I don’t often read a book “cold.” Meaning that I rarely go into a book without first knowing at least a basic plot point or main character. In the case of Telegraph Avenue I knew that I wanted to read Michael Chabon, but I didn’t want to start with his Pulitzer Prize winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. So as I ventured through my local Books-A-Million (the store’s name referencing both its stock and its pricing) and found a really interesting cover (the one at the top of this review) and that sold me enough to buy my first Chabon novel. Chabon’s archive of books have a consistent cover art that is absolutely over the top, and could potentially be described as maximalist. The point is that I’m a big fan of minimalist cover-art and using my preferences to judge books.
I was probably 250 pages into Telegraph Avenue when I finally googled it to see what the cool kids were saying about the novel. I definitely agreed with some of the criticisms and I will be echoing them momentarily, but first, let me attempt to explain what the book is about.
Telegraph Avenue is a book about two families, one white and one black, whose husbands own a used-vinyl record shop, and whose wives work together as midwives. The story deals with what it means to be an authentic person, America’s selling of its soul to preference corporate businesses over “Mom and Pop” stores, parenthood, homophobia, and racism. If it sounds complex, that’s because it is. Chabon has criticized much of literature as being too self-indulgent and forgetting the value of a plot within a story. It’s apparent that with Telegraph Avenue he set out to take in his own criticism and write something that relied heavily upon a strong plot, attempting to mix in themes in subtle ways. This is definitely not a quotable book. While it is easy to pick up on the themes that are quite plainly within the text, the novel comes up short in providing any worthwhile commentary. Throughout Telegraph Avenue I just kept thinking that it was a book that couldn’t decide what type of book it wanted to be. Chabon’s criticism of fiction is, I think, quite valid, but his own style I do not think lends itself to being a part of the solution.
Yet this is not to demean his style, as it is fun and quirky. The pages fly by when his writing is clicking, as he is the master of the absurd simile. However, at other times his style simply does not work with fiction that relies heavily on plot. The most poignant example of this is part three of the book, which is a 16 page sentence. I’m fine with a 16 page sentence, but it does not work in this novel. There is too much plot, too many strands of things happening that need to be jumped back and forth from, and too much reliance upon heavy dialogue to possibly make such a tool fit. At other times, after a simple yes or no question Chabon will go on for another few sentences describing some very random detail of what is going on in a character’s mind. It’s kind of like a toddler that first learns to open a door. It’s very cute and wonderful at first, but when a water pipe bursts under the sink and floods the kitchen and you find it next to impossible to keep that child away from a harmful situation, then it’s not so great. After 300 pages of it, it’s still great that he can write in such a way, but ultimately so distracting that it takes away from the story itself. Likewise, the plot is interesting and well-paced, but it detracts from the writing of Chabon; namely his ability to turn a phrase and to develop his themes.
Chabon’s writing should lend itself to more of Pynchon-esq, DFW style, where plot takes a backseat to the writers’ ability to pull meaning out of the most insignificant detail and expound for pages without losing any momentum on something that really has nothing to do with the plot. However, because Chabon wants this story to be plot-oriented it just does not come together as well as it could have. There’s very little commentary on racism, yet it comes up often enough to warrant being appropriated as a theme. This can also be said about homophobia and again with identity politics. All these things are there, yet nothing is really said about them.
Yet in spite of this, the novel is not bad in any sense of the word. Though I was annoyed with it at times, I found myself sad that it had ended. I did not necessarily want to leave Telegraph Avenue as much as I wanted to have what could have been. Chabon, in an interview with Amazon, said that Telegraph Avenue was originally a TV series that he had pitched, only for it to be turned down. Over time he found himself still attracted to the idea and began to shape it into a novel. For me, at times, there are definite passages in the novel that are obviously made-for-TV-moments. These come especially when there is a chance to deal with a theme with more depth and the opportunity is not taken, and these instants are palpable at the end of the novel, which feels too much like eight-seasons-have-come-and-gone-too-soon-isn’t-this-sad.
In retrospect, this review overtly focused on the negative aspects of the novel. Let me be clear: Telegraph Avenue is a good book. You will be interested in the story and develop an affinity for the characters (this being so subjective from person-to-person that I cannot definitively say that my lack of love for all the characters was Chabon’s fault). You will walk away from the book being glad that you bothered to read it.
Recommended to: Those interested in learning to read a complex style of writing, but would like something a bit lite to see if they can handle it (Also HIGHLY recommended David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System for this), and those who are interested in a story that examines the implications of vastly different worlds colliding.
Avoid as if it were taking a 16-Seed to the Final Four: Those looking to avoid what could be deemed a watered-down version of post-modern fiction, those who want their books to dive heavily into it’s themes even if it means sacrificing plot to do so, and those who take issue with foul language.