John Luiz's Reviews > Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
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Oct 14, 2012

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Read from September 20 to October 11, 2012

Count me among those that found reading this book a chore. Chabon is obviously brilliant and talented but reading his work is a bit like being trapped in the corner at a party by a manic genius, who feeds you dozens of brilliant different ideas at once, but at such a speed and with so many different tangents along the way that's it difficult to take it all in. Here, to slow things down, you often have to read sentences a couple of times just to keep track of what the noun and verb were in between all the independent clauses and tangential metaphors. Thank God for e-books with their at your fingertips dictionaries, because you also have to look up at least a word or two per page.

Clearly plenty of readers enjoy having their minds expanded by such a prodigious talent, but I found much of the information show-offy. It's amazing how many varied metaphors Chabon can spin, but occasionally it would be great to have a few sentences you don't need a road map to get through. A character can't simply reach for a tube of superglue, instead he has to get "a tube of superglue, the crusted tip of its nozzle, forever pierced like some allegorical wound in a story of King Arthur, by its tiny red-capped pin."

If that talent were used more judiciously, the reading might not be such a heavy slog.

In the previews, I saw a lot of praise for Chabon capturing the current cultural zeitgeist but I guess I didn't get that. He has four main story lines - an African American, Archy, and his Jewish partner, Nat. have a record store in Oakland that's under threat when a former NFL star turned businessmen is thinking about opening a megastore in their neighborhood; their wives are also getting into similar trouble as midwives when they have to rush a mother to a hospital during a difficult delivery and an obstetrician accuses them of negligence; a son Archy didn't know he had shows up in Oakland trying to connect with his father, and Nat's son, who's the same age, has developed a crush on him; and finally, Archy's father, Luther a martial arts expert turned crack addict is trying to rekindle his earlier days as a star in blaxploitation films while also blackmailing an old friend who is now a powerful businessman and city councilman, but who in his younger days killed a local troublemaker as a favor to Huey Newton of the Black Panthers.

It sounds like a lot, but the storylines themselves didn't feel like enough to fill up 465 pages. If you took out all the authors' efforts to prove his encyclopedic knowledge of every subject from the history of jazz to superhero comic books, it felt like each story could have been told neater and faster.

There are some interesting historical details about the loss of mom & pop-type stores with the invasion of corporate chains. Mixed in with that is an examination of the promise of urban renewal that a Magic Johnson-like figure offers by investing in the inner city. There are also interesting details about the history of midwifery and the conflict that Archy’s wife, Gwen, feels between the historical importance that midwives had in the black culture vs. what it is today – primarily an option of privileged white women. In one of my favorite passages, a night school instructor gives the 14-year-old boys and the other class participants a hysterically funny lecture on how Vincent Minelli’s The Bandwagon influenced Quentin Tarantino. But this novel, for me, doesn’t capture an era the way that Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities did (although admittedly Wolfe doesn’t have anywhere near the writing chops Chabon does.)

Too often, though, the novel gets bogged down with evidence of how smart Chabon is thrown up on every page. There are other novelists I love, like Robert Cohen, whose genius and prolific imagination are evident in every sentence. But Cohen fills his novels with great insights into what it means to be human. I don't need to read several pages about how to reassemble an organ speaker, as Chabon does, with the writer proving he knows the exact name for every part.

With Chabon, he also often makes you feel stupid for not having a Ph.D in pop culture. Not of all his references are self-contained. Near the end of the novel when Archy's wife Gwen is giving birth, Nat's son, Julius, is helping her deal with the pain by recounting scenes from Star Trek. He writes about an episode in which the female companion to the evil Kirk uses a "Tantalus Field" to overcome her adversaries. When Gwen faces the prospect of having the doctor who charged her with negligence deliver her baby, she asks Julius to cast a Tantalus Field on the doctor. Now I vaguely remember seeing that episode, but I don't remember what the Tantalus Field was, and I'm not reeducated on exactly what it was by Chabon's description.

My final complaint is one I've had with previous Chabon novels. He often writes gay lovemaking scenes in very specific detail, and while I don't have any problem with that, I wish he would give hetero lovemaking equal time. The two sex scenes in this novel are not for the squeamish because they involve sexual experimentation between the two 14-year-old boys and an episode when the philandering Archy sodomizes, consensually, his wife's transgendered assistant.

I don't regret finishing this one, although it took me a long while to get through it because I wasn't always motivated to pick it up. His writing reminds me of Zadie Smith. It may sound oxymoronic but there's just too much sheer brilliance on every page and in every sentence. Call me insecure, and maybe even a philistine, but I prefer to read novelists whose own writing style is less obvious so that I can get into the characters and be moved by the circumstances they find themselves in. I find Chabon's style, which constantly reminds me there's a much more brilliant mind than mine stringing these sentences together, keeps me too disconnected from the characters. And what is the infamous 11-page sentence, other than a break in the characters' story to show another explicit example of what a virtuoso Chabon is?

I didn't always feel this way about Chabon. I haven't read all of his books, but I did like Mysteries of Pittsburgh and the marvelous The Wonder Boys. But the Pulitzer-prize winning Kavalier and Clay left me feeling the same way this one did. After this experience, he may be off my must-read author list.

I'm sure this book will be on many "Best of the Year" lists, but it seems to me book critics and judges are mesmerized by the kind of writing that often turns me off.
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Comments (showing 1-36 of 36) (36 new)

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Gary  the Bookworm I agree with your comparing this to Zadie Smith's work. Were you thinking of White Teeth in particular? I just read an essay that compares Telegraph Avenue and NW to Ulysses! Although I liked TA I think you raise very valid points and argue them well.


message 2: by Eve (new) - rated it 3 stars

Eve You summed up my feelings about this book so much more eloquently than I did! You hit the nail right on the head; the writing absolutely gets in the way of the story. I have been thinking about reading Zadie Smith's new book (I read and liked, but not loved, White Teeth years ago) but perhaps I will let that go! I will check out Robert Cohen, whose work I don't know. But I do recommend Chabon's Summerland, which I found a delight.


Tina NW and this book were two of the best reads for me this year. Yes, Chabon is in love with his own words and his own brilliance, but at some point I decided to go along for the ride, and then the characters came alive. Though I haven't read the last 100 pages yet, and I hear there's a disappointing end. (writing-wise, that is).

I have never heard of Robert Cohen and there are several authors by that name. Could you recommend some specific books to start with?


Lynn great review! i love chabon but didn't love this one. too many voices, too much detail. but if you haven't read "summerland," check it out -- a wonderful story of how a nerdy boy saves the world from the forces if evil though baseball.


Marianne Parkhill Exactly.


John Luiz I had trouble posting a reply to Tina's specific question but here it is: Robert Cohen's novels include The Here and Now (perhaps my all-time fave novel), as well as Inspired Sleep, and his most recent work (2009) Amateur Barbarians - and yes he's not to be confused with the author who's written so much about milk!


message 7: by Matt (new) - added it

Matt I'm about halfway through this and had to put it aside for a while. Great story, great characters, but wow is it a chore to finish. And I disliked the Obama "cameo", it felt strange and took me right out of the story.


message 8: by Eve (new) - rated it 3 stars

Eve Matt wrote: "I'm about halfway through this and had to put it aside for a while. Great story, great characters, but wow is it a chore to finish. And I disliked the Obama "cameo", it felt strange and took me rig..."

Yes, I agree re the Obama cameo. I read another book (nonfiction) "the warmth of other suns" in which he also made a cameo. that felt much better, but of course it was real!


Diane C. So much modern fiction and so much of it poorly edited. Perhaps a prisoner of a famous writer's ego? Sad, so many books that could have been great and weren't.


message 10: by Hans (new) - rated it 2 stars

Hans Difficult reading, not particularly interesting


Tmorgan Exactly.
He's so smart it distanced me from the story.


message 12: by Super (new) - rated it 1 star

Super Amanda GREAT review! Please read mine which just went up and is not as kind. We shared many similar observations though I did not have the guts to bring up a few aspects you did.


message 13: by Mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mark A detailed and verbose review that captures little of the author's talent as a writer, and less of the beauty of a tremendously well crafted novel. Of course, I adore the work of Joe Coomer, whom so few seem to appreciate. And, the two highest rated novels I've gleaned from Goodreads, thus far, struck me as shallow and inane.

We all have different tastes, fortunately. Write on Michael!


message 14: by Super (last edited Aug 01, 2013 11:58AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Super Amanda Mark wrote: "A detailed and verbose review that captures little of the author's talent as a writer, and less of the beauty of a tremendously well crafted novel. Of course, I adore the work of Joe Coomer, whom s..." You may want to consider that there is little beauty in celebrating the 'broken pieces' of a community however well crafted the prose may be. I grew up in the East Bay (unlike Chabon) and the book is a bad inner city tourism joke in many respects. I agree that Chabon is a world class writer just not with Telegraph Ave. Superior talent and authenticity are two different things. Dylan and Tom Waits may not have world class vocal ability but they have a strong followings and command respect because they write and sing what many feel is the truth. Chabon writes brilliantly but writes (at least in TA) of nothing real and believable.


message 15: by Super (new) - rated it 1 star

Super Amanda For those referencing Zadie Smith, she is actually from the areas here in London that she writes of while Chabon came to the East Bay much later in life and did not grow up there. He captured little of the present day East Bay and nothing of the past.


message 16: by Mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mark While I concede that the book is not a stellar characterization of place (that, despite the fact that the title is "of place"), I really think the criticisms are entirely too harsh. That said, everyone to their own opinion. I feel the points you and others make about stereotypes carry some weight, as well, but the book was so much better than the standard drivel I run across, including highly rated rubbish here on GR. I come from a small group that suffers dearly on the stereotype front, myself, and I happen to have spent a couple of years living in Alameda in the late 60's (I was just a kid, though). I felt the book carried a reasonably solid flavor for parts of the East Bay, and countless authors write of places they've lived or visited for far less time than Chabon lived in the Bay Area.

I also disagree that there can be no beauty in "celebrating the broken pieces of a community." Much of the world's greatest fiction comes from precisely such a scenario, does it not?


message 17: by Super (last edited Aug 01, 2013 02:47PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Super Amanda Mark wrote: "While I concede that the book is not a stellar characterization of place (that, despite the fact that the title is "of place"), I really think the criticisms are entirely too harsh. That said, ever..." He IS a GREAT writer and you are correct he's far superior to much of what is promoted on here-no lie. I was far more inspired by disagreeing with the plot and premise than by books I enjoy so the book is an important one for certain. Part of the issue with the Bay Area is that you have severe violent crime alongside some of the wealthiest places in the US like Marin, Danville and Piedmont. And while it is true in some sweeping, stylized stories about war and poverty there is a beauty among the ashes, I can't apply that to Oakland. It is the fact that Chabon is romanticizing the ghetto, blackness, black culture and music and in the msm received not ONE , even modicum of criticism that I as a white person I found baffling. Better works he's penned have received more negativity from the msm. Perhaps there are those afraid to bring up race which is understandable.


message 18: by Mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mark My apologies if I sounded combative. I've just read my first 3 Chabon novels in a row, I was that impressed. One would think it would be easier to find good reads, especially on Goodreads.com. ;) For me he spun a good tale eloquently, but it is a joy of life that we all have different tastes and aesthetics.


message 19: by John (new) - rated it 3 stars

John Luiz Mark

Is it really that hard to find good books? If you like "big books" that are critical darlings like those by Chabon, you will find plenty of reviews here on goodreads by authors like Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Ian McEwan, Dan Chaon, Colum McCann, Ben Fountain, Adam Haslett and that is only to name a few of the male authors.


message 20: by Mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mark John,

Thanks for your suggestions. Of your list, I only know McEwan's work. Critical darlings, eh? Perhaps that is my vein, although I've only read a tiny bit of the literati critiques, just a NYT review on occasion. I am a technical type and something of an artist and writer, but have never paid much attention to the critics. Barely enough time to create and read when the mortgage paying gig is done.


message 21: by John (new) - rated it 3 stars

John Luiz Try Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a book that deservedly won a lot of critical attention last year. He juggles a lot of balls the way Chabon does, but he does so without the excesses Chabon did in TA - ( a point we can agree to disagree on).


message 22: by Mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mark OK, OK, I read this review again, and I like it even if I don't quite agree. ...and despite the fact that I did not have the same reaction to the writing style that John did. The review was still thoughtful and honest. Can't ask for much more than that.


message 23: by Sheryl (new) - added it

Sheryl Sorrentino Oh, thank you so very much for articulating exactly what I am feeling, now halfway through this book, and enjoying it enough to want to go on, but wishing Chabon didn't find it necessary to devote an entire page to cutesy, big-worded descriptions of all the characters who showed up to Nat's neighborhood meeting--among the other phenomena you so aptly describe. My brain hurts!


Michael Forstadt You are entitled to your opinion. I'm not here to convince anyone to like anything they don't actually like. I will say only that it is scandalously unfair of you to include, in quotes, a sample of Chabon's overblown prose which is, in fact, not his. The "quoted" excerpt is, if I am not mistaken, your own lame imitation of the type of prose you think Chabon is guilty of. This not only unfair, but unnecessary; you had a whole book full of elaborate wordiness to pull from. This says more about the reviewer than the reviewed.


message 25: by John (last edited Aug 25, 2013 01:45AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

John Luiz Just for point of clarification - the words I quoted are an exact lift from a sentence on page 104. I think I also made clear I am admirer of Chabon's command of prose and talent for making metaphors. My point was that he never turns that gift off so that even when a character is doing something as trivial as reaching for something, he has to write a metaphor-laden sentence, which in my view has the cumulative effect of slowing the whole book down. (That explains why I quoted a trivial sentence.) Your passion for Chabon is admirable - and I even acknowledged that those who disagree could consider me a philistine. I admit that those who like diificult-to-read authors like Pynchon or Doris Lessing may be partaking in something I am missing out on. All I have said is that it's not my cup of tea. And while I am not offended by the vehemence of your response, I find it humorous when others say they're not against opposing viewpoints then proceed to insult someone who has one. But here I am proving what another commenter accused me of --being verbose. Okay, guilty as charged on that one.


message 26: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John I agree with much of what you said about the book. I too had to re-read passages more than once to figure out what was happening and was glad I read it on an ebook so I could easily look up unfamiliar words. Yet, saying all that, I really enjoyed the book. His descriptions are often long and hard to follow at times, but are worth it because they give the reader a better sense of character and scene.


Jeremy I definitely found the virtuoso writing "in service of" ... Not gratuitous as you suggest. I did feel arms length from some of the characters... But that was sort of because they were arms length from themselves. I admit my bias based on 6 years living near nat and archy's store... But ... I found the characters fully realized, and I loved it. Might have liked it even more with 75 pages of cuts, true.


message 28: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Litz-Neavear John,
Thank you so much for writing this review. Because I felt an instant "like" to Chabon while he was being interviewed, I was very excited to read this novel. But the whole time I was reading it, I couldn't help but think that he is in need of someone with a big red pencil. I started to doubt my own intellect; what business do I have trying to read this novel where I keep getting lost? I'm glad that someone of your intellect also found this book somewhat laborious. I gave this book three stars because I found the characters well-developed (maybe overly so), but more importantly, genuinely likeable - even believable. I'm glad I stuck it out, if only to visit Goodreads and see that others' responses were similar to my own.


Michael B John - thanks for your review – I have deleted my previous review. While I love Chabon and think he is brilliant, he seems to be too wrapped up in his descriptions of the smallest events (I have used my dictionary more with this book than any other in recent memory). While he is fascinating describing some events, I really don’t need two of three pages describing Archie’s purple suit. This is starting to remind me of how Thomas Wolfe ground me down over the years. From his early days with such works as “the Electric Kool Aid Acid Trip” which was neat, compact and fun, I finally had to toss in the towel “I am Charlotte Simmons” when he spent about 20 pages describing how drunk/stoned these people were. I certainly hope Chabon does not continue down this road where a really great 250 page book gets inflated to 900 pages because the author wants to spend 23 pages describing the difference between a walnut and a pecan. To quote Chekhov, “"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." Chabon, like Wolfe, is keeping the run around until 23 acts in a three act story.


Olivermuscio John, excellent review, but, for me, I felt less strongly about the aspects you criticized (but don't necessarily disagree) and enjoyed the book more. Just a matter of taste...


Karen Boney Just finished it and fee likel this great weight has lifted now that it's finally done. Totally agree with your assessment - wordy for the sake of wordiness and light on story. I felt the same way about Kavalier and Clay but have loved everything else - Summerland especially.


message 32: by Bill (new) - added it

Bill Feagin I have to agree with you in large part; I'm still working on this book, and Chabon's writing style is DENSE. It seems like there's a lot more description of the scenes going on than actual dialogue. I don't recall feeling this bogged down reading The Yiddish Policeman's Union or Gentlemen of the Road. As to the 11-page sentence, I suspect it of being either A) a case of the writer not having an editor, or B) ignoring them if he does, as well as C) proving that if Faulkner can do it, so can he. (And Faulkner was supposed to have written a 40-page sentence!)


Heidi Ravis I completely agree with your review. Nicely done.


message 34: by Anna (new) - rated it 2 stars

Anna Kennedy Brilliant review ...


message 35: by Craig (new)

Craig T One of the great things about Michael Chabon surely is his prose style? I first discovered him from a free printed sample chapter from 'Mysteries of Pittsburgh' handed out in a bookshop - which demonstrated incredible confidence in his writing style - and for me was staggeringly good.
But Telegraph Avenue is for me easily his worst book - though not because it's badly written or difficult to read. It's more to do with the fact that he has picked a world which he knows little about, is already over familiar to most people from recent movies, and about which he can find little interesting or original to add. I just kept thinking - why is Michael Chabon writing about this? The Yiddish Policemen's Union was gripping, tightly plotted and believable. Kavalier & Clay was a work of complete genius, but one which riffed on themes which Chabon clearly loved. Wonder Boys was absolutely grounded in a world he knew well.
But 'Telegraph Avenue' finds him trying to see into someone else's world. And he simply can't carry it off.
Great writer, bad book. Still looking forward to the next one.


message 36: by Hazel (new)

Hazel Lyder Thank you for this wonderful review. I loved Yiddish Policemen's Union (which I read several years ago) and was wondering, why is this not clicking for me? The sentences! Jeez. Seventeen clauses in and we haven't got to a subject yet. And, yes, the similies and metaphors, clever but murderously overdone. Makes Infinite Jest feel like a dawdle in comparison.


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