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  Arts Thursday

The Bisexual Mysteries of Michael Chabon

chabon-michaelDropping this Friday, the film adaptation of Michael Chabon’s coming-of-age novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh features Jon Foster as Art Bechstein, a recent college graduate determined to have a summer of rebellion before taking up a life in the corporate machine.

And by rebellion, we mean “bisexual experimentation.”

The movie adaptation excises the novel’s primary gay character and replaces him with a hot, bisexual biker named Cleveland Arning (Peter Sarsgaard), but while using the film’s release as an occasion to berate Hollywood for butching up a queer novel (stop the presses!) is tempting, it’s far more interesting to talk about Chabon’s own bisexuality, which has been glossed over all on its own– partly by Chabon’s own hand.

Chabon is married to writer Ayelet Waldman and together they have four children. Entertainment Weekly has described them as “a famous — and famously in love — writing pair, like Nick and Nora Charles with word processors and not so much booze.” Prior to that, Chabon was married to poet Lollie Groth.

However, when The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was first published in 1988, Newsweek included him in a feature on up-and-coming gay writers. Chabon corrected the error in a later New York Times article but said that he was “very happy” that it had happened as it had opened his writing up to a new fan base.

Then, in 2005, he wrote in an article about Mysteries for The New York Review of Books, “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.” As a columnist for Details, he’s written about gay topics and his works are riddled with gay and bisexual characters.

It’s those characters– and Chabon’s depiction of them– that makes the question of Chabon’s sexuality so intriguing. Bisexuality famously gets a bad rep by both some heterosexuals and some homosexuals as not being a “real” sexual orientation. Unlike fellow superstar writer Brett Easton Ellis, whose gay and bisexual characters seem to act out of compulsive hypermasculinity, the bisexual world of Chabon is more tentative, thoughtful and, dare we say it? Genuine.

mystpittscvr Chabon’s bisexuality, or at least the literary bent of it, treats the idea of two men falling in love with each other as part of the maturing phase of male sexuality. This is nothing new; the Ancient Greek’s believed same-sex relationships were a way for young men to learn from their elders, but in Chabon’s universe, being bi is all about discovering your own identity; no doubt, something derived from his own experience.

In Mysteries, Art falls for a young woman named Phlox Lombardi, who sort of flops around the city with Arthur Lecomte, who’s gay. A love triangle develops and Art finds himself attracted to the moral indifference of Phlox and Arthur.

He decides finally to “exhaust all the possibilities” of gay sex in one fell swoop in a scene that begins with “toothed kisses” and ends in a nosebleed. Chabon writes, “My heart was simultaneously broken and filled with lust. I was exhausted, and I loved every minute of it.” But, by novel’s end, Art’s put both of them aside in favor of maturity.

As Chabon developed as a writer, this theme kept cropping up again and again. In Wonder Boys (which was adapted into a film with Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire), there’s a subplot involving James Leer, a talented young writer who’s depressed and antisocial. When he winds up hooking up with the protagonist’s flamboyant agent, Leer finally finds the inner strength and confidence to accept his status as literary prodigy.

Basically, Chabon switches the gender on the old “lesbian in college” saw. Same-sex experimentation isn’t a halfway house on the way to one determined sexuality or another, but rather a cathartic experience that transforms people into their true selves. There’s a ring of truth to this; I know plenty of guys who I hooked up with in college who have gone on to get married. Chabon’s novels argue that these guys aren’t closet cases, but men seeking out their identity by trying on new ones.

But are his characters– and by extension, Chabon– kidding themselves? If sexuality is determined by genetics, are guys who are gay for a little while before “becoming straight” denying their true selves? Or is sexuality as fluid as bisexuals claim? Is it less a spectrum (“I’m 30% gay and 70% straight”) or is it more akin to personality, each person’s being unique and multi-layered?

amazingadventuresbookChabon, for his part, offers a sort of answer in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a sprawling novel that combines comic books, Yiddish traditions, World War II and cameos by Salvador Dali that may be his best work to date.

Sammy Klayman, who begins the novel as a neurotic Brooklyn boy winds up marrying his cousin’s girlfriend after he disappears for reasons to complicated to summarize here. When the cousin returns, the three of them wind up forming a unique family, even as Klayman realizes that he’s sexually attracted to men. Still, he loves his wife– and his cousin– and the novel ends with the trio having formed something a platonic relationship that could not work if any one person was removed from the equation.

Chabon’s main goal is not to write a polemic on sexuality, but he does seem to be saying that the expressions that love take are far more varied and complex than the standard definitions allow.

For him, the categories of gay, straight and bisexual are narrow constraints that overly simplify the various conditions of the human heart.

By:           Japhy Grant
On:           Apr 9, 2009
Tagged: , , , ,

  • 35 Comments
    • scott
      scott

      damn. he’s cute.

      he sounds like a really interesting person. I like his viewpoints. I’ll have to check out his works, which have been recommended to me but I never got around to it.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 8:14 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Alec
      Alec

      Michael Cunningham explores the same (or at least similar) idea in “A Home At the End of the World,” in the character of Bobby. But I don’t really think it is about sexual orientation. Rather, about being open to sex when you have a close relationship that is rooted more in strong friendship than sexual attraction.

      Nevertheless, perhaps it is telling that I see these themes pop up in fiction more than I do in ordinary life.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 9:21 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • afrolito
      afrolito

      Another example of Hollywood “straightening out” or just cutting a gay character completely. zzzzz

      Peter Sarsgaard is a good actor, though I can NEVER see him as hot after that nude scene in Kinsey. Talk about a pencil dick…

      Michael Chabon has a major case of GAYFACE.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 9:28 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Padraic
      Padraic

      “Kavalier & Clay” is by far one of my favorite novels. I also got my mom and her book club hooked on it.

      It also has one of the best-written gay love scenes I’ve ever read. My mom’s visiting NYC right now, and she recently dragged me up to the Empire State Building on the worst possible day. I’d had a long day at work. It was cold, rainy and the clouds obstructed most of the view. But when we got off the elevator, she told me, “I had to come up here. This is where the cute gays kissed in ‘Kavalier and Clay’!”

      Apr 9, 2009 at 9:34 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Chris
      Chris

      The comments on this site never fail to be make me sad for the gay community.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 9:45 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Alec
      Alec

      @Chris: Care to elaborate?

      Apr 9, 2009 at 9:49 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Cheesehead
      Cheesehead

      RE: Kavalier & Clay — “[T]he novel ends with the trio having formed something a platonic relationship that could not work if any one person was removed from the equation.”

      And yet, that’s exactly what happens at the end. Nonetheless the suggestion is that the relationship of the remaining two works out just fine.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 9:57 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Mr. Enemabag Jones
      Mr. Enemabag Jones

      “The movie adaptation excises the novel’s primary gay character and replaces him with a hot, bisexual biker named Cleveland
      Arning (Peter Sarsgaard)”

      Of course. Get rid of the queer and make sure all the characters are played by a well know straight actors.

      As far as bisexuals, or men who claim to have a “fluid” sexuality; it’s impossible to date them, or even dare have a relationship with them, because they’re constantly “experimenting”, or looking for the next best thing. And don’t get me started on men who marry women and continue to troll for cock. God forbid you should call them on their sluttery.

      I’m personally tired of experimenters, closet cases and phony bisexuals using gay men and our hearts as their play things.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 10:28 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Mr. Enemabag Jones
      Mr. Enemabag Jones

      “the bisexual world of Chabon is more tentative, thoughtful and, dare we say it? Genuine…Chabon’s bisexuality, or at least the literary bent of it, treats the idea of two men falling in love with each other as part of the maturing phase of male sexuality.”

      In your analysis of Chabon’s non-straight characters, you make an interesting point in that, sleeping with men forces gay men to, I suppose, essentially grow up and accept ourselves. You use Chabon’s treatment of “alternative” sexuality as evidence of this. Yet you write:

      “But, by novel’s end, Art’s put both of them aside in favor of maturity.”

      So which is it? Sleeping with men and realizing we like it makes us grow up; or sleeping with men makes us realize that it’s immature and sleeping with women and forming relationships with them is the mature thing to do?

      I mean, I see the opposite. I still remember when Craig Russell married Lori Jenkins, he said, “It’s time to stop playing with boys and grow up.” Elton John said something similar after his punitive marriage to Renate Blauel. Hell, even Tom Robinson of “Glad To be Gay” fame and later, “Glad NOT To Be Gay” said essentially the same thing.

      All this “experimenting” does is perpetuate the myth that sexuality is a choice. And by Hollywood celebrating this absurd argument, it makes it even harder to sell the idea of full equality to anti-gay Americans.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 10:47 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Z reveals
      Z reveals

      I have NEVER understood bi people!
      BTW– He is adorable!!

      Apr 9, 2009 at 11:00 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • alan brickman
      alan brickman

      You think actor Peter Sarsgaard is Straight???? him and maggie have one of the better lavender cover up relationships around…

      Apr 9, 2009 at 12:09 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • TANK
      TANK

      @Mr. Enemabag Jones:

      Very astute. I’d be inerested in a followup to this question.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 1:20 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • getreal
      getreal

      Anyone want to see hot sex scene’s with Peter Saarsgaard check out the Center Of The World. I don’t think people can really be bisexual maybe they just want the “respectability” of marriage? Thoughts?

      Apr 9, 2009 at 1:40 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Mr. Enemabag Jones
      Mr. Enemabag Jones

      “I’d be interested in a follow up to this question.”

      Me too, TANK :)

      “I don’t think people can really be bisexual maybe they just want the “respectability” of marriage?”

      Interesting thought, GETREAL. That was the impression I got from Tom Robinson’s marriage. Everything he fought against, is what he eventually became. It’s like the Thatcher 1980′s finally broke him and all he cared about was legitimacy. I mean, did he really need a woman to have a LTR? Why didn’t he work harder at LTR’s with all the men he slept with?

      Who was that British dyke who was a lesbian for 12 years, then married a man, had a pile of kids and became the toast of British TV as some kind of super-mom/actress/writer? I remember her proudly stating that sexuality is a choice and she finally made the proper choice in marrying a man. It’s amazing how her career took off and she was inundated with work after marrying. She even stated as such, saying getting married to a man was the best thing for her career.

      I don’t want it to seem like I’m trashing real bi people, because I’m not. But it seems too many people use bisexuality as an excuse to be slutty, or to play other people’s emotions.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 1:57 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Tony
      Tony

      Peter Scarsgaard HOT??!?!?! I guess it’s true that theres a lid for every pot. I agree he is a talented actor, but not that he is hot. I applaud him for being one of the few straight actors out there who is comfortable playing gay or sexually ambigous with roles in MYSTERIES, DYING GAUL, KINSEY and YEAR OF THE DOG.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 2:03 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • red phone
      red phone

      zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

      Apr 9, 2009 at 2:13 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • scott
      scott

      @Mr. Enemabag Jones: So ur saying that ALL bisexual men would “constantly experiment” or “look for the next best thing”. Really? What makes bisexual men different than heteros and homos? With that logic, then men in hetero and women as well, will constantly look for the next best thing. And homos as well. Or is it just something with bisexuals?

      Monogamy is only within the will, and minds of heteros and homos only, it seems. Funny, I think that’s the same argument homophobic people use against gays and why gays are pigeonholed as promiscuous.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 2:25 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Kathleen
      Kathleen

      Wow, lots of rude comments about bisexual people. Pretty typical I guess, but still pretty hurtful.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 3:16 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • tricky ricky
      tricky ricky

      i didn’t like the book. don’t care about the movie. don’t care about chabon.

      that picture is freaky.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 3:25 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Joe
      Joe

      @Padraic:

      Man, wasn’t that a great scene? It surprised me. That is my favorite book of all time, just sprawling and epic and unfilmable. I’m gonna have to take it out again, it’s that good. Chabon also wrote Wonder Boys, which I have not read but loved as a movie – Tobey MCGuire and Robert Downey Jr naked in bed.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 3:33 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Mr. Enemabag Jones
      Mr. Enemabag Jones

      “So ur saying that ALL bisexual men would “constantly experiment” or ‘look for the next best thing’.”

      Where did I write that? What I wrote was:

      “As far as bisexuals, or MEN WHO CLAIM TO HAVE A ‘FLUID’ SEXUALITY;”

      These guys who say they don’t like to be labeled are merely avoiding a label so they can keep the playing field open. It also smacks of childish fear.

      And really, what can one say about an adult who constantly hems and haws about their sexuality? Kids being “confused” certainly. But grown men and women? Ridiculous. Confusion is just another word for sluting around, it seems.

      “Really? What makes bisexual men different than heteros and homos?”

      I don’t know. We screw a lot, but we don’t screw everything. Maybe that’s the difference.

      “With that logic, then men in hetero and women as well, will constantly look for the next best thing. And homos as well. Or is it just something with bisexuals?”

      Of course everyone who refuses to be in a LTR is looking for the next best thing. But, gay men don’t play sexes off each other.

      “Monogamy is only within the will, and minds of heteros and homos only, it seems.”

      I’m only speaking from my experiences. I’m not saying bisexuals are not monogamous. I am saying that far too many men who identify as bi, will leave the wife and kids at home and go out trolling for cock, and then go running back to their white picket fences when the going gets tough. Neal Boulton comes to mind.

      “Funny, I think that’s the same argument homophobic people use against gays and why gays are pigeonholed as promiscuous.”

      And it’s the argument that sends bi’s running for the heterosexual hills when the going gets tough. “I’m not gay, I’m bi.” What that seems to say is, “Don’t lump me in with those queers.” I find that disingenuous.

      Too many bi’s are using the bisexual label as a shield against being deemed what?; as inferior as gays? There is a B in LGBTQ. But sometimes it seems like too many bi’s are there in letter only.

      No one should have to defend their sexuality to anyone, especially readers on a queer blog. I’m just speaking from experience. You’re more than welcome to present your own experiences, Scott.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 4:28 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • scott
      scott

      @Mr. Enemabag Jones: You said, “As far as bisexuals, or men who claim to have a “fluid” sexuality; it’s impossible to date them, or even dare have a relationship with them, because they’re constantly “experimenting”, or looking for the next best thing.”

      To me, that seemed to state all Bisexuals. If you said, some bisexuals, or in my experience, bisexuals I encountered… then I wouldn’t have comprehended as ALL. But you didn’t say that thus I feel that your making a sweeping statement on all bisexuals.

      It seems you’ve had sucky experiences with BIs. And I don’t know many BI people, but IDK, I think if someone says they are Bi, I don’t see them as being slutty or being deemed inferior to gays, or playing sexes off each other. I think they like both men and women. And at sometime in their life they may be with a women or they me be with a man.

      In the rest of your response to my post, I see you started using in my experience and that really helps to qualify the statements you make. I was taking exception when you started making blank statements.

      I find it sad you had such bad experiences with BI people. And honestly, no offense, it seems apparent in that initial post of yours. That you had a thing against BIs. I may have read that wrong. But that was what I was getting. But, like I said before, I’ve not had those experiences. I’ll admit to that.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 5:25 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Mudduck
      Mudduck

      I once saw an interview with June Reinisch, head of the Kinsey Institute, in which she said something like (figures approximate) that in all their surveys, about 4-6 percent of people identified as gay, 80 percent as straight, and “the rest are up for grabs.”

      Gays were invisible for long, and now they’re part of the social order. But now others are invisible — men who have sex with men, women who have sex with women, but don’t identify or live as gay. Biologically, we all start out as female, and some get doses of hormones during development that customize the body in a masculine direction. (The genitals of some wind up between male and female; the mental orientation of some is toward persons of the same gender.) There’s no ideal result — some wind up more, some less. Some of us feel definitely, positively gay — but maybe, as Dr. Reinisch hints, it’s not social pressure but experience that leaves others somewhere in between.

      So far, discussing causes of “gay” has been unproductive. It should be like religion, people should be free to identify as they want. One problem with gay is that straight people can’t imagine our lives — they keep projecting their experience and concerns onto us. But I can’t really imagine being straight, despite all the models in drama and literature. Not sure I can imagine “bi,” either — but that doesn’t mean it’s not some people’s experience. I hope we’re moving toward a situation where all can love whomever they love, and find their own place in society whatever their perceived identity.

      Apr 9, 2009 at 7:10 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • lance reynald
      lance reynald

      great artistic outlook on sexuality. Bravo, Mr. Chabon!

      Apr 9, 2009 at 8:53 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Fifla
      Fifla

      Well written article and analysis! Thanks so much for the history of Chabon’s writing and thoughts. Wonderful!

      Apr 9, 2009 at 10:00 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • jake
      jake

      writers and actors who are bisexuals are gays who know that they’ll be stuck writing gay fiction if they come out and won’t be accepted for anything outside of gay fiction by the intelligentsia. the way it goes is that once you come out, within the arts, you get shipped to gay island, never to return, only to be looked at across the water by telescope in gaylandia. you lose the american luxury of choice and are stuck with what’s what’s left and told to appreciate it, you lose the ability to create your image, you’re tagged. why would a person who works so hard want want to have their talents diminished because of who they are not what they can do? it’s unfair at best.

      Apr 10, 2009 at 1:21 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • June
      June

      Thanks for the excellent profile. As for the all the biphobia in the comments, I know our community is slowly growing out of it… it will still take some time, but we will get there.

      Apr 10, 2009 at 1:45 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • charlie hoover
      charlie hoover

      @Mr. Enemabag Jones: I’m bisexual… im not experimenting im not a closet case i just like men and women…is it really that hard to believe? there are plenty of heterosexuals who think that gays are faking, so why would you think the same of me?

      Apr 10, 2009 at 3:36 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • TANK
      TANK

      @jake:

      Well…that’s not the whole truth. Some talent’s just too big to let sexuality get in the way. Truman Capote comes to mind. And the fabulously fay Tesnessee Williams, who was hands down america’s greatest playwright. It takes a talent so big that bigotry just can’t contain it, though…rare. But some who identify as bi in showbiz are…why not? And most people aren’t that great…aren’t creative geniuses of a fraction of that caliber…so can you blame them if what you’re saying is true?

      Apr 10, 2009 at 3:43 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • beachcomberT
      beachcomberT

      I think there are 2 components to bisexuality — what goes on with your body, and what goes on in your head. I think the majority of people have at least fantasies or dreams about same-sex hookups as adolescents, and a fair number act out their desires at least a few times (often with the help of inhibition-breaking alcohol or drugs). After a while, you mate with a person you think feels most right to you — and of course society is brainwashing you to pick the opposite gender. Only your head can tell you over time if that’s correct, or if you feel unfulfilled. If you break up with your mate and go back to same-sex partners exclusively, I call that a sign you’re gay. If you continue to feel erotic toward both men and women, then I would classify you as bi. This is essentially my life story, and I ended up in the “gay” camp, but I still have very infrequent erotic dreams about my ex-wife and, very rarely, about other women. About 95 percent of my dreams/fantasies are about my current male partner (of 27 years) or other guys. I term myself gay; a therapist once told me I was probably bi. Really, why should we be obsessed with labels? Let’s all just call ourselves “recovering bi’s” and get on with life.

      Apr 10, 2009 at 6:33 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • RdySetDisco
      RdySetDisco

      you’ve piqued my interest.

      and this post was perfectly written. keep up the good work!

      Apr 10, 2009 at 12:39 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • mr
      mr

      This is an interesting article. But I don’t think Chabon’s take on sexuality comes across as ‘genuine.’ Rather it seems like one more version of this idealized sexuality — where it’s all fluid and everything is up for grabs and it’s only society putting us in categories — that we have been hearing about and fantasizing about since Kinsey but that just does not correspond to my experience or the experience of anyone I know. It also doesn’t seem to correspond to current gene and brain research on the subject.

      This article also glosses a little too much over the extent to which Chabon lied about the sexual relationship he had in Pittsburgh that inspired the gay angle in the Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I think someone who has lessons to teach us about authentic sexuality might have been a little more up front. Also, his statement that “he learned to love another man so much that it would never have occurred to me to want to sleep with him” is very odd indeed. What kind of love is that then? I wonder what his wife makes of that since presumably he sleeps with her. I am not sure quite what is being expressed there — that sex degrades love or man-man sex degrades love — but it doesn’t come across as very sex-positive.

      Apr 11, 2009 at 4:03 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • GB
      GB

      Nice article. Too bad this site seems to have become a magnet for a bunch of pathetic, self-hating biphobic losers. “Commenters” like Enemabag are all too common around here these days. There’s no point in even trying to have a rational discussion with them – nothing will change their warped view of reality. I’ve NEVER seen an LGBT site infested with as many ignorant, insecure hate mongers as this one seems to be now. Wallow in your hatred, I’m moving on..

      Apr 12, 2009 at 12:11 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • MR
      MR

      GB wrote – Too bad this site seems to have become a magnet for a bunch of pathetic, self-hating biphobic losers. “Commenters” like Enemabag are all too common around here these days.
      Kathleen wrote – Wow, lots of rude comments about bisexual people. Pretty typical I guess. . .

      Whose generalizing here? There is exactly one commenter here — Enemabag Jones — who has made broad, negative generalizations about bisexuals. The article about Chabon is basically an endorsement of Chabon’s endorsement of fluid sexuality and most of the comments endorse the article. Get a fucking grip and argue your case like adults rather than defensive, victimized weenies.

      Apr 12, 2009 at 2:42 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Zoe
      Zoe

      Thanks for this review and insight.

      I agree with the notion that we are sexual on a continuum and if that has a name perhaps it is pan-sexual.

      I am not attracted to a male or a female because of their gender but because of who they are in the largest sense of affinity.

      Jun 28, 2010 at 2:21 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·

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