History Boys, through the lips of Mrs Lintott – but isn’t it telling that, first off, the female character added to the film was Fiona (visible sex bomb vs. referenced sex bomb of the stage script), and that second, although we’ve had the Man and now the Boys, we’ve yet to meet The History Women?

I should say that I love – absolutely adore –  all the texts I’ve just mentioned. I wouldn’t change them. But I would, if I could, give them sisters; female narratives of education to rank alongside, either talking about both sexes without casting one as Other, or focussing on women as earlier texts did on men. My favourite novel of all, Dorothy L. Sayers‘s Gaudy Night (1936, and rather madly annotated here) does this, getting to the heart of the problems of learning, sex and academia, and arguing them as honestly as possible. But I don’t know anything that’s done so, in the same dirty-handed, articulate, beautiful way, since Sayers.

That children’s fiction used to do this for girls in secondary education – Blyton, the endearing Oxenham, Bruce, Angela Brazil etc – is simultaneously recognised and derided. A quick guide – if you read the above authors now, Blyton will seem the most familiar, Oxenham the gayest, Bruce the most formulaic and Brazil weepingly funny. There are earlier, more radical texts, like the BLISSFUL er, v complex and interesting Alice Stronach’s A Newnham Friendship (1901), which is unusual in that a) it’s set at Cambridge, b) it actually gets involved with the heroines’ academic lives (Homer! Translations!) as opposed to merely their sporting/pranking exploits or noble and really quite racist capturing of unfortunate German spies, and that c) it’s really, really good.

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