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