Dropping 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.
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?
Chabon, 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.