Laura Martinelli's Reviews > Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
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Aug 26, 12

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Read from August 13 to 15, 2012

I haven’t read much by Michael Chabon, but the two that I have read, I really enjoyed. Wonder Boys was a good read (and I’m debating on giving that one another go in the future, whenever that may be) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one of the best books I’ve ever read and one of my many go-to recommends at work. So when I found Telegraph Avenue sitting on our ARC pile, I quickly snatched up a copy.

What Chabon does best in his work is taking groups of characters and weaving them together. This is certainly no exception. You’ve got two families in Berkley, you’ve got the Berkley business community, and there’s a supporting cast of blaxploitation stars. And all these characters manage to weave in and out of the story—sometimes their part in the narrative doesn’t add much, but they’re still enjoyable. And the thing that works the best in this whole narrative is the relationships. You’ve got Nat and Archy, who are best friends and business partners, and they go through stages of “running a business comes first before being a friend.” You’ve got their wives, Aviva and Gwen, who are more professional in their relationship (both personal and business), but still manage to be supportive and caring for one another. You’ve got major parallels between Archy and his absentee father, Luther Stallings, and Archy’s distance from his own son Titus. The one relationship that I hooked on was between Titus and Nat’s son, Julius. I really liked these two. They do play into the whole teenager aspect of they’re trying to find themselves and figure out who they are, plus you’ve got Julius’s crush on Titus and the whole relationship dance (I loved that Julius didn’t go through the coming out issue). But there’s something about here that makes it feel a little more genuine.

I also really liked the ongoing subplot of the Gibson Goode megastore that’s moving into the Berkley community. While I’m not surprised that Nat takes the side of keeping the local businesses intact, what I liked was that both sides of the argument—for the gentrification of a small business area or against it—are actually presented and discussed. Yes, the issue swings around to being against the megastore, but I liked that the whole subplot isn’t shoved to fit on the protagonists’ side.

I have to tangent here—I don’t really read a lot of literary novels. Part of it because I find novel after novel about the death of the American Dream and adults standing around having a midlife crisis and that they can’t deal with things boring. (Also, just how prevalent they are. Take a look at adult fiction, it makes you wonder if any family is happy and functional.) And yes, there’s a little bit of that in this book. Mostly with Archy and Gwen, dealing with Gwen’s pregnancy and the appearance of Titus. I get why Gwen is frustrated with Archy, that he lied to her about not having a kid already, and that her confidence is shot because of how big she’s gotten. But it feels like that’s all her character is for. It also doesn’t help that—despite the fact that there’s a whole subplot with Gwen dealing with the fallout from a racist statement from a doctor—she does come off as an angry black woman, and there’s really not much more to her. I wanted to see more done with Gwen and Aviva, and it did disappoint.

My other issue is there’s a LOT going on in this book and somehow it all ties together? Unlike in Kavalier & Clay, where the various subplots had an effect on what was going on in the plot, this felt like a bunch of events that just happened to be tied together and the people involved are happenstance. There’s a Black Panther murder, there’s a signing at a collectibles convention, there’s the Gibson Goode store, there’s Titus showing up, there’s Gwen chewing out a doctor for using a slur towards her, there’s Titus and Julius, Obama makes a cameo for some reason (to give us the theme of the book I guess?)—I felt like I should have gotten the flowcharts I used to use for Lost and rework them for this book. The actual writing is fantastic, I don’t fault Chabon for his writing style. But there were moments that I had to go back and reread a few pages because I was sure I missed something.

Not to mention, it’s a very self-aware novel. As I mentioned above, blaxploitation stars play a large role in the book—specifically Luther Stallings—so there’s a lot of talk of blaxploitation movies and the conventions of the genre. And while I’ve seen Chabon do this before in other books, going on about particular conventions of a subgenre, here it just doesn’t work. (It also doesn’t help that he constantly goes on about Tarantino’s influence from blaxploitation and doesn’t really seem to get into actual films of the Seventies.)

It is a well-written book, but I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone just starting Chabon. A longtime fan of his will probably really enjoy this; but as a casual fan, I don’t know how soon in the long term I’ll pick this up again.
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