Telegraph Avenue, virtuoso novelist Michael Chabon’s latest outing, is a stylish, soaring, at times moving, at times tedious, snapshot of the life of two families in Oakland in 2004. It’s a novel that grapples with issues of race, as well as the lines between straight and gay, big business and small business, and, of course, the importance of good condition, original vinyl record pressings.
Telegraph Avenue is a story told like a saxophone solo. Chabon’s prose is every bit as gleefully verbose and metaphorical as always. Like his previous novels, the sentences he concocts—each one a tiny world of creation onto itself—somehow don’t seem to come off as self-indulgent, but rather as earnest experiments (and accomplishments) in storytelling. It is not uncommon for him to spend an entire page relating only a few lines of dialogue. But you will turn that page with a wonderfully crystalline image of what just went down (to employ the novel’s vernacular). Chabon writes like Miles blows, like Mingus grooves, like Cochise Jones—one of Telegraph Avenue’s extraordinarily envisioned secondary characters—breaks it down on his trusty old Hammond B-3.
The novel follows the stories of two families, the Stallings and the Jaffes, and chronicles the near destruction of Brokeland Records—a used-vinyl store cofounded by Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, longtime friends, bandmates, and occasional irritants to each other—at the hands of a new multilevel emporium that has plans for, among other amenities, a used-vinyl section. Elsewhere, Gwen Shanks, Archy’s extremely pregnant girlfriend, and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, Nat’s wife, run a successful midwifery practice in which they are known as the “Berkeley Birth Partners,” another endeavor eking by despite the always-growing shadow of destruction.
A few years ago Chabon said in an interview that he was writing a mainstream novel. In some ways, Telegraph Avenue is certainly his most mainstream novel yet. Sure, it lacks the ethereal, pulp qualities of Kavalier & Clay, nor does it feature any feats of astonishing historical imagination à la The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. It is simply a slice of life examination of a small cohort of vividly imagined people living in California in 2004. But to call it mainstream would be an insult. This is nothing like the paperbacks peppering the shelves at your local grocery store. Mainstream, this is not.
Telegraph Avenue explores the shifts of perspective and experience between white and black people in America. It suggests that while people of either race will never be able to fully fathom life as experienced through the other’s eyes, it doesn’t preclude the possibility of forging deep and meaningful relationships with each other.
It also explores the power of little guy versus big guy, the heartbreak of big guy neglecting little guy, the anguish of little guy in love with other little guy (who maybe doesn’t love him back in the same way). And it does so with the expertise that only someone like Chabon could muster: a prose writer extraordinaire outfitted with the lens of a sociologist.
But despite the fact that the novel features blackmail, blaxploitation films, encounters with President Obama and filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, and a zeppelin; that it features murder, death, birth, and a universe of pop-culture references; you can’t help but feel that Telegraph Avenue is a bit lacking in plot. It’s a decidedly slow-moving novel that feels, for most of the time, like it is heating up, getting ready for the exciting part, the part where it all comes together and the novel kicks it into overtime. But that part never materializes. Twists, snake-eyes, diversions, and big reveals all happen—but they’re relayed to us nonchalantly. Maybe it’s intentional: a cool, introspective tickle of the ivories, but at times you have to remind yourself why you care.
Although the profusion of exceptional, larger-than-life characters makes for a lively and densely populated world of people worth paying attention to, Chabon ultimately appoints no one to the role of protagonist, which makes fully empathizing with all of the characters a somewhat prodigious task. And, perplexingly, despite all those great characters, it seems like Chabon tries, but occasionally fails, to lift them out of their archetypes and into something more three-dimensional and real. The novel pokes fun at the “angry black woman” nature of Gwen Shanks, or the “neurotic Jew” that is Nat Jaffe—but at the end of the day those stereotypes wind up being fairly accurate assessments of who they are. It doesn’t feel like that’s the point Chabon is trying to make.
With that said, Telegraph Avenue is, in most ways, an accomplishment of a novel. It’s a fabulous, rich, deeply detailed work of exquisite wordage and pathos that touchingly explores a smorgasbord of difficult issues. It reads like a jazz show, full of impassioned eruptions of music-as-language that filter in through your head, pressing all the right buttons in your imagination, settling you comfortably into the groove. The plot dips at times, but Chabon’s mastery of language keeps the novel always, at the minimum, exceptionally fun to read.
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