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On ‘The Mysteries of Pittsburgh’

I started to write my first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, in April of 1985, in Ralph’s room. Ralph was the Christian name of a man I never met, the previous owner of my mother’s house on Colton Boulevard, in the Montclair District of Oakland, California. His so-called room was in fact a crawl space, twice as long as it was wide, and it was not very wide. It had a cement floor and a naked light bulb. It smelled like dirt, though not in a bad way—like soil, and cold dust, and bicycle grease. Most people would have used it for suitcases and tire chains and the lawn darts set, but at some point this Ralph had built himself a big, high, bulky workbench in there. He built it of plywood and four-by-fours, with a surface that came level to the waist of a tall man standing. It might have been a fine workbench, but it made a lousy desk, which is how I used it.

I was living with my mother and my stepfather that spring, working as an assistant in my stepfather’s optometry office and trying to get the hang of California. I had moved from Pittsburgh in December with the intention of applying to an MFA program on the coast. At the University of Pittsburgh I’d had three great writing teachers—Dennis Bartel, Eve Shelnutt, and Chuck Kinder—and of them Bartel had an MFA from UC Irvine, and Kinder had studied writing at Stanford. Both gentlemen had said they would put in a good word for me at their respective alma maters. I’m sure Kinder did his best, but his effort could not avail, and in the end I found myself headed to UCI.

That winter I had been down to check out Irvine, whose writing program was staffed by a couple of novelists, Oakley Hall and MacDonald Harris. Of the seven first-year MFA candidates I met during my brief visit—they would of course be second-years when I showed up the next fall—all were at work on novels (three of which, by my count, were subsequently published—a pretty high rate). I rode the ferry and ate a frozen banana at Balboa Island, and looked at the ocean, and wondered if southern California would ever feel less strange to me, less of a place where people I would never know led lives I couldn’t imagine, than northern California did. There were lots of young women walking around in swimsuits and negligibly short pants and I suppose I probably wondered how many of them I would never get to sleep with. I was kind of on a losing streak with women at the time.

I was in a bad way, actually. I was lonely and homesick. I missed Pittsburgh. I missed the friends I had made there, friends of whom I felt, with what strikes me now as a fair amount of drama-queenliness, that (1) I would never see them ever again on this side of the River Styx and (2) that they were indissolubly bound to me by chains of fire. My loneliness and homesickness were of intense interest to me at the time, as were young women in short pants, and novels, and my eternal-yet-forever-lost friendships, and when I read a page of Remembrance of Things Past (as it was then known), the book that was my project for the year, I felt all those interests mesh with the teeth of Grammar and Style, and I would imagine myself, spasmodically, a writer. I hope you can infer from the above description that I was not yet twenty-two years old.

I returned to chill gray Oakland from sunny Orange County, to the little basement room in my mother’s house where I did some of my finest feeling lonely and homesick. There I ventured through a few more pages of Swann’s Way and fretted about all those people I was soon going to be surrounded and taught by, people who were and knew themselves to be proud practitioners of novelism. Was everyone obliged to write a novel? Could I write a novel? Did I want to write a novel? What the hell was a novel, anyway, when you came right down to it? A really, really, really long short story? I hoped so, because that was the only thing I knew for certain that I could manage, sort of, to write.

Now here I was, basically required by law, apparently, to start writing a goddamned novel, just because all of these windy people down at Irvine were unable to contain themselves. What kind of novel would I write? Had the time come to leave my current writing self behind?

The truth was that I had come to a rough patch in my understanding of what I wanted my writing to be. I was in a state of confusion. Over the past four years I had been struggling to find a way to accommodate my taste for the genre fiction I had been reading with the greatest pleasure for the better part of my life—fantasy, horror, crime, and science fiction—to the way that I had come to feel about the English language, which was that it and I seemed to have something going. Something (on my side at least) much closer to deep, passionate, physical, and intellectual love than anything else I had ever experienced with a human up to that point. But when it came to the use of language, somehow, my verbal ambition and my ability felt hard to frame or fulfill within the context of traditional genre fiction. I had found some writers, such as J.G. Ballard, Italo Calvino, J.L. Borges, and Donald Barthelme, who wrote at the critical point of language, where vapor turns to starry plasma, and yet who worked, at least sometimes, in the terms and tropes of genre fiction. They all paid a price, however. The finer and more masterly their play with language, the less connected to the conventions of traditional, bourgeois narrative form—unified point of view, coherent causal sequence of events, linear structure, naturalistic presentation—their fiction seemed to become. Duly I had written my share of pseudo-Ballard, quasi-Calvino, and neo-Borges. I had fun doing it. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop preferring traditional, bourgeois narrative form.

I wanted to tell stories, the kind with set pieces and long descriptive passages, and “round” characters, and beginnings and middles and ends. And I wanted to instill—or rather I didn’t want to lose—that quality, inherent in the best science fiction, which was sometimes called “the sense of wonder.” If my subject matter couldn’t do it—if I wasn’t writing about people who sailed through neutron stars or harnessed suns together—then it was going to fall to my sentences themselves to open up the heads of my readers and decant into them enough crackling plasma to light up the eye sockets for a week.

But I didn’t want to write science fiction, or a version of science fiction, some kind of pierced-and-tattooed, doctorate-holding, ironical stepchild of science fiction. I wanted to write something with reach. Welty and Faulkner started and ended in small towns in Mississippi but somehow managed to plant flags at the end of time and in the minds of readers around the world. A good science fiction novel appeared to have an infinite reach—it could take you to the place where the universe bent back on itself—but somehow, in the end, it ended up being the shared passion of just you and that guy at the Record Graveyard on Forbes Avenue who was really into Hawkwind.

I wasn’t considering any actual, numerical readership here—I wasn’t so bold. Rather I was thinking about the set of axioms that speculative fiction assumed, and how it was a set that seemed to narrow and refine and program its audience, like a protein that coded for a certain suite of traits. Most science fiction seemed to be written for people who already liked science fiction; I wanted to write stories for anyone, anywhere, living at any time in the history of the world. (Twenty-one, I was twenty-one!)

I paced around my room in the basement, back and forth past the bookcase where my stepfather kept the books he had bought and read in his college days. All right, I told myself, take the practical side of things for a moment. Let’s say that I did write a novel. Your basic, old-fashioned, here-and-now novel. Where would I write it? Novels took time, I assumed. They must require long hours of uninterrupted work. I needed a place where I could set up my computer, and spread out, and get my daily work done without distraction: Ralph’s room. It had served Ralph as a room of his own; perhaps it would also serve me.

I lugged my computer in there and up onto the workbench. It was an Osborne 1a. I had bought it in 1983 for all that was left of my bar mitzvah money plus everything I had managed to save since. It was the size of a portable sewing machine in its molded plastic case, with two 5-1/4-inch floppy disk drives, no hard drive, and 64KB of memory. At twenty-five pounds you could shlep it onto an airplane and it would just barely fit under the seat in front of you. Its screen was glowing green and slightly smaller than a three-by-five index card. It ran the CP/M operating system and had come bundled with a fine word-processing program called WordStar. It never crashed, and it never failed, and I loved it immoderately.

But when I hoisted it onto the surface of Ralph’s workbench, and opened up one of the folding chairs that my mother stored in the crawl space, and sat down, I found that I could not reach its keys. Even standing up I could not reach the computer’s fold-down keyboard without bending my forearms into contorted penguin flappers. So I dragged over the black steamer trunk my Aunt Gail had bequeathed to me at some point in her wanderings and set the folding chair on top of it. The four rubber caps of the chair’s steel legs fit on the trunk’s lid with absurd precision, without half an inch to spare at any corner. Then I mounted the chair. I fell off. I repositioned it, and mounted it again more gingerly. I found that if I held very still, typed very chastely, and never, ever, rocked back and forth, I would be fine. Now I just needed to figure out what novel I was going to write.

I went back out to my room and shambled irritably back and forth from the door that led to the hot tub to the door that went upstairs, mapping out the confines of my skull like the bear at the Pittsburgh Zoo. And my eye lighted on a relic of my stepfather’s time at Boston University: The Great Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby had been the favorite novel of one of those aforementioned friends whom I had decided that, for reasons of emotional grandeur and self-poignance, I was doomed never to meet up with again in this vale of tears. At his urging I had read it a couple of years earlier, without incident or effect. Now I had the sudden intuition that if I read it again, right now, this minute, something important might result: it might change my life. Or maybe there would be something in it that I could steal.

I lay on the bed, opened its cracked paper covers—it was an old Scribner trade paperback, the edition whose cover looked as though it might have been one of old Ralph’s wood shop projects—and this time The Great Gatsby read me. The mythographic cast of my mind in that era, the ideas of friendship and self-invention and problematic women, the sense, invoked so thrillingly in the book’s closing paragraphs, that the small, at times tawdry love-sex-and-violence story of a few people could rehearse the entire history of the United States of America from its founding vision to the Black Sox scandal—The Great Gatsby did what every necessary piece of fiction does as you pass through that fruitful phase of your writing life: made me want to do something just like it.

I began to detect the germ of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh as I finished Fitzgerald’s masterpiece: I would write a novel about friendship and its im-possibility, about self-inventors and dreamers of giant dreams, about complicated women and the men who make them that way. I put it back in its place on the shelf and as I did so I noticed its immediate neighbor: an old Meridian Books paperback edition of Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth, the one with the lipstick-print-and-curly-script cover art by Paul Bacon, a master of American jacket illustration who would, in a few years, design a memorable cover for the book I was urging out of myself that day. I had never read Goodbye, Columbus, and as I got back into bed with it I remarked, in its lyric and conversational style, its evocation of an eastern summer, its consciously hyperbolic presentation of the mythic Brenda Patimkin and her family of healthy, dumb, fruit-eating Jews, and its drawing of large American conclusions from small socioerotic situations, how influenced Roth had clearly been by his own youthful reading of the Fitzgerald novel. That gave me encouragement; it made me feel as if I were preparing to sail to Cathay along a route that had already proven passable and profitable for others.

There were two more crucial observations that came out of my reading of Goodbye, Columbus on the heels of The Great Gatsby. One was that Roth’s book was a hell of a lot funnier 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. The second observation, of the most striking parallel between the two books, got me so excited, once I noticed it, that I rushed through the whole Mrs.-Patimkin-finds-the-diaphragm sequence, so that I could get up again and resume my caged-bear perambulations: both books, I noticed, coincided precisely with a summer.

This was a parallel both deeply resonant and lastingly useful. I had just been through, in the years preceding my decampment for the West, a pair of summers that had rattled my nerves and rocked my soul and shook my sense of self—but in a good way. I had drunk a lot, and smoked a lot, and listened to a ton of great music, and talked way too much about all of those activities, and about talking about those activities. I had slept with one man whom I loved, and learned to love another man so much that it would never have occurred to me to want to sleep with him. I had seen things and gone places in and around Pittsburgh, during those summers, that had shocked the innocent, pale, freckled Fitzgerald who lived in the great blank Minnesota of my heart.

So there was that. At the same time, the act of shaping a novel, as Fitzgerald and Roth had done, around a summer, provided an inherent dramatic structure in three acts:

I. June.

II. July.

III. August.

Each of those months had a different purpose and a distinctive nature in my mind, and in their irrevocable order they enacted a story that always began with a comedy of expectation and ended with tragedy of remorse. All I would need to do was start at the beginning of June with high hopes and high-flying diction, and then work my way through the sex, drugs, and rock and roll to get to the oboes and bassoons of Labor Day weekend. And then maybe I would find some way, magically, really to say something about summer, about the idea of summer in America, something that great American poets of summertime like Ray Bradbury and Bruce Springsteen would have understood. Maybe, or maybe not. But at least I would be practicing the cardinal virtue that my teachers had so assiduously instilled: I would be writing about what I knew. No—I would be doing something finer than that. I would be writing about what I had known once, but had since, in my sad and delectable state of fallenness, come to view as illusory.

I put Roth’s book back on the shelf and went into Ralph’s room and shut the door. I switched on the computer with its crackling little 4 MHz Zilog Z80A processor. I was cranked on summertime and the memory of summertime, on the friends who had worked so hard to become legends, on the records we listened to and the mistakes we made and the kind and mean things we did to one another. I slid a floppy disk into the B: drive. I paused. Was this really the kind of writer I was going to become? A writer under the influence of Fitzgerald and Roth, of books that took place in cities like Pittsburgh where people took moral instruction from the songs of Adam and the Ants? What about that sequence of stories I’d been planning about the astronomer Percival Lowell exploring the canals of Mars? What about the plan to do for romantic relationships what Calvino had done for the urbis in Invisible Cities? What about that famous sense of wonder, my animating principle, my motto and manual and standard m.o.? Was there room for that, the chance of that, along the banks of the Monongahela River? I took a deep breath, saw that I was properly balanced on my perch, and started to write—on a screen so small that you had to toggle two keys to see the end of every line—the passage that after a certain amount of wrestling became this:

It’s the beginning of the summer and I’m standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless red row of monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up, through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets; to rush me straight to the zeppelin mooring at the art-Deco summit where they keep the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties, I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink.

I went on in that vein for several paragraphs, and some of what I wrote that first session ended up, after much revision, at the end of the novel, which I reached in the mid-winter of 1987, in the back bedroom of a little house on Anade Avenue, on the Balboa Peninsula, shortly before my twenty-fourth birthday. At some point that first evening, as with the help of Ralph’s ghost, or of the muse who first made her presence known to me, there, in that room under the ground, with its smell of earth and old valises, I invoked the spirit and the feel and the groove of summers past, I did something foolish: I started rocking in my chair. Just a little bit, but it was too much. I rocked backward, and fell off the trunk, and hit my head on a steel shelf, and made a lot of noise. There was so much racket that my mother came to the top of the stairs and called out to ask if I was all right, and anyway, what was I doing down there?

I clambered back up from the floor, palpating the tender knot on my skull where the angel of writers, by way of warning, welcome, or harsh blessing, had just given me a mighty zetz. I hit the combination of keys that meant Save.

I’m writing a novel,” I told her.

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