Michael Chabon Grows Up with 'Telegraph Avenue'
Michael Chabon writes with empathy, with earnest reflection and self-consciousness, pervaded by sepia-daubed 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.