“Telegraph Avenue” (2012) / Michael Chabon / 2.2.16

21 Feb

Telegraph Avenue, Michael ChabonI just finished Telegraph Avenue like three seconds ago. Just closed the paperback, muttered “fucking marvelous” under my breath, and set it on the table in front of me. Though I will write about the novel as a whole, I feel I must comment, right off the bat, on its fabulous ending.

There’s this feeling that pervades the final forty or so pages, this nostalgic tone it has struck in me that hangs in the air and continues ringing, sharp and clear and sweet, even now as I type this.

I find it cheesy and convenient when a story wraps up cleanly and happily, and, though it kind of does happen here—a baby is born, a friendship survives, an unorthodox family, so perilously close to not being a family, winds up bound together in a sloppy happy kind of tumultuous optimism, a young boy rides off on a skateboard into a late October evening in Oakland, California—Chabon manages to nevertheless provide a happy ending that contains creeping elements that suggest its own tenuousness. There was a deep kind of warmhearted satisfaction that came over me as I traversed the final pages of Telegraph Avenue—a happy ending of sorts, yes—but one that was earned, so perfectly balanced between giving off vibes of hope and betraying a cautious portent of possibly everything maybe not going so well. Chabon set this thing up so intricately and perfectly that its ending comes like a big sigh of relief from somewhere within your own heart. That’s the magic of the written word right there, and Chabon is a first-rate sorcerer.

Now, Michael Chabon is a much-loved darling of contemporary American literature. Born in 1963 in Washington DC, Chabon had an interesting childhood, raised as he was in Columbia, Maryland in “a planned community built along egalitarian principles of racial, religious, and economic integration,” all the while dreaming of escaping it. He attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh before doing his MFA at UC Irvine. He began his first novel (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) at the age of 20, and published it in 1988 at the age of 24. After that, he spent a few years writing a novel called Fountain City that never came to be, abandoned its writing, and wrote instead a little novel called Wonder Boys, published in 1995, which was made into a film of the same name starring Michael Douglas and a bunch of other famous actors in 2000. (Incidentally, twenty years after its publication, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was also made into a film of the same name starring Peter Saarsgard and Sienna Miller.) Also in 2000, he published the hugely successful The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which took that year’s much-coveted Pulitzer Prize (and was a finalist for, amazingly, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the IMPAC Literary Award), followed by a work of young-adult fiction called Summerland (2002), a novella called The Final Solution (2004), and finally the much-heralded novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, in 2007, the latter making all kinds of waves in the scifi/fantasy realm, winning both of the two most prestigious scifi/fantasy awards, the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award, that year. In the midst of all this, he met and married the novelist Ayelet Waldman and they had two children; and of course a book was borne of this as well (a nonfiction work, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasure and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, published in 2009). But for five years after The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the literary world waited to see what this odd, prolific, big-hearted genius would come up with next. Enter Telegraph Avenue.

Telegraph Avenue wasn’t originally supposed to be a novel, and the world would have been bereft. Around 2000, Chabon wrote the screenplay for a TV pilot for TNT. The show was to be called Telegraph Avenue, but the pilot never saw the light of day. And right around when The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was published, Chabon began to realize that the story-nugget behind his never-made TV show could be re-imagined into a novel; said re-imagining and its subsequent fine-tuning took five years, and we, the happy readers of the world, were finally graced with this glorious and wonderful novel in 2012.

Michael ChabonPrior to Telegraph Avenue, the only Chabon I’d ever read was The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which I read probably about a dozen years ago, and which I recall really enjoying. I don’t know why I’ve never read Kavalier and Clay or Policemen’s Union. I’ve wanted to for years, but other books have always pressed in on my mind more eagerly, I suppose. And I don’t know why it took me three years to get around to reading Telegraph Avenue, set as it is entirely in the East Bay (Oakland and Berkeley), one of my favorite chunks of metropolitan geography in the world.

Telegraph Avenue is set in 2004, and its principal players are two sets of friends, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe and their respective wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe. Archy and Nat own and operate a used vinyl store on Telegraph Avenue, while Gwen and Aviva are midwives who make up the Berkeley Birthing Partners. Nat and Aviva have a teenage son, Julius, who goes by the moniker Julie. At the novel’s beginning, Gwen is pregnant with she and Archy’s first child. Nat and Aviva are white, while Archy and Gwen are black. Two couples, two races, two businesses. The symmetry is charming, delightful, and seemingly convenient, but the power of Chabon’s writing, and his construction of the complicated series of events that unfold all around this apparently easy framework, overcome the potential literary cheese-factor danger of such a picture-perfect set-up, and it becomes the context for a truly delightful story of family, friendship, and sexual awakening. 

Now, a key point of strength to the novel is that, though it’s set in the East Bay, in the midst of a very densely-populated urban center, there’s this small-town feeling to it, where most of the action takes place at a handful of locales (the record store, the Berkeley Birthing Partners office, the hospital, Nat and Aviva’s place, Archy and Gwen’s place, et cetera), and the motley assemblage of characters around our four principal players make up a tight-knit community with a lot of history. This is another potential pitfall that Chabon manages very well. There are, plainly, a lot of characters here, a wild assorted bunch of them who hang around the record store all the time, from Mr. Mirchandani (the Indian immigrant businessman who runs a number of hotels and mini-marts) and Moby (a white attorney who speaks far too often in Ebonics), to Cochise Jones (an old jazz musician and kind of father figure to Archy, whose pet parrot, Fifty-Eight, plays a role in the novel as well), as well as a number of characters from outside of the record store who are tied to the unfolding drama, from Chandler Bankwell Flowers III (long-ago best friend of Archy’s father and current city councilman) and Gibson Goode (very wealthy former NFL quarterback who owns and operates the Dogpile chain of megastores threatening to open a location on Telegraph Avenue) to Luther Stallings (Archy’s sort-of dead-beat father, chronically troubled with drugs, and former hero of a number of well-known Blaxploitation films) to Valletta Moore (Luther’s on-again off-again love interest). Chabon works this all to marvelous effect, and, despite its perfectly modern urban setting, with its “oaklandish” twist to it, it reminds me of a Victorian novel of manners. It’s as if Dickens were alive today, and writing about Oakland now instead of London then. It’s a nineteenth-century novel of manners magically transported (via the wizardry of Chabon’s wordsmithery) to the low-brow streets of “Brokeland.”

There are several concurrent plotlines unfolding. There’s the potential and imminent opening of a giant new store down the street from Brokeland Records that would house a vinyl section that would dwarf Brokeland’s and probably run Nat and Archy’s beloved shop into the ground. There’s a particularly problematic birth that Gwen and Aviva preside over that has some potentially disastrous legal repercussions. There’s the sudden return of Archy’s much-reviled and long-absent father, Luther Stallings. There’s the also-sudden appearance of fifteen-year-old Titus Joyner, who it turns out is Archy’s son, from a long-ago relationship. There’s the resurfacing of a potentially damning piece of evidence related to a murder that happened many years ago. There’s the sexual awakening of young Julie Jaffe. And there’s Archy’s chronic bad decision-making in his personal life that, on top of all the other stresses he’s facing, has also put his relationship with Gwen under considerable strain.

In particular, the topic of fatherhood is one that is thoroughly explored by Chabon here. Archy has such a messed up relationship with his father, and he’s facing the imminent birth of his first legitimate child concurrent with the arrival of his already-teenaged illegitimate son, whose existence he only peripherally even knew about. As the novel careens toward its conclusion, which I’ve discussed above, and as Gwen prepares to deliver her child into the world, she muses over his fate: “Gwen found herself in possession, coolly palmed in her thoughts like a dollar coin, of the idea that she was about to bring another abandoned son into the world, the son of an abandoned son. The heir to a history of disappointment and betrayal, violence and loss. Centuries of loss, empires of disappointment” (451). It’s this worry, we readers realize at this point, that has pervaded the entire novel. In a way, this unborn wee one silently reigns over the novel, perhaps the most significant and central character of all.

Now, apart from the plot, the characters, and entire novel itself, I must also say a bit about Chabon’s phenomenal writing skills. There are those critics who accuse him of being unnecessarily erudite or wordy or long-winded. Some of this may be warranted. That does come across in this book. However, in my opinion, though I did find myself occasionally having to pause to engage the dictionary for help with a word here or there, I feel that this cost to the reader in time/energy is far outweighed by the plain old dazzling brilliance of some of the delicately poetic and sharply metaphorical skyscraper sentences that Chabon manages to erect. If you’ll allow me to briefly nerd out here, it bears drawing a comparison between Chabon and his now-departed contemporary, David Foster Wallace. Chabon writes in a manner that flirts with the mock-academic style of DFW. Though he doesn’t go nearly as all-in as DFW does in this regard, Chabon’s style lends itself perhaps more handily to the medium of narrative fiction, in that he employs the mock-academic stylings with a bit more attention to the overarching cinematic vision of his story. I don’t intend this to be a dis to DFW at all; in the end, both he and Chabon are master storytellers, but I’m trying to draw a more specific distinction for those readers of mine who, like me, have read a fair amount of DFW’s work, but haven’t read much Chabon, and are thinking of reading much more.

Perhaps nowhere in the novel, though, are Chabon’s writing chops more on display than in the exquisitely cinematic Part III, which is titled “A Bird of Wide Experience,” in which he takes readers on a journey across a number of tiny scenes throughout the novel’s overall setting, visiting briefly this or that character, all guided by the flight of Fifty-Eight, Cochise Jones’s parrot, who has been set free, as he bounces around Oakland and Berkeley. One can imagine a montage scene in a film, with a song playing, as we readers peek into the lives, in small snapshots, of the major characters. It’s a brilliant move Chabon makes here, using the parrot as a tool to provide the readers with this break in the narrative, while simultaneously advancing it in small, subtle ways by having the bird move among a number of small scenes. Most impressive, though, is that he does it all in one marvelous sentence, spanning 12 pages.

If all this isn’t enough to convince you to read Telegraph Avenue promptly, let me mention two final things. First, there’s a delightful scene in which Gwen meets a young pre-presidential Obama just before he speaks at a fundraiser for John Kerry’s ill-fated 2004 presidential campaign. They have a charming and lovely conversation, and I just thoroughly enjoyed this particular scene, as it’s not often we see such big names portrayed in fiction, but also insofar as it’s a little bit of a look back to a version of Obama before his name and identity were so heavily laden with all the blame and weight and vitriol and affection to which he is so distinctly attached and in the midst of which he still finds himself.

Secondly, I should also add that the paperback version of the novel I own is donned in one of the coolest and most attractive covers I’ve seen on a paperback in some time. The book’s cover, front and back and inside flaps, all done in a stamped blue-and-orange arrangement, is a lovely work of art itself—not withstanding all the beauty contained therein—and would make the novel a handsome addition to any book lover’s collection.

So get out there and read this one, folks. It’s a modern masterpiece.

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