Book Talk: TELEGRAPH AVENUE, by Michael Chabon

TELEGRAPH AVENUE by Michael Chabon, via indiebound.orgTelegraph Avenue: A Novel
Michael Chabon
Harper (September 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0061493341 / 9780061493348)
Fiction, 480 pages
Source: ARC received at Book Expo America 2013
Reason for reading: #readchabon group read

Opening lines: “A white boy rode flatfoot on a skateboard, towed along, hand to shoulder, by a black boy pedaling a brakeless fixed-gear bike. Dark August morning, deep in the Flatlands. Hiss of tires. Granular unraveling of skateboard wheels against asphalt. Summertime Berkeley giving off her old-lady smell, nine different styles of jasmine and a squirt of he-cat.

“The black boy raised up, let go of the handlebars. The white boy uncoupled the cars of their little train. Crossing his arms, the black boy gripped his T-shirt at the hem and scissored it over his head. He lingered inside the shirt, in no kind of hurry, as they rolled toward the next pool of ebbing streetlight.”

Book description, via the publisher’s website:
As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there—longtime friends, bandmates, and co-regents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, two semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart—half tavern, half temple—stands Brokeland.

When ex–NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in America, announces plans to build his latest Dogpile megastore on a nearby stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear it means certain doom for their vulnerable little enterprise. Meanwhile, Aviva and Gwen also find themselves caught up in a battle for their professional existence, one that tests the limits of their friendship. Adding another layer of complication to the couples’ already tangled lives is the surprise appearance of Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy has never acknowledged and the love of fifteen-year-old Julius Jaffe’s life.

Comments: You might think that since I posted weekly check-ins about my progress with this book for the #readchabon read-along I did with Kim, it would be easy to tie together bits and pieces from those posts and call it a review of Telegraph Avenue. I might have thought so, too, but I’ve been noodling around with this for about a week. I don’t know that I have much to say about the novel that I didn’t say already, but for posterity’s sake, I do want to get my thoughts collected into one place.

"Brokeland Records", aka Diesel Books, Oakland CA (Sept. 2012)
Oakland’s Diesel Bookstore transformed into “Brokeland Records” for the September 2012 release of Telegraph Avenue.

The setup of Telegraph Avenue introduces Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, co-owners of Brokeland Records, a struggling used-records shop on the titular avenue, a main artery connecting Oakland and Berkeley, California. The store’s struggles may be about to get tougher, as an entertainment superstore is poised to move into the neighborhood. Archy’s and Nat’s wives, Gwen and Aviva, also work together, as midwives in Berkeley Birth Partners, and Nat’s son Julius has a new friend with an unexpected connection to Archy. The plot follows these two families and several other characters who orbit Brokeland through a summer of unanticipated events and rash decisions–and almost all of it engaged me, although plot is usually not my primary interest in reading Michael Chabon’s fiction, and I acknowledge that he’s not above contrivance and convolutions in that aspect of his stories.

Sentence composition is one of the reasons I’ve loved reading Chabon since his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh; saying he has “a way with words” is completely inadequate. But since I’m so besotted with the way he writes–and if I haven’t gone on record before that he is my #1 Author Crush, consider it done now–sometimes it’s hard for me to look past the structure to consider the substance of what he’s writing.

That said, Chabon seems to be making more (or at least more obvious) attempts at “substance” here than he has previously. It intrigued me that Chabon spent more time with the black characters in Telegraph Avenue than the white ones; it also made me a bit uncomfortable, given that Chabon is white, Jewish, and much more personally familiar with the “Berkeley” side of this story than the “Oakland” side. And when I thought about that reaction, I got a little uncomfortable with my own discomfort.

Getting back to the writing, I can’t go without mentioning the eleven-page-long third section of the novel–a single sentence, mostly written from the viewpoint of a parrot. Yes, it’s undeniably virtuosic writerly trickery, but I was seven pages into it before I even realized that it was all one sentence, and to me, that means it worked. When I finished the section, I commented to my husband:

Me: “This guy just wrote a sentence that was eleven pages long.”
Tall Paul: “Is that even legal?”
Me: “It is if you do have a license to do literary tricks like that, and this guy most definitely does.”

Aside from the parrot’s-eye-view piece, I appreciated the way that Chabon’s explorations into genre during the last decade or so colored this return to more literary fiction. I loved the smart pop-culture references, which cover such a wide range–assorted musical genres, comics, classic science fiction, film theory, television–that even if you don’t get them all, your own particular form of nerdery will probably be represented. Granted, I have an abiding weakness for smart pop-cultural references in most of my entertainment anyway, but I particularly like sensing that they’re not just tossed in; for the most part, I found them to be well-chosen, functional details that help flesh out scenes and characters.

I’m not sure that Telegraph Avenue is as ambitious a novel as Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winner The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and I don’t think it fully achieves the ambitions it does have. That said, I generally applaud that kind of ambition, and feel a little let down when it doesn’t quite stick the landing. But when someone writes the way Chabon does, the letdown isn’t quite as rough. At the same time, I think this may be his most down-to-earth novel since the admittedly less ambitious (and my personal favorite) Wonder Boys, and I applaud that as well. There were times I totally loved Telegraph Avenue  times it frustrated me, and a very few times when it bored me…and so I offer one more round of applause to Michael Chabon for thoroughly engaging me in this little Northern California world.

Rating: 4.25 / 5

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