Title: Telegraph Avenue
Author: Michael Chabon
Other Reviews for This Author: None
My relationship with literary fiction has been discussed several times as I've dipped my toe into the waters of the adult "literature" monster. Telegraph Avenue was a novel that sparked my interest because of A) the interracial relationships that promise to dominate the novel and B) the gay relationship between two teenagers mentioned within the blurb. Chabon has won several high-profile literary awards and is an author that many in literary circles seem to enjoy, so I had high hopes for Telegraph Avenue. While it is in many cases a solid example of a modern literary epic in terms of the storytelling, the execution and characters did nothing to win me over as a reader.
Brokeland - located between Berkeley and Oakland, an area of California steeped in the cultural mess that is the post-2000's - is a used record store for the ages. In the decade of CD's and cellular phones, the appreciation for the religion, the paradise of classic vinyl records is fading away. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, the owners and co-worshipers of the gods of the vinyl, have been in it since the beginning. Their love of vinyl records and all things musical has been a staple for the blatant bull-shitting that has allowed the record store to survive on the borders of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, like them, work together in a passionate business - though Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe are midwives, showing their worship with home birthing methods and unique personal care. Their families are tied together; two sides of the same record playing endlessly as time marches on.
With the technological revolution rearing its head, Brokeland Records may finally be going out of business. Year of death: 2004. Gibson Goode is planning on putting in one of his Dogpile megastores just a few blocks away. With the ability to sell any type of media - including specialty used records - at competitive prices, it's a big-business powerhouse that is the nightmare of stores like Brokeland. Goode, a former NFL quarterback and the fifth-richest black man in the US, has no qualms with ruining Brokeland. Archy and Nat have every intention of keeping their store, yet the prospect of fighting Goode and his Dogpile machine seems all-too daunting, especially when they realize just how far Goode has gone to assure that the community will allow him to construct his store.
Dogpile causes Archy and Nat to do more than question their relationship with their store. Like all catalysts, it unleashes a chain of events that lead Archy to dealing with his down-and-out father, a former Blaxploitation movie and kung-fu star whose sordid past included a scene of grisly murder with Chan, the owner of the local funeral parlor. Chan and his dealings with Goode are what allowed Dogpile to worm its way past certain city ordinances and legalities. The past and present tangle together as blackmail, dirty dealings, and old grudges rise to the surface. On top of that, Gwen and Aviva have to deal with their own issues regarding someone's dissatisfaction with a birth-gone-awry, not to mention Archy's affair with a girl from a local restaurant. Aviva's son Julius is growing up as this joint-familial struggle occurs, befriending a runaway named Titus who has a history with Archy Stallings. Telegraph Avenue is an epic yarn that tells the story of two modern families trying to keep the old culture alive as they adjust to the new culture growing around them.
The above summary of Telegraph Avenue does it little justice. In literary novels like this, it's fair to warn the reader that a lot goes on - a lot more than a blurb can ever hope to tell or imply. There were times that I was frustrated with the direction of the story, yet other times impressed with the depths in which Chabon would take his view on the current American lifestyle. His characters are numerous and detailed to the point of being overly-detailed, so it won't do much good to analyze the main characters in depth the way that I usually do. Archy and Nat are the biggest players in the tale of Telegraph Avenue, and Chabon clearly has a special liking of these two male friends. He plays with contrasts with the characters in Telegraph Avenue, and these two male protagonists in particular show that contrasting generational view of Chabon's. Archy is black and Nat is a Jewish white guy. Their outer appearances are different, yet they are both slightly-overweight men who err on the side of nerdiness and awkwardness. Though they contrast in their physical appearances and cultural backgrounds, they come together through their interests and remain friends in a way that is eternal, truthful; they are the essence of understanding. The sad part is that Chabon makes his motives with the characters a bit too obvious - they are prone to being forgiven where other characters wouldn't be, and at times their characterization felt pansy or absent in favor of their place in the grand scheme of things. They are two men that are easy to lose to bigger, bolder characters in the text. You see, for instance, the character of Cochise Jones, a man known for his love of jazz and leisure shirts, companion to a slightly irritable parrot that never leaves his side save for private bodily functions, that steals the show with is intelligence, insight, and general personality. You have Julius and Titus - a lost boy and a boy that wants to be lost, respectively. Their relationship is just as rocky, and the unhealthy nature of how Titus brushes off Julius' affections due to his sexual awakening are troublesome. Chabon makes it feel like there is some greater purpose for this in the narrative, yet the relationship between these two boys always feels just a little too off in its portrayal for it to be a comforting notion.
The biggest issue is that these male characters paled in comparison to the females that were milling about the story. Gwen and Aviva are both kick-butt female characters with strong personalities. Gwen and her hot temper are both fascinating, and as a reader I constantly rooted for her to stick to her guns despite the professional implications. She stands up for her rights as someone who deserves to be treated equally and takes no shit. None. How can you not like that in a character? Aviva is useful in that she is strong like Gwen, yet shows that in her relationship with her son and his new friend/more-than Titus. They have a way of digging into the people around them and knowing about them that is powerful - more powerful than either of their husbands, that is for sure. Yet Gwen's character repeatedly takes blows throughout the narrative that feel undermining to her character - especially in regards to how little Archy's cheating is addressed. She wanders, leaves the house, kicks him out of the house...yet the ultimate resolution is anti-climactic and involves a coming-together-at-the-hospital bed that reeks of magical forgiveness. Gwen may have a child and ultimately show her superiority in small but significant ways in the end, yet the narrative still showed a bit too much sympathy for the male end of things to feel entirely useful in its portrayal of it. Not to mention that the midwifing portions of the story were interesting in a way that all of the hijinks of the male-dominated storylines weren't. Chabon taps into a very domestic but unconventional pathway to show his female characters in a profession that is a modern blend of old feminine expectations and new feminine expansions.
Chabon's biggest boon is his writing talent. Some passages of Telegraph Avenue are beautiful. This book is long and filled with words, and some of them just turn out perfectly. He captures the jazz, funk, and pomp of vinyl records - the way they harken back to the 70's in a hipster, devil-may-care way. He gets things about modern culture that other authors don't, and even the smallest of descriptions in his narrative are important in what they reveal about today's culture and how it is a hybrid of the black and white cultures of old, a mixture that is new and not defined by a particular race but rather the cultural aspects of all of the races. Chabon writes in a way that feels respectful and understanding of where the spirit of black culture comes from, yet he also captures the white culture just as well. Those aspects of Telegraph Avenue make me see it as a literary success. It perfectly captures the spirit of today's culture and two families that are really one large one. Yet...there are times when his execution is questionable. Telegraph Avenue may house pretty words and vital descriptions, but the plot's willy-nilly nature can be too much for a reader trying to digest all of it, and it's not organized in a way that feels particularly vital to the understanding of the story. The length gets to it as well, and some passages are incredible slogs that could easily be skipped over without any concern for what has gone on within the skipped words/sentences/paragraphs/pages. Chabon also has a chapter that is one long sentence. This is a several-page sentence. It's at once genius and expected, and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that chapter in particular. It fits the character it focuses on and the subject, yet the stylistic choice doesn't necessarily help the book's readability or smoothness. Telegraph Avenue may be an epic in terms of size and cultural scope, yet it doesn't have the polish that a good epic story does.
I did not love Telegraph Avenue. There were things that I admired about it - the high quality of writing, the way the female characters had an enriching story - but my focus on the story was constantly challenged by the flow of the narrative and some of the walls of text, not to mention the treatment of the characters in gender dynamic and, in Titus and Julius's case, the treatment of the LGBTQ romantic relationship (or lack-thereof in Titus' case). I may return to Chabon in the future, as his writing has a literary quality to it that gets to the heart of today's culture and the way its a mixture of all types of diversities, but I don't think Telegraph Avenue was the best way to showcase it. It's a solid novel in and of itself, but nothing that fits my tastes based on the execution and characterization.
Cover: This cover is wonderful: simplistic, modern, and it fits the story in the deceivingly basic design.
Rating: 3.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Trish and Harper Collins!)