Artis­tic av­enue or too-cute cul-de-sac?

Tele­graph Av­enue

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley James Bradley

By Michael Chabon Fourth Es­tate, 468pp, $29.99

ADECADE ago Michael Chabon ap­peared des­tined to be one of the great writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion. Af­ter two ac­claimed nov­els, The Mys­ter­ies of Pitts­burgh and Won­der Boys (filmed by Cur­tis Han­son) he had, with his third book, The Amaz­ing Ad­ven­tures of Kava­lier & Clay, man­aged not just to win a Pulitzer prize in 2001 but to find a reg­is­ter and sub­ject that felt gen­uinely fresh.

Yet in the years since the 2007 pub­li­ca­tion of his fourth novel, the well re­ceived al­ter­na­tive his­tory thriller The Yid­dish Po­lice­man’s Union, Chabon has pur­sued a dif­fer­ent path, de­vot­ing his time to Hol­ly­wood (he was one of the writ­ers of the ill-fated Edgar Rice Bur­roughs adaptation John Carter) and to a cu­ri­ous as­sort­ment of of­ten ill­tem­pered es­says ex­plor­ing pulp and genre lit­er­a­ture.

It’s prob­a­bly not co­in­ci­den­tal, then, that Chabon’s new novel, Tele­graph Av­enue, feels like a book with a lot rid­ing on it. Set in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, it cen­tres on a mu­sic shop, Broke­land Records, a ‘‘ church of vinyl’’ lo­cated on the bound­ary be­tween Oak­land and its up­mar­ket neigh­bour, Berke­ley, and run by friends Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe.

As the novel opens it’s the sum­mer of 2004 and Broke­land is slowly go­ing un­der, squeezed by chang­ing fash­ion and the rise of the in­ter­net.

Yet when ex-NFL foot­baller turned busi­ness­man Gib­son ‘‘ G Bad’’ Goode an­nounces plans to open his next ‘‘ Thang’’, as he calls his mas­sive en­ter­tain­ment and re­tail com­plexes, two blocks south of Broke­land, Archy and Nat are faced with the prospect of im­mi­nent clo­sure. Al­though equally threat­ened, the two men re­spond dif­fer­ently.

For the mis­an­thropic Nat, a white man with a pas­sion for black mu­sic and cul­ture, it is a call to arms to pro­tect the cul­tural and eth­nic diver­sity of his home from the cor­po­rate depre­da­tions of Goode (whose com­pany is called, rather un­sub­tly, Dog­pile). For Archy, who is black, it is a more com­plex propo­si­tion, es­pe­cially af­ter Goode of­fers him a job run­ning the Thang’s vinyl depart­ment.

Archy’s home life is a mess. His wife, Gwen, who is ex­pect­ing their first child, has kicked him out af­ter dis­cov­er­ing that not only has he been sleep­ing with an­other woman but he has a teenage son, Ti­tus, he’s never seen fit to re­veal to her (and who has now ar­rived unan­nounced in Oak­land).

Mean­while, Gwen and Nat’s wife, Aviva, who run a mid­wifery part­ner­ship to­gether, have had a com­plaint lodged against them af­ter a rou­tine birth goes wrong. Then Nat’s cinephile son, Julie, falls in love with Ti­tus. And, fi­nally, Archy’s ex-junkie fa­ther, a small­time blax­ploita­tion kung fu star in the 1970s, has turned up, seek­ing Archy’s help fi­nanc­ing the movie he thinks will restart his ca­reer.

This sort of over­stuffed plot­ting has served Chabon well in the past but in Tele­graph Av­enue it’s con­sid­er­ably less ef­fec­tive. De­spite the many plot strands there’s just too lit­tle at stake for the char­ac­ters, mean­ing the book man­ages the un­en­vi­able trick of be­ing fre­netic and un­in­volv­ing. It’s a prob­lem that’s ex­ac­er­bated by the lack of a clear fo­cus: for all the al­lu­sive po­ten­tial of its ti­tle the book never feels grounded in re­al­ity.

Of course nei­ther prob­lem should be in­sur­mount­able, es­pe­cially for a stylist as gifted as Chabon. As Won­der Boys and Kava­lier & Clay demon­strate, his suc­cess rests in large part on the sheer en­ergy and in­ven­tive­ness of his prose.

Yet for the most part the writ­ing in Tele­graph Av­enue feels anx­ious and over-busy, a riot of sim­i­les and metaphors and jivetalk­ing con­struc­tions that serve only to un­der­line the ar­ti­fi­cial­ity of the whole.

The prob­lem isn’t a lack of spark; in­deed in many places it’s dif­fi­cult not to be struck by the clev­er­ness of im­ages and throw­away lines such as the de­scrip­tion of a ‘‘ gap-toothed drum­mer who looked older than he prob­a­bly was, a hun­dred and ten in dope years’’.

In­stead it’s that Chabon seems to be demon­strat­ing the speed with which the on­cerev­e­la­tory de­vices of writ­ers such as Jonathan Franzen, David Fos­ter Wal­lace (and in­deed Chabon), the ver­nac­u­lar en­ergy of their prose and its blur­ring of high and pop cul­ture, seem to be laps­ing not just into man­ner but par­ody.

Nowhere is this ten­dency clearer in this book than in the 12-page sec­tion writ­ten in a sin­gle sen­tence that clearly is meant to be a stylis­tic coup de grace.

None of which is to say Tele­graph Road isn’t with­out its plea­sures. In the fi­nal quar­ter the book fi­nally does find its feet, and for 80 pages or so pro­vides an elo­quent re­minder of the gen­eros­ity and ex­pan­sive­ness that make so much of Chabon’s work so won­der­ful. Like­wise, there are the real plea­sures of the de­tails, not just the deft way the book in­ter­weaves real and imag­i­nary pop cul­tural ar­cana but also the play­ful man­ner in which el­e­ments — such as the talk­ing par­rot owned by the man Archy sees as the clos­est thing he had to a fa­ther — in­voke Chabon’s other books, and sug­gest yet again the ex­is­tence of some shared uni­verse they all in­habit.

Michael Chabon blurs high and pop cul­ture

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