Review: Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

It’s been a bit of a rough year for Michael Chabon, one of my favorite writers—John Carter, which I went to go see because of his involvement in the writing, didn’t do terribly well at the box office. I personally dug it, but I will also be the first to admit that I am biased towards totally ripped scientist princesses. Still, my faith in Chabon remained as unshaken as ever, and I happily leapt at the chance to read Telegraph Avenue pretty much sight unseen. If you’ve been with me long, you’ll know that’s extremely rare, as I gravitate towards story over style. But was my faith rewarded?

Telegraph Avenue is set in 2004 on the borders of Berkeley and Oakland, California, where Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe run Brokeland Records, a used vinyl store. Archy is expecting his first child with his wife, Gwen, and Nat has a teenage son, Julie, with his wife, Aviva; Gwen and Aviva are the Berkeley Birth Partners, a pair of midwives. Brokeland Records is under attack, as plans to erect a new Dogpile megastore go forward; Gwen gets herself and Aviva into a feud with the local hospital; Archy’s ex-Blaxpoitation star of a father, Luther, is back in town; and Archy’s illegitimate son, Titus, has turned up on the scene, and Julie has promptly fallen in love with him. And that’s the short version.

As you may be able to guess from that summary, quite a lot happens in Telegraph Avenue. And that’s why it took me forever to get into it. To be fair, between the start of the semester, Dragon*Con, and other sundry distractions, circumstances were, perhaps, not perfect, but it rattled me some. After all, I love Michael Chabon—I hand his books out like candy when the holidays roll around—and I’ve never had this reaction to one of his novels before. But I preservered, because I always finish books. It ended up being worth it, even just for Chabon’s language.

Telegraph Avenue began life as a television pilot, according to a recent interview Chabon did with Mother Jones. In fact, Chabon’s wife, author Ayelet Waldman, had to convince him to novelize it. The sheer and tiring amount of set-up is testament to its roots; what can be elegantly deployed over the course of a television season feels rushed when crammed into two hundred pages. The big problem is that Chabon bits off a little more than he can chew here. I can understand where the man is coming from—he’s written a slew of critically acclaimed novels and essays, so he has to balance pushing the envelope to keep from stagnating and delivering on the goods. Telegraph Avenue is a reclining (as opposed to sprawling; it’s too small to sprawl) neighborhood saga with achingly human characters, but such width requires a lighter hand with stylistic flourishes to keep everything straight. Many a section opens with no indication as to who is involved (or how they’re connected to the Stallings and the Jaffes), when it’s set, or what’s exactly happening. The novel, divided into five parts, even devotes an entire part to a five or so page long sentence, which, I’ll be honest, is just utterly wearying, even from one of my favorite writers. (I don’t think I’ll ever see it done well.) Considering how deftly Chabon pulled off The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, it’s a bit disappointing to see him overreach here. Still, I’d prefer that to not trying at all, since it eventually works.

Eventually, I got so sick of tiptoeing around reading it that I decided to plow through it. And once it’s all set up, it’s as engaging, human, and funny as Chabon’s other novels—it just takes forever to get started, especially since the first half is pretty light on Gwen and Aviva. The real story here is a story about how the lives of the Stallings and the Jaffes are falling apart, and how the twin demises of the Berkeley Birth Partners and Brokeland Records is the last nail in the coffin to this phase in their lives—even dreamy, snarky, and young Julie can see it coming, as Titus’ avowed heterosexuality (but willingness to fool around) thwarts his emotional needs. They’re falling apart, but, in doing so, are finding new ways to be themselves and to cleave to each other. For instance, late in the novel, we realize that Nat and Gwen are actually good friends, too; it’s more than just a typical story of two buddies growing apart.

And then, of course, there’s Chabon’s fantastical eye for detail, here occasionally overreaching but nearly always hitting, and the organic, human nature to the story once it gets started. Being set in 2004 seems to only serve the purpose of furnishing a short section featuring Obama, which feels rather twee, but towards the end, I was there. I was wholly in Brokeland Records, in the dying sunlight, watching the last gasp of these families in this phase of their lives.

Bottom line: Telegraph Avenue suffers from its roots as a television show and Chabon biting off a bit more than he can chew, but once all the pieces are finally in place, it’s a novel about two families falling apart and putting themselves back together. Eventually worth it.

I received this free review copy from the publisher.

Telegraph Avenue will be released on September 11th—tomorrow!

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