Telegraph Avenue, a strip of mostly hanging-in-there shops and a funeral parlour in Oakland, California, is home to Brokeland Records, a rare and secondhand vinyl record shop run by old friends, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe. It's August 2004, Archy's wife Gwen, a midwife, is thirty-six weeks' pregnant, Nat's only child, Julius, is having a sexual relationship with his new friend, Titus, and the record shop is barely scraping by, partly dependent on the records bought by their long-standing customers, locals who hang out at the shop as if it were a diner.
Gwen and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, Nat's wife, run their own midwife partnership, and it's on this day that a home birth ends badly. Tired and stressed, especially after having caught Archy with another woman, Gwen loses her cool when the hospital OB, Dr Lazar, accuses them of nearly killing mother and child and of practicing voodoo. When he makes some ill-judged comment about black women's hair, things turn ugly, but it's Lazar who threatens proceedings against the women.
Things are just as strained at Brokeland Records, where the end of the shop looms now that Gibson Goode, fifth-riches black man in the United States, has won council approval to build a new "Dogpile Thang" - a giant music shop - on Telegraph Avenue. Archy's father, Luther Stallings, an ex-blaxploitation movie star and martial arts world champion who's spent all Archy's life being a flake, a drunk and a has-been with delusions of fame, is back in Oakland, stirring up trouble which comes knocking on Archy's door, in the form of Chandler Flowers, director of the funeral parlour, and his many nephews, one of which now works for Goode.
And to make a strained marriage even worse, Gwen learns about Titus, whose resemblance to Archy is clear. The sudden death of a dear friend gives Archy time to put off making any decisions about the shop, Titus or his marriage.
As Michael Chabon's new novel, Telegraph Avenue
is an impressive work, being both a keenly astute depiction of people who feel distinctly real, and an artistic display of writers' craft: one of those books that reads like a work of art. Because of that, there will be a great many people who won't enjoy this, as it makes it even more subjective to interpretation and appreciation - just like not everyone likes Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers
, for example (c'mon, I can't be the only one who finds it ugly and depressing!). Rich with pop culture references, everything from music to film to books to furniture, Telegraph Avenue
sometimes reads like a time capsule, a documentary capturing a time and place and the people in it, with all their scabs revealed. It unobtrusively incorporates themes of race and class in America, and explores our oft-times fragile relationships in times of stress. A book as layered and complex as this cannot be summed up neatly, but requires a deeper look.
As a character-driven book, rather than a plot-driven one, it excels. The characters really come alive, being both familiar and strange, simple and complex. Chabon uses an omiscient "telling" style of narration, yet so much is not revealed that you are still an active reader in the process of understanding them. Archy is more-or-less the main character, the one everyone else has in common, and the one who stands out the most. Which is interesting, considering his inability to make decisions or take a stand. The most assertive he gets is in dealings with his unreliable father, Luther, who has a rather sad scheme of making a come-back with his long-time girlfriend, Valletta Moore. For all the omniscient detail, you never get very close to any of the characters - for every thing you learn about them, that seems so intimate and a peering-into-their-soul, there're two things more you don't. Important conversations are not included, and it's hard to tell whether they even happened, off-page. It can make you feel a little frustrated.
Unlike similar "real people, real stories" novels, novels about "dysfunctional families" (i.e. normal families), like Jonathan Franzen's
(a book I really didn't like), the omniscient narrator is an observer as much as we are, rather than a "let me tell you how it is, now shut up and listen" voice. There's so much more respect here, for the characters, and sympathy. Nothing's black-and-white (a deliberate irony?). No one is that easily summed up, no matter how tempting it can be, and Chabon excels at capturing nuances, and secret thoughts, and how we react to things. The characters were a mesmerising mix of familiar and utterly strange - I've never lived in the U.S., I know about their race and class issues only from the outside, and my American history is patchy. I don't have, I didn't inherit or learn, their whites vs. blacks dichotomy and prejudice. But unlike with Franzen's unpleasant yuppy characters, I could actually relate to Chabon's. For as heavy with detail as Telegraph Avenue
is, there is so much more to intuit.
None of these echoes prepared Titus for the truth of the greatness of Luther Stallings as revealed in patches by the movies themselves, even the movies that sucked ass. None readied him for the strange warmth that rained down onto his heart as he sat on the couch last night with the best and only friend he'd ever had, watching that balletic assassin in Night Man, with those righteous cars and that ridiculous bounty of fine women, a girl with a silver Afro. Luther Stallings, the idea of Luther Stallings, felt to Titus like no one and no place had ever felt: a point of origin. A legendary birthplace, lost in the mists of Shaolin or the far-off technojungles of Wakanda. There in the dark beside Julie, watching his grandfather, Titus got a sense of his own life's foundation in the time of myth and heroes. For the first time since coming to consciousness of himself, small and disregarded as a penny in a corner of the world's bottom drawer, Titus Joyner saw in his own story a shine of value, and in himself the components of glamour. [p.268]
Another strong aspect of this novel, and one that will make it stand out from other, similar family stories, is the wealth of pop culture references and the strong sense of humour. It is awash
, it is swimming
in references, many of which I didn't get, being of the wrong generation, the wrong nationality, or simply from having different interests. But whenever I did
get a reference, I was filled with such glee! It was almost like a game. The ones I didn't get barely impeded my progress - it would have been fun, and more satisfying, to understand the connotations behind "the A-side of the late Bob Benezra's copy of Kulu Sé Mama
(Impulse!, 1967)" record, or be able to picture Captain EO
as depicted on Archy's jumper, but you get the gist from the context and that's enough for it all to make sense.
While the pop culture references make it lots of fun, as well as creating a character out of time and place, the humour saves the storylines and characters from becoming bleak and depressing, a la
Franzen's epistle to worthless people (yeah, I really
didn't like that book!). Reading Telegraph Avenue
was rather like watching Saturday morning cartoons, in a way. Has that feel to it. Possibly aided by references to comic books and kung fu movies, and by the sense that this book is actually a movie, was written as a movie (it has recently been optioned as a film) - it would adapt extremely well to the screen, even without the vivid prose.
The language is sophisticated, intelligent and witty, the sentences and structure of the narrative requiring your time and attention. The narrative meanders in and out of the scene, going off on tangents, taking the time to describe something in a more convoluted way than is strictly necessary It can take a while to get the hang of it, though it's very much worth it. And hear and there are such great lines as this, referring to Gibson Goode's zeppelin: "Archy regarded the big black visual pun on centuries of white male anatomical anxiety and felt it trying, like Kubrick's melismatic monolith, to twist the wiring of his brain." [p.218] Part III, in fact, is one gigantic 12-page-long sentence that - again giving it the feel of a movie - follows a talking parrot called Fifty-Eight as it crosses paths with the central characters, giving us a birds'-eye view, a montage of what's happening in a moment of time.
The themes of race and class are not forced into the story, but are simply there
, rising to the surface every now and then, as they become relevant. Telegraph Avenue
offers a gentle social commentary on what it means to be black in Oakland, California, but more than that: race becomes not a separate issue, or even a defining one, but one often forced onto the characters by others, usually whites. One of the interesting things about reading this book is how long it takes you to realise, and figure out, which characters are black and which, white. And because you find yourself consciously pondering this, you realise, too, how important this has become, perhaps socially or culturally, something we've learned as we grow up: to look for markers, ways of identifying people, categorising them, in order to understand and even predict them. Race isn't an "issue" until we make it one; before that, it's as if the characters themselves weren't aware of a black/white dichotomy. And at first, Telegraph Avenue
defies this. Later, when it's all straight in your head and seems obvious, it delves into it a bit more. Gwen, in particular, is a conduit for the themes of race and class.
Gwen recalled a lecture of Julie's, delivered one night when he was ten or eleven, on the difference between terraforming and pantropy. When you changed a planet's atmosphere and environment to suit the needs of human physiology, that was terraforming; pantropy meant the alteration of the human form and mind to allow survival, even prosperity, on a harsh, unforgiving world. In the struggle to thrive and flourish on the planet America, some black people had opted for the epic tragedy, grand and bitter, of terraforming; others, like Gwen's parents and their parents and grandparents before them, had engaged in a long and selective program of pantropy. Black pantropy had produced, in Gwen and her brothers, a clutch of viable ad effortless success-breathers, able to soar and bank on thermals of opportunity and defy the killing gravity of the colony world. [p.287]
It was hard for me to read the parts of Gwen and Aviva's trouble with the hospital board over their midwifery - it was hard to believe there are doctors who not only think such things about midwifery, but would say them too, and for much of the book I didn't understand why Gwen
was being called - or why - and not the doctor. I didn't see that they'd done anything wrong at Lydia's home birth, and the doctor was the one who said insulting, derogatory things to them
; Gwen just rose to the bait. (And I thought, too, that we give heavily pregnant women some slack for having less patience than usual.) It was confusing and uncomfortable, and I'm not sure how much of it is due to it being set in California.
There's so much to talk about when talking about this book - I expect to read other reviews and feel like they read a different book, just based on the tropes that other readers will pick out for discussion. There's a lot I haven't touched on, either for space/time considerations or because I want to avoid spoilers.
It comes down to this, for me: it's a book I'm extremely impressed by, and did enjoy reading, but I'm perhaps more impressed by its craftsmanship than in love with how it's written. I don't generally love clever writing, it has to be something special to not seem plain wanky, and there were times when I leaned towards thinking this was over-written. But the writing and the story, the characters, couldn't be separated - the writing makes
the characters, the prose voice shapes them and reveals them, I couldn't imagine it written any other way. So I'm torn. Overall, though, I very much enjoyed it, and can see that you would glean even more from it on a second or third reading.My thanks to HarperCollins for a copy of this book.