Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
New York. Harper. 2012. ISBN 9780061493348
Michael Chabon’s novel Telegraph Avenue, on a basic level, is about work life and home life in Oakland, California. Longtime friends Archy and Nat own Brokeland Records, a hole-in-the-wall record store that specializes in jazz. They are trying to keep their business alive as a “Dogpile megastore” readies to open near them. Archy and Nat are devotees to a dying product from a bygone age. Similarly, Gwen and Aviva—Archy and Nat’s spouses, respectively—are devotees to the dying field of midwifery. As a birth goes wrong, they must battle to keep their privileges with a hospital, at which a racist doctor derides their profession as “voodoo.”
On the domestic side of things, there are marital spats, absent fathers, a homosexual son, and, not surprisingly, childbirth, all of this underpinned by questions of race—Archy and Gwen are black; Aviva and Nat are white—and sex that add a weight that Chabon, for the most part, handles aptly. Particularly excelling when writing about family, Chabon can mold beautiful descriptions, crafting images in a way that is simultaneously unique yet familiar, and his ability to use these descriptions to cause the reader to reflect on some of the most intimate parts of life is among the best of today’s fiction writers.
Unfortunately, at some point in his life it seems Chabon was told that he is a good describer, and he took the compliment too much to heart. At times he describes to the point of annoyance. This happens in particular on the business side of things, because in order to give what he perceives as an accurate feel of working at a record store, he has to name every jazz musician that ever played; or in order to get to the heart of actors in kung-fu films—one of the many divergences in a complicated but well-thought-out plot—he has to mention every kung-fu fighter that ever threw a roundhouse kick. Quickly, this cataloging becomes tedious.
Yet for all his overdescription, Chabon remains one of the truly brave living writers, willing and preferring to inhabit characters that are on the surface nothing like him. He is a writer with a sharp imagination, and fills Telegraph Avenue with a breathtaking diversity that, because it is so representative of twenty-first-century America, deserves our attention. In a funny, self-referential moment, he has Gwen thinking about Candygirl Clark. Candygirl Clark is a character from the kung-fu films, and her catchphrase in these films was “Do what you got to do, and stay fly.” Gwen wonders if “the phrase was something cooked up by the screenwriter, some Jewish dude trying to think like an ass-kicking soul sister.” Of course, in this moment, Chabon is “some Jewish dude trying to think like an ass-kicking soul sister,” which he obviously recognizes. But his courage to never shy away from possibly contentious situations like these makes him well worth the time spent wading through pop culture references and excessive descriptions.
University of Oklahoma