Michael Chabon Grows Up with ‘Telegraph Avenue’

Michael Chabon, wunderkind of pop-culture-savvy asides and youthful nostalgia, began his first novel while still an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. He completed the manuscript, which he called The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and turned it in as his master’s thesis at the University of California, Irvine, where one of Chabon’s advisors, MacDonald Harris, sent the manuscript (unbeknownst to its author) to a literary agent. It put $155,000 in Chabon’s pocket and thrust him into the blistering heat of the limelight.

Chabon’s colorful endeavors in writing the novel are explored in several of his personal essays (one of which is now published in the P.S. section at the end of Mysteries): in an attic no bigger than a crawlspace in his mother’s house, Chabon balanced on a dangerously feeble chair under the dim glow of a single dangling light bulb and pounded away on a primitive word processor, all of 64 kb of memory at his fingertips, the words scrolling along a screen just five inches wide, with barely enough room to extend his arms. That the novel, a bildungsroman of a recent college grad and his motley crew of friends and acquaintances (bikers, homosexuals, old rich white men, a beautiful but detached young girl named Phlox), has a back-story almost as interesting as the novel itself is the stuff of literary stardom.

It’s this stardom that Chabon has been rebelling against for 25 years.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh came out in 1988 and was an instant critical and commercial hit. Chabon’s rapid literary ascendancy catalyzed at the peak of the Brat Pack, a group of recent college grads (all of whom honed their prose in workshops, like Chabon) who tackled difficult subject matter—drugs, sex, violence, living in Los Angeles—and favored sparse, minimalist prose. The two archetypes of the movement, Brett Easton Ellis and Jay Mclnerney, drew notoriety with their debuts: Easton’s cocaine-laced Less Than Zero, a pseudo-existentialist depiction of L.A. youth driving on freeways and snorting this and that, came out in 1985, when Easton was only 22; Mclnerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, known for its second-person narration, came out one year earlier and similarly portrays high-brow intellectuals with a penchant for the good snuff.

Together, these two novels marked the beginning of the Brat Pack, and collegiate would-be novelists who sought instant success consequently unleashed a deluge of derivative transgressive slop. (Chabon pokes slightly bitter fun at the mess that was ‘80s workshops in his second novel, Wonder Boys.) The Brat Pack didn’t last long, though: Ellis would quickly move away from his sordid Carveresque expositions and delve into postmodern satire with his 1991 opus American Psycho, a gaudy and lacerating dissection of the hedonistic yuppies inhabiting Regan-era Manhattan; Mclnerney’s career, on the other hand, never amounted to much more than snarky postmodern-lite, his debut novel the root note in his 20-years of squalid urban fiction—more akin to Paul Aster’s lesser works than Don DeLillo’s wickedly clever social criticism— to which Mclnerney continues to return but never evolve from.

It must have been tempting for critics to lump Chabon in with the Brat Pack. He was young, a workshop survivor, his fiction steeped in sexual yearning and adolescent experimentation. But Chabon had different aspirations. His writing, sometimes dazzling and sometimes flowery, was (and is) voice-dominant. Every page offered sentence after sentence of wonderfully overwrought descriptions of young lust, ambitions outweighed by apathy, youth enveloped by the sultry allure of lazy afternoons spent drinking, smoking, fucking. And his prose exhibited wit, whereas the Brat Pack preferred gloomy brashness. He wrote with empathy, with earnest reflection and self-consciousness, pervaded by sepia-daubed nostalgia. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a lens through which we can view his career, his rise to stardom and his aversion to that stardom, his similar origins to the Brat Pack and all the ways in which he differs from them—in his prose, his life, his fame, his ongoing legacy.

Along with Ellis and Mclerney and, a few years later, Donna Tartt (whose debut, The Secret History, is unquestionably the most ambitious and gorgeously-written of all the writers associated with the Brat Pack), Chabon was held up as the future of American literature; and only Chabon has grown as a writer, has earned a Pulitzer, had one of his novels included in Time’s 100 Novels of the Century. Ellis may have the most notorious Twitter account in America, but only Chabon is still debated and discussed in journals and magazines, his literary worth fought over by esteemed scholars and casual readers. Only Chabon has a reputation to uphold.

Since The Mysteries of Pittsburgh impelled him into the glare of bookish eminence at the unsullied age of 25 (still in the embryonic phase of writerly development, as far as the literary world is concerned), Chabon, whose difficulty in dealing with criticism is well-documented in various interviews and essays, has been struggling with the claim that he’s a stylist, not a story teller; that his flair for flashy verbosity and his ability to use hyperbolic analogy or simile to turn a phrase (a beer is a “yellow foaming cup of regret”) masques his literary worth; that his writing, like his author pic on the back cover, is simply pretty. (His angular mug and long, slick hair graced the covers of magazines, as one of People’s 50 Most Beautiful People, and the Gap tried to use him for an ad campaign, but Chabon refused.

Chabon’s face—stoic, with piercing blue eyes and just the right kind of stubble on his high cheek bones—suggests the suavity of Cary Grant and the cool, refined, collected aptitude of some young philosopher, a Virgil or Decarters, or perhaps a Voltaire. He was being heralded as the hottest and trendiest new writer, the Tom Cruise of letters, and Chabon has tried to transcend this shallow praise ever since, telling an interviewer “I don’t need that shit.”)

In the final page of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon exhibits all that made his prose endearing and all that would soon become a collective affliction, held against him like a rap sheet:

When I remember that dizzy summer, that dull, stupid, lovely, dire summer, it seems that in those days I ate my lunches, smelled another’s skin, noticed a shade of yellow, even simply sat, with greater lust and hopefulness—and that I lusted with greater faith, hoped with greater abandoned. The people I loved were celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare; the places I sat with them, movie lots and monuments. No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.

His long, digressive sentences and use of listed descriptions reflect the day-dreamy wistfulness of the narrator, Art. (Or does it reflect the day-dreamy wistfulness of Chabon? And is there even a difference?) Chabon’s burden of nostalgia and dexterity with words became both his greatest assets and his greatest self-inflicted tribulations.

Chabon wouldn’t ditch the first-person narrative until 2001, with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which won the Pulitzer Prize. (Not to discredit him, but the competition wasn’t very stiff that year.) More ambitious in scope and subject than his previous efforts, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay tells a sprawling, decades-spanning tale of two Jewish New Yorker boys, one an escapee of Hitler’s Germany, who collaborate on comics during World War Two. It strives for deep-seeded cultural issues, an attempt to capture the fears and anxieties and proclivities and lusts of a time and place, a dissection of Jewishness and sexual identity and nationalism, of art as escapism and as life support.

In Chabon’s hands, comics, “low art”, become more profound than eight square panels on a page. Like his friend and contemporary Jonathan Lethem, Chabon uses pop-culture as a vessel to explore gentrification and racial and generational schisms, with New York acting as a microcosm. His prose is at its most succinct in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay though still long and verbiage-heavy, each and every sentence has a task, illustrates a theme or develops a character or details the time and place. It’s a long but lean novel, moving quickly and captivatingly. Though in comparison to the preceding 500 pages, the ending feels a little—discounted? unearned? light? This was the novel that established Chabon as a “Great” American Author, not just a wordsmith. (Brett Easton Ellis called it one of the two or three best novels of his generation, whatever that means.)

But expectations for a follow-up were high, and Chabon was not quite able to meet them. After using pop-culture and pulp fiction as vessels to self-discovery and societal criticism, Chabon fell into a strange groove for a few years. He released several short novels that didn’t really surpass his influences or use them as stepping stones, but rather leaned on them, tried to imitate them, something a freshmen might do. He wrote an all-but-in-name Sherlock Holmes story that amounted to little more than glorified fan fiction. His Edgar Rice Burroughs homage, Gentlemen of the Road, also failed to do anything new or different; it’s just an imitation of Chabon’s heroes. The edition of McSweeney’s that he edited is the exact same pastiche, but with other like-minded writers joining the fun.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, an amalgamation of Chandler and Dick set in Alaska in an alternate history, finally displayed the Chabon that readers longed for. Not derivative of his influences but a unique with serious aspirations, the science-fiction-mystery novel asks difficult questions. In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani wrote: “Though the ultimate secret behind the murder that kick-starts the story involves a religious-political scheme that tips over clumsily into surreal satire, the remainder of the book is so authoritatively and minutely imagined that the reader, absorbed in the plight of Mr. Chabon’s shambling hero, really doesn’t mind.” ( “Looking for a Home in the Limbo of Alaska”, 01 May 2007)

Transcending Nostalgia

Then came 2012. The world hasn’t yet ended, but Chabon’s reputation began teetering dangerously close to post-Pulitzer self-destruction, like F. Murray Abraham or Adrian Brody or Halle Berry or Cuba Gooding, Jr. after their Oscar wins. He penned the script for the über-expensive mega-flop John Carter, an almost-$300 million disaster, directed by Pixar guru Andrew Stanton in his live-action debut. Though it boasts some impressive visual effects, John Carter earned overwhelmingly mediocre reviews, with particular antipathy directed towards its failure to transcend or improve upon the countless sci-fi serials and epics Burroughs’ work inspired (chief among them Star Wars, and how odd for a film adapted from a seminal work to feel derivative of the other works it inspired) and, in the world of pulp art, mediocrity fares far worse than horridness.

Then the New Yorker published one of Chabon’s short stories, “Citizen Conn” (February 2012); a frustratingly bland tale of an old comic book writer, derivative of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, devoid of the artful gaudiness of his best work, and strangely akin but still inferior to Alex Robinson’s cult comic Box Office Poison, the story fails to do anything new or interesting. It merely saps the wonderment from Chabon’s previous works.

So Telegraph Avenue arrives in the wake of a very bad year for Chabon. Will it redeem him, boost him back to the ranks of the Letter Elite? Or will it convince those on the fence that his best years are indeed behind him?

It would take the entire length of this essay to describe the novel’s plot with any coherent thoroughness, as it’s as contrived and labyrinthine and purposefully dense as the title track on Bitches Brew. Characters flow in and out of the story, which is as non-linear and inconsequential as a Tarantino flick (QT and Miles both act as motif and metaphor here, with numerous references to their albums/ films coming from all sides), with little-to-no back story offered. There’s Archy Stallings (who is black) and Nat Jaffe (who is white), the co-owners of Brokeland Records, a small independent used record store. Archy and Nat struggle to keep Brokeland afloat as vinyl aficionados seem an endangered species, and those who survived the advent of digitalization and P2P piracy, the Great Vinyl Genocide as initiated by Napster and its spawn, now flock to larger, cheaper outlets.

Thence the conflict of the story: the fifth-richest black man in the country, Gibson Goode, former NFL star, is preparing to build one of his string of large, black-oriented malls, called Dogpile Thang, a few blocks from Brokeland, which doesn’t have a prayer of competing with Goode’s immense selection of jazz and funk and soul, his selection deeper, his copies more bountiful, his prices four or five dollars less per disc.

Goode has some sort of history with Archy’s father, Luther, a washed-up would-be icon of ‘70s blaxploitation kung fu films, sometimes drug-user, and full-time disappointment of a father. Chan Flowers, a one-time partner of Luther during Chan’s days of rolling with the Black Panthers (he botches a murder in our first encounter with him, a shotgun and a target no more than five or ten feet away and he somehow misses every vital body part, blowing the guy’s hand off, instead), also has some kind of beef with Luther. Flowers is now a congressman and turncoat to Brokeland as he suddenly switches his position against Dogpile and becomes a proponent of Goode’s monster.

Then there’s Gwen (Archy’s pregnant wife) and Aviva (Nat’s wife and mother of his son), midwives facing the swelling monsoon of a lawsuit that may unravel their friendship. Gwen, four weeks from her due date, is reeling from a brief affair Archy had with the girl who makes Gwen’s smoothies. And Archy’s illegitimate 12-year-old child, the smart-ass and aspiring filmmaker Titus, pops up unexpectedly, his mother dead, nowhere to go. And Nat’s son develops a crush on Titus, who may or may not reciprocate the feelings (he doesn’t say much).

Almost all of this is revealed on the book flap, perhaps in an attempt to clarify readers’ confusion: it’s up to the reader to figure out how someone is related to someone else and what everyone’s motivation is, and it’s often an ordeal. Characters are sketched slowly, and there’s not a whole lot of exposition. No one says, “I hate so and so because of this and that”; Chabon will give us a scene of the characters interacting and we have to decipher what’s going on. It doesn’t sound very complex or earth-shatteringly revelatory, but this is the most subtle Chabon has ever been.

Though it’s concerned with nostalgia (true to form), the prose is written with an of-the-moment intimacy. As loudly as he writes (his comparison of a bald man’s head to a “porn star’s testicle” is one of his less-audacious analogies, and he even reuses that “cup of foaming regret” metaphor, possibly as self-deprecating meta-humor), Chabon whispers about character details and themes more than he bellows. His subtlety is subtly lurking beneath the sheen of five-syllable words and fragmented sentences.

Nothing and no one is above or below Chabon’s prodigious prose. He describes all with equal opportunity opulence. Here, he colors a supporting character who you may or may not forget several pages later: “Rob Abreu was a weary-shouldered, pudding-cheeked lawyer, at one time the attorney for the electrical worker’s union, younger and sharper than he looked, better educated than he sounded, scented with bay rum and endowed advantageously with large, moist mournful eyes the color of watery coffee that were set into his face in a pair of bruised hollows, prints inked in the malefactor thumbs of life.”

And here, during a Tarantino seminar in which we meet several characters of seemingly little importance but who show up later in roles of varying significance, Chabon carpet-bombs names and titles like an Entertainment Weekly writer manning a B51 bomber:

Julie found himself dizzied by his ignorance of Van Eder’s choices, only two of which, the Sergio Leone and The Band Wagon, he had seen. Unless, as seemed likely, there was another movie called The Band Wagon, because The Band Wagon that Julie had watched with his maternal grandparents one Christmas in Coconut Creek, Florida, was a delicious musical with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, whose thighs stirred ancient and somewhat distressing longings in Grandpa Roth. A couple of the other titles and directors were familiar. Zatoichi. Kubrick, duh.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay begins with palpable nostalgic back story: “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare… that back when he was a boy… he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.” Nostalgia, Chabon’s lifelong consort, doesn’t seep into the text but commandeers it, controls it like the Venom symbiote possessing Eddie Brock, the nostalgic inflection in the foreground; lucid, not pervasive, a character as vital as Kavalier or Clay. Telegraph Avenue doesn’t loudly declare its nostalgic yearnings like John Cusack with his boom box; we meet characters as they are at that precise moment, the third-person narration sometimes ubiquitous, sometimes tight and stream-of-Chabon, but always saturated with newness and modernity and sensorial observations, emotional confessions; pasts and histories unveiled slowly and deliberately, not proclaimed.

This makes the novel a difficult read for the first two-hundred pages or so, as you have to keep flipping back to remind yourself of minute characters who are often referred to by several names and monikers (Who the hell is Gary? Oh, Mr. Singletary, aka the King of Bling, aka Brokeland’s landlord, aka friend of Archy and Nat, aka Aisha’s father). This really gets disconcerting where race is concerned: ethnicity and racial heritage weave through the novel, a serpentine theme coiled around every character and every page, slithering through every conversation, not overtly manifested like nostalgia in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay but intangible, ethereal; imperceptible and eternal to nostalgia’s ephemeral avowal; race as a culture and ethnicity as persona, music and movies and lexicon and fashion and sexual tendencies all rooted in one’s genetic make-up, the countries from whence one’s lineage stems.

Chabon doesn’t reveal the race of his characters to us, and only sometimes mentions it in passing (Gwen calls a doctor racist, says something like “my black ass,” etc.). It’s a little uncomfortable trying to decipher a character’s ethnicity, the average reader not wanting to concede to stereotyping, but this is all part of Chabon’s brilliance: he doesn’t bring direct attention to race (though it eventually feels like the main thread connecting the events and characters). He treats it naturally, almost casually. It’s frustrating for a long while, but when you start to get it, the novel falls into place brilliantly.

You may go back and reread the first two-hundred pages with this new clarity and find that details that originally eluded you are now enlightening, touching. This is the most Chabon-like writing he’s published since The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in its nimble use stream-of-consciousness, culture, and art to build character. Music and pop-culture are entwined with the characters, as defining as race or gender.

Chabon has finally taken his proclivity for verbosity, his flair for flaring prose, and used it to say something; the writing is beautiful and wholly Chabon (if a bit difficult to follow), the zenith of which arrives midway through in the form of a 12-page sentence (in which, for the second time in his career, Chabon writes from the POV of a bird). These 12 pages are not just a gimmick or showboating but represent everything that Chabon has aspired to create, turn everything that has been thrown at him by critics and fans alike on its head, cultivating everything he’s good at and everything he’s not so good at; like Telegraph Avenue, both the novel and the street, this 12-page voyage is ostentatious and showy, neon signs flashing Gimme a Pulitzer!, but Chabon transcends mere flamboyance; he’s in control of his stardom, his gift for language, his seemingly endless knowledge of all things pop—they aren’t in control of him; and his characters aren’t buried underneath the prose, but rather are entangled with it, the whole book an organic thing, the wordiness and irony and sometimes shallowness as necessary as any back-story he could have given us.

The long sentences, ramblings, and seemingly irrelevant details aren’t Chabon unhinged or the author’s mind spraying like a fire hose but the consciousness of an avenue and its inhabitants. When you finally penetrate its glitzy façade, Telegraph Avenue is, ultimately and essentially, Chabon’s Chaboniest novel.

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