Book Review – Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

This is the third novel by Michael Chabon that I’ve read. (Read my reviews of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.) Obviously, I enjoy his writing. Telegraph Avenue (HarperCollins, 2012) has Chabon’s usual blend of colourful imagery and quirky characters bumbling about in a finely-realized setting.

Telegraph Avenue revolves around Brokeland Records, owned by best friends Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe. Their record store is located on (surprise) Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, California and in a few short months, down the street from them, a chain store called Dogpile Records (think Virgin Music) will open up. As Archy and Nat deal with the fall-out of this new business and its effect on their own lives, we learn about them, their histories, their wives (who also work together), and their children.

Chabon does settings well – whether real, like Telegraph Avenue‘s Oakland and Kavalier and Clay‘s 1940s New York, or fictional, like the Israeli state of Alaska in Yiddish Policemen – Chabon writes settings that are essential. This novel had to be set in Oakland, California. The author captures the streets, the stores, the smells, the culture, that bring a place alive. Perhaps, most crucially, are the racial tensions that simmer throughout the novel and on Telegraph Avenue. Archy is black, the son of a former blaxpoitation film star. Nat is white. This tension is even more evident between their wives, Gwen and Aviva, who work together as midwifes. Chabon doesn’t go in for stereotypes, as is made clear when describing these four friends. Nat is the high school drop-out. Gwen comes from the wealthiest and most well-educated background and is the one least satisfied with her current condition.

When the novel dipped close to the issues of race relations and African-Americans, I wondered about a white man writing a black character. Does it make it better that Chabon is Jewish? Ultimately, I believe that writing fiction is about delving into someone who is not the author. Male writers write female characters all the time, some better than others. Whether Chabon accurately captured the experience of a middle-aged African-American man, I’m not qualified to say, but I can state that I enjoyed reading about that experience.

This wasn’t my favourite of Chabon’s novels though. If I could sum up my issue with Telegraph Avenue it would be “style over substance”. There is too much of one and not enough of the other. Chabon writes description that, while colourful, becomes so long-winded as to actually distract from the real action. Often, after a long, rambling description of something mundane like how a character holds a baby, I still felt like I’d been told nothing. Frequently, the language used felt like a trying-too-hard attempt to be hip. The novels reads as though Chabon threw in all these details to show how quirky and unique and fascinating his characters are but it ends up feeling false.

Even with those description, it took me pages to figure out the main characters and I never felt like they were that different from each other. Maybe that was the point.

Where I was most impressed with Chabon’s rambling style was a particular chapter made up of a single, very long sentence. Tied together by the flight of an escaped parrot, this chapter/sentence takes us through the neighbourhood and from character to character. It’s impressively crafted and a wonderful example of what Chabon is capable of and why I’ll keep reading him.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review – Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

  1. This is the only Chabon I’ve read so far and I loved it. I agree with some of your criticisms, but nevertheless I found I was just gasping in amazement at his master wordmanship. And that chapter you refer to simply blew me away. The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is on my list to be read soon…

    • Chabon is definitely talented and one of the more imaginative authors I’ve read. Kavalier and Clay was my first introduction to him and is probably still my favourite. Yiddish Policemen is awesome too.

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