Grown-Up Stories: Chabon’s “Telegraph Avenue” Fun but Fluffy

Michael Chabon’s new novel Telegraph Avenue is, in a word, a party. Its cast of hipster characters seem to exist, for much of the book, in a world free of responsibility, where it’s acceptable to spend all day hanging out in a Bay Area used record store and where people say things like “What kind of heaven is that, you can’t have your records?” and have affinities for old cars. One character spends several pages inexplicably holding a “random baby”; another uses a yellow dial phone—in 2004. There is a menacing zeppelin, an ancient martial arts master named Irene Jew, and a disturbingly pervasive Quentin Tarantino obsession. At one particularly memorable moment, State Senator Barack Obama says, “Shame nobody’s dancing”; at another, someone less famous says, “Christ, we already have enough babies in the world. What we need more of is really good cheese”; and an old man with a parrot wears a leisure suit described like this:

The gem of his collection, it was profound and magical in its excess. White, piped with burnt orange, it had a rhinestone-cowboy feel to it, except at the yoke and at the cuffs of its sleeves and trousers, where it flamed into wild pseudo-Aztec embroidery, abstract patterns suggesting pink flowers, green succulents, bloodred hearts.

The premise of Telegraph Avenue is fairly promising: Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, co-owners and managers of Brokeland (Berkeley + Oakland) Records and best friends, suddenly find their livelihood threatened by the imminent construction of a massive entertainment superstore called a “Dogpile Thang.” Their wives work together as midwives, and their middle-school-age sons have a bizarre relationship in which Nat’s son Julie is in love with Archy’s son Titus, who says he’s straight but then repeatedly has sex with Julie. There are various subplots, most of which are pretty entertaining, involving the midwives, the boys, Archy’s former Blaxploitation movie star father Luther and his girlfriend Valletta, and the proprietor of the Dogpile chain, one zeppelin-owning former football star named Gibson Goode (nicknamed G Bad).

The novel moves along slowly but happily, and thankfully avoids becoming some kind of didactic allegory about commercialism and the importance of charming local business. In fact, plot is never really Chabon’s focus. He seems more interested in animating his relaxed and faintly ludicrous world of records and dope and leisure suits, a world that surely never existed in reality in all its splendor, and definitely not in 2004—such is the magic of fiction.

Chabon creates his world with a language that fits it perfectly, a language of flamboyantly lyrical description, of drawn-out metaphors and loose fragments, a language not embarrassed by its own excess. The third of the book’s five parts consists entirely of an 11-page sentence that touches on every major character through the flight path of the parrot. Vinyl metaphors are dropped indiscriminately, e.g. after Archy’s wife Gwen finds out he’s cheated on her:

“Okay,” Gwen said. And then somebody turned over the record, and Archy’s Cheatin’ came back on, and the first track on side B was called “Jamila.”

This is awkward and wonderful in precisely the way of the world of this book: it is at once ridiculous and totally endearing.

Two things save Telegraph Avenue from becoming self-consciously quirky and precious in the manner of, say, a Wes Anderson movie: 1) By flaunting its own flaw of excess verbiage, the language itself is a sort of apologia for the book—it revels in being itself and doesn’t show off; and, more importantly, 2) Chabon’s world is populated by real characters—characters for whom his world is not a nostalgic invention but is, in fact, home, characters who struggle with the same things we all struggle with.

Chabon’s very good at bringing out the little mannerisms that in some sense define his characters. For instance, throughout the novel whenever someone uses the word “faggot,” Julie responds by simply saying, “Hate speech.” He’s not out of the closet, and yet he’s touchingly brave in this small way: he wants to be respected and he’s able, with what must be quite a lot of courage, to say so.

All the characters come alive in these small ways. They don’t, unfortunately, come alive in bigger ways: Chabon is content to give us nicely done but basically desultory character sketches, just enough for Telegraph Avenue to trundle along without becoming trite or boring. But the novel could do with something deeper. Certainly Julie’s “hate speech” mannerism is intriguing and even moving, but on its own, it’s too vague to say something concrete about his character. Chabon doesn’t give his reader quite enough to make the sort of inferences that bring an imagined character to life; he mistakes enigma for depth.

This means that Telegraph Avenue feels a bit fluffy. At 470 pages, it’s too long for a book whose characters never become more than a collection of interesting mannerisms. And yet it’s a pleasant sort of fluff, the fluff of a pillow you’d be content to lie on all day even though you know you’re not really doing anything but longing for sleep. Telegraph Avenue, is, I think, at heart about just that kind of longing: longing for a world of “Dream of Cream” cakes, longing for a world more leisurely than ours, longing for a world where self-consciousness is banished, or at least made manageable. But it is an infantile longing. As the novel’s end approaches, Nat and Archy finally have to face the realities of responsibility: they cannot live a fantasy life of chilling in a used record store forever. And when Telegraph Avenue is finally over, we know the same could be said for us.


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2 comments

  1. 0
    Mike says:

    Izzy, this is a well-written, and wonderfully reasoned review but it misses — by light-years, not just miles — most of the central themes of the book.

    It’s not discussed at all in this review, but at the core of Telegraph Avenue are the intertwined issues of race and class, and how an individual’s relationship to society and community can hinge on how skillfully they navigate those potential minefields. Neither of the two main characters are “hipsters”; they might have been decades ago, but they’re consigned to a hand-to-mouth existence in a fading industry. As someone who used to hang out in record stores, that “relaxed and faintly ludicrous world of records and dope and leisure suits” actually existed, and still can be found in parts of San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass. or wherever independent record stores still survive. (Read Nick Hornsby’s “High Fidelity” or just watch the Jon Cusack movie for a taste of what it was like.)

    The “random baby” scene was a device to reinforce the sense of community in many urban neighborhoods, where’s it’s not uncommon for someone to step up and watch someone’s child while they run an errand or during an appointment. Think of it as an applied example of the whole “it takes a village” concept.

    I think the characters are vastly more defined than you perceived them to be, but I don’t think that’s a willful ignorance. It’s more of a lack of experience and context that doesn’t enable you to pick up on some of the nuances in Chabon’s characters’ interactions: the difficulties in the elaborate “dap” greeting, the racial and socioeconomic imbalance in the use of midwives and home births; frustration of Af-Am strivers yearning to be recognized by white peers; frustration of progressive whites trying their damnedest to bridge the race gap; the vast class divide between progressive whites and working-class blacks and Latinos, even within the same diverse neighborhood. These are all hallmarks of very real places in Oakland, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Cambridge, Jamaica Plain, Minneapolis, Austin, Seattle, etc.

    Gender and sexual identity emerge from time to time, but they’re used to round out the characters’ personas. Note how Titus’s sex with Julie — indifferent, unemotional — is very much the same as Archy’s hookup with the brass band leader. Like father, like long lost son.

    Where we agree is that there are times that the book felt over-written, as if Chabon was just letting his mind solo like an indulgent sax player. It was annoying at times. I actually agree with most of your last graf, minus the bit about “collection of interesting mannerisms.” These little quirks and tics are the atoms of human interaction.

    1. 0
      Izzy KS says:

      Thank you for this thoughtful reply. It is true that I don’t have really any experience with the world of this book—I shouldn’t have assumed that it was so exaggerated. I’m not sure I agree that my criticism of Chabon’s characterization is so unfair, though. When we read fiction we rely on the author to give us a point of connection to a character—this is how we can connect with characters so totally different from ourselves in so many different books. We need not have lived in 16th century Denmark to empathize with Hamlet, and we should not have to have your experience to empathize with Chabon’s. Of course this doesn’t make your reading of the book any less valid; we simply experienced the book differently and thus can disagree without either of us being “wrong.” I think the same logic applies to my treatment of the themes you identified. They were there but not salient or particularly interesting to me, probably since those themes really collapse into the broader theme of identity, which in turn comes back to the problem of character. You may be right that I should at least have mentioned them, though.

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