Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

telegraph avenue“…he called what he played ‘Brokeland Creole’.”
.
😀 😀 😀 😀 😐

There are so many reasons for me to dislike this book. It’s relentlessly stuffed with references to American pop culture of the seventies – jazz, soul, funk – kung fu movies – blaxploitation – most of which were lost on me. (Though I got the Star Trek references!) It’s full of tricksy writing techniques and stunts, such as the cameo appearance of a pre-presidential Barack Obama. And it’s jam-packed with language that would make a docker blush.

But…but…it’s brilliantly written. Set in Oakland, California, I couldn’t decide whether Chabon is describing this piece of America as it really is or creating it anew, but either way he does it with such vividness and exuberance that it becomes a completely realised world with a past, present and uncertain future. There are issues of race, sexuality and gender here, all handled with a deft touch and a pleasing sense of optimism. One of Chabon’s most effective tricks is not to tell the reader straight out in the early part of the book which characters are black or white, but to leave us to gradually work it out from indirect references: a device that allows him to show the sameness of people rather than the differences and forces the reader to get to know them without letting preconceptions creep in.

“My God,” he said. “Please tell me you aren’t listening to ‘Kansas.’”

There was a small prog bin at Brokeland, but it spurned the pinnacles and palisades in favor of the dense British thickets, swarms of German umlauts. Wander into Brokeland hoping to sell a copy of ‘Point of No Return’ or, say, ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ (Manticore, 1973), they would need a Shop-Vac to hose up your ashes.

There is a huge cast of characters but we are mainly concerned with Archy and Nat, co-owners of Brokeland, a shop specialising in vinyl records, its existence threatened by the proposed building of a new megastore; their partners, Gwen and Aviva, who work together as midwives carrying out home-births – Gwen herself being massively pregnant too; and their teenage sons, Julie and Titus, on the cusp of childhood and adulthood and enthusiastically exploring their new-found sexuality. And then there’s Luther, Archy’s father, ex-star of ‘70s kung fu movies, ex-drug addict, down and almost out, but still dreaming of the comeback.

Michael Chabon (www.theguardian.com)
Michael Chabon
(www.theguardian.com)

The plot is slight, based around Luther’s past, the survival of the shop and the problems of the midwifery practice. Instead, the book is strongly character-driven. There are no heroes and very few total villains here – mainly just flawed people trying on the whole to do their best, if only they could work out what that was. The relationships are the important thing: fathers and sons, marriages and lovers, friendships and shared histories that bind the community into one diverse, often divided, but ultimately cohesive whole. And Chabon’s characterisation is warm and affectionate, sometimes moving, often funny.

“I don’t drink…” Archy said, and stopped. He hated how this sounded whenever he found himself obliged to say it. Lord knew he would not relish the prospective company of some mope-ass m*********** who flew that grim motto from his flagpole. “…alcohol,” he added. Only making it worse, the stickler for detail, ready to come out with a complete list of beverages he was willing to consume. Next came the weak effort to redeem himself by offering a suggestion of past indulgence: “Anymore.” Finally, the slide into unwanted medical disclosure: “Bad belly.”

But above all it’s the language and the writing that create the magic here – Chabon gives a virtuoso performance and the tricks are performed brilliantly, (including the unbelievably soaring sentence that lasts for 11 pages, with every word precisely placed, flying over the whole community and dropping in and out of every character’s life). There is an incredible wordiness about the book, one word never used when fifty could do, but the words take on a rhythm and life of their own and become almost mesmeric after a while. I found I was often pausing to appreciate and applaud the sheer skill of the performance. And, for most of the time, I could silence the small voice inside my head that was telling me that, underneath the dazzle and razzmatazz, nothing much was happening and nothing profound was being said…

Wonderfully written and flamboyantly entertaining, the sheer joy of watching a master wordsmith ply his trade almost outweighs the underlying lack of substance, but ultimately this novel just misses being truly great – though it’s so impressively done it takes a while to notice that. And although the destination may be a bit disappointing, the journey is breathtaking.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

28 thoughts on “Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

  1. Oh, this does indeed sound like a great piece of Americana. I remember those ‘vinyl days’ and it sounds as though this novel really evokes them. I do understand what you mean though about needing a bit more substance. But I give credit to any author who can draw me in with writing style.

    • The writing was wonderful, and even though a lot of the references were too American for me to fully understand, the whole effect was to evoke a really believable picture of American society – at least, of this small corner of it.

    • Apart from the swearing, sex, racism, corruption and violence it was really quite an attractive picture of America! 😉

      And you’d enjoy the Katana…and the jazz…and the bear claws…

      • It sounds similar to how Twain ripped Cooper. Once you take out all of the other stuff, what you’re left with might be art; but it’s nothing much to talk of… (What do you know of America?! Nothing! That’s what Frodo says to Sam, I think…) 😉

        Don’t you like Jazz too?

        • I’m really, really, really sorry to say this – but I can’t stand jazz. I’ve tried – I’ve really tried, but just don’t get it. I imagine it would be considerably more fun to play than to listen to though. Classical and easy-listening, that’s me.

          I never realised Frodo had been to America – is that just north of Mordor then?

          I haven’t read Cooper, but that quote’s a bit harsh for this one – it’s not very deep but it is art, and the language, now we’ve been talking about it, is almost jazzy – improvised, sprawling, a bit untidy and with all kinds of innovative twiddly bits… 😉

          • You know, I think it is. Jazz is definitely more fun to play than to listen to. Great music tastes, I must say! Nothing quite like playing Bach!

            Are you saying that Mexico is Mordor? 🙂

            Jazz is not untidy! It’s very regimented, and tight. All of the musicians are in the ‘groove’. 😀 Now Jazzy Couldren is definitely Jazzy.

            • Vaughan Williams is my main man, classical music-wise, amongst many others. 😀

              😆 It’s really lucky Jazzy Couldren is jazzy or he’d feel pretty silly with a name like that…

              But I though it was all about impro, so how can it be tidy? Basically, everybody just plays whatever they feel like with no reference to the actual tune, don’t they? 😉

            • Well, it’s all inside a form…mustn’t get too specific here. 🙂 But, yes, you’re almost right…

              (BTW, you told me it would take a while for you to review this book! I still think you’re the fastest reader I know… Looking forward to both book reviews that are coming soon!)

  2. Ah, a C.21 novel, and therefore out of my comfort zone, but I have been thinking a lot about Elmore Leonard this week (he’s ill), and it was always his language and characters, more than the plots, that were interesting. American language (the clean kind, not the swearie-words) is so diverse that it has its own momentum, I think.
    Great review – almost encourages me to read this one.

    • I think you might enjoy it…or possibly you’d hate it! Apparently one of his other books is considered by some to be a modern Great American Novel – this one suggests he has the writing skills, but I’d have to hope the other was a bit more profound. I’ll probably read it in the not too distant future…

  3. I realise that I haven’t read enough Chabon, but what I have read I’ve loved and I’ve had this on my radar for some time. The problem is I don’t own this and I do have at least one of his others sitting unread on my shelves already, so I’ll probably get round to that first. However, what you say about this book just reinforces the fact that I haven’t read enough Chabon.

    • This was my first experience of him and though not perfect it was very, very good. Have you read Kavalier and Clay? It’s the one that’s been mentioned to me as a possible Great American Novel – though the person who mentioned it was saying he didn’t agree that it was.

  4. This sounds interesting! Perhaps I should give Chabon another chance, as he is quite a virtuoso. I was quite turned off this Chabon fellow after reading “Gentlemen of the Road” which was supposed to be an adventure book but came across to me rather like a travesty or a post-modern deconstruction of some sort. The premise sounded good — Jewish adventurers on some sort of quest — but I couldn’t connect with the characters or the story because it felt like the author was looking down his nose on the whole adventure genre.

    • This is the only one I’ve read, but I can kind of imagine that he might be like that – he’s definitely pretty sure of his own cleverness. This one’s not really about anything very much – just the characters and the community. And that lets him be as clever as he likes without coming over as too patronising. It strikes me that this could be one of these ones that some people love and others hate though – I noticed it’s got some glowing reviews and some really negative ones…

  5. As soon as I saw you were reading this book, I was eager to read your review! I’m glad you liked it. I was not sure whether the book was worth it or not. I thought about reading it a lot of times, a book about a music store seems my thing, but I never did, partly because it looked like the kind of book that promises a lot but doesn’t deliver. But after reading this, I’ll try to get my hands on a copy! 🙂

  6. Kavalier & Clay ended up taking me completely by surprise when I read it earlier this year. After seeing what Chabon could do with comic books, I’ve had my eye on this novel to see what he could do with vinyl. Looks like a fair bit, judging by your reaction. Might have to bump this one up a notch or two on the wish list…

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