Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Your Kindle is watching you like the StasiIn addition to attacking the traditional publishing model and starting fierce arguments over whether the rise in eBooks is (paradoxically) causing a decline in literacy, eReaders like the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook are collecting data on how fast readers read an eBook, the parts they skip, and more according to NPR this week.

Leaving aside the question of whether this is another privacy invasion on the part of Big Data, the article focuses on the question of whether this data can help authors or hurt them.

Scott Turow takes the position that Big Data helps writers by letting them know where, if not why, they lose readers during a story. The novelist Jonathan Evison wonders what would have happened to Moby Dick if Melville had Big Data from readers and listened to it.

All of this reminded me of what I think of as the “continuum of the writer-reader collaboration”.

The act of reading is a collaboration between the writer and reader, an act which the writer begins and the reader finishes. The terms of this collaboration are initially set by the writer. The reader then accepts these terms, or not, but once she does – look out – because the experience and meanings of the book become hers.

Sometimes, the writer sets terms which are friendly to that great and aggregate abstraction known as “the reader”.

In fiction, these terms tend to include a plot featuring a conflict or conflicts, rising action, and a satisfying conclusion; central characters with whom we can identify or empathize; and writing that is clear and straightforward if not elegant, harmonious, or beautiful.

The “reality” of the book roughly conforms to the world reported in newspapers or portrayed in mass media or experienced by another great abstraction, the “average person”.

If the book’s reality doesn’t conform to this world, then it exists in a souped-up one, in which everyone is attractive, rich, witty, and powerful, and has more and better sex than generally experienced.

If the characters have problems in this world, they are exciting and important problems — like saving the world from a rogue nuke or loving a sparkly vampire — instead of boring ones like scraping up money to pay your bills or hemorrhoids.

Books with reader-unfriendly terms tend to be the opposite of all these things or, let us agree for the sake of brevity, Finnegans Wake.

Now there is no necessary causal relationship between reader-friendly terms, reader- unfriendly terms, entertainment, and art. In fact, all these elements, in all proportions, can be found in literature. Shakespeare’s invincible position at the pinnacle of literature in English is based on precisely the fact that he delivers enormous quantities of all four in roughly equal measures.

However, it also seems to me profoundly true that all real innovation in literature is founded on being reader-unfriendly, which is another way of saying “new and confusing”.

I’m not worried about Big Data stifling innovation. Big artists have big egos, and typically think everyone else in the world is an idiot who needs to catch up. They’ve been ignoring expert opinion for centuries. They can ignore Big Data just as easily.

If the next generation Kindle has a camera, however, I am going to stop reading naked.

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Gilead Marilynne Robinson What is the purpose of fiction? If it is to imaginatively engage its characters – and by so doing strengthen the reader’s ability to empathize with real people – then Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead succeeds brilliantly.

The novel takes the form of a long letter written by John Ames, a Congregationalist minister living in a small Iowa town during the 1950s, to his young son.

Ames, who is in his mid-seventies and suffering from a fatal heart condition, wants to leave his child a record of his life and a way for the boy to remember him after he dies.

Gilead is filled with the aching beauty that the jacket copy of every other novel promises, but few in my experience actually deliver. Robinson voices Ames’ great and genuine love for his son, and his sorrow at leaving him so soon, with a simplicity and directness founded on total conviction. Robinson doesn’t seem to have created John Ames. She seems to have been angelically possessed by him.

Robinson brings equal beauty and conviction to Ames’ expressions of his love for the Iowa prairie and his life in Gilead, even during the long decades of loneliness between the death of his first wife and child in his youth, and the second family he begins as an old man.

For those who think that a little bit of aching beauty goes a long way, Gilead also serves up a heaping portion of plot like a hearty Midwestern meat loaf.

This plot includes the story of his second marriage to Lila, a woman half his age who appears one Sunday in Ames’ church for the service.

She returns every week and Ames falls ridiculously and helplessly in love with her – ridiculously (he thinks) because he is an old man and helplessly because he can see of no way to approach her consistent with his moral convictions. So his relief and gratitude are immense when Lila tells him one day, “You ought to marry me.” What the town and his church think of this marriage is an interesting silence in Gilead.

Another plotline in the novel are the stories of John Ames’ grandfather and father. Ames’ grandfather was a fiery preacher and abolitionist who believed slavery was so great an evil that it justified violent opposition, and who fought with John Brown and with the Union Army. Ames’ father was an ardent pacifist, and the conflict between the two men extends into John Ames own lifetime and forms part of his story.

Most prominently, however, is the story of John Ames (Jack) Boughton, John Ames’ god-son and a child of his best friend. Jack is a charming ne’er-do-well who returns to Gilead after a many years absence.

Jack torments Ames by reminding the preacher of his inability to love the man who carries his name, by making Ames’ fear that his wife and child will fall victim to Jack Boughton after his death, and by provoking his jealousy.

All these storylines are presented episodically by Robinson. So readers who enjoy novels which present conflicts, development them through rising action, and bring them to resolution – the “I can’t wait to find out what happens next” model – may find Gilead slow. I found it enthralling from beginning to end.

Some readers may also find John Ames’ sometimes lengthy discussions of Christian theology dull. These discussions are perfectly consistent with a bookish minister educated in the early 20th century who has a great deal of lonely time on his hands. I liked them but I have a semi-professional interest in theology.

Related Content to Gilead.

I think those readers who enjoyed Gilead for its “aching beauty” will like Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I also think they will enjoy Colette’s My Mother’s House, which I wrote about here.

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The copy of James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I own was published by Compass Books (The Viking Press) between 1956 and 1960.

Inside the front and back covers are lists of additional books for sale from Compass which the publisher describes this way: “Reprints of outstanding fiction, drama, nonfiction, and poetry in handsome inexpensive editions.”

Here is a scan of the lists. You should be able to make it big enough to read by clicking on it.

Portrait Artist Joyce - books

The thing that struck me is the names I didn’t know. Many of the mid-century usual suspects among writers in English are here. Steinbeck. Greene. A lot of D.H. Lawrence (no thanks!). Amis. More Joyce. Kerouac. Bellow. Trilling.

But who is Malcolm Cowley? And Rumer Godden? Are they okay writers who have gently sunk into more or less deserved obscurity? Or have I just discovered more holes in my education, as if there weren’t enough already.

Here are details and a few other titles that grabbed me:

A Candle for St. Jude and An Episode of Sparrows and The River by Rumer Godden.

Exile’s Return and Writers at Work by Malcolm Cowley.

The Love Letters of Phyllis McGinley

The Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Blanch. (The Fifty Shades of Grey of its day, perhaps?)

Radiation: What It Is and How It Affects You by Jack Schubert and Ralph E. Lapp. (How I miss the Cold War.)

If anyone knows these authors and has an opinion about their work, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, I guess they are tidbits of trivia to start your weekend.

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Guns are patrioticThe recent tragic murders of young students and teachers in the Sandy Hook Elementary School move us to demand the US government take strong action to protect our children from gun violence.

The many responsible voices calling for armed officers to patrol schools, and for teachers and administrators to arm themselves, are important steps toward responding to the crisis.

However, these steps are not sufficient to protect our children. Gunmen who enter schools knowing there are police officers or armed teachers in the building will simply kill the adults with weapons first, then turn their guns on the unarmed children. More Sandy Hooks will be inevitable.

Therefore, we are calling on all people serious about protecting children from gun violence to create a national program to arm all school children.

Each child should be given an age-appropriate handgun as well as training similar to the instruction required to earn a concealed-carry permit in many American states.

Young children should be given a .22 pistol with no recoil and a trigger break pull pressure set at 1.25 pounds to ensure that small fingers can fire the weapon with relative ease.

Older pre-adolescents should be armed with .38 pistols and high-school age students with .45 handguns. Members of the ROTC and the football team should be armed with assault rifles, after they receive additional training and certifications. Twenty-round magazines should be standard for the handguns of all children regardless of age.

Guns should be integrated into school curriculums to increase the readiness of our children to use their weapons in self-defense. For example, word problems such as this one could be added to elementary school math programs:

Three men carrying assault rifles enter your classroom. You are armed with a pistol containing a twenty-round magazine. How many rounds can you fire at each gunman, assuming you fire an equal number of rounds at each? Are there any rounds left over? If so, how many? Show your work. Extra Credit. You should aim at the center mass of a man carrying an assault rifle to increase your chances of killing him before he kills you: True or False?

We estimate this program will require spending of $625.00 per child, with $475.00 going to pay for a reliable firearm and $150.00 to pay for training.

With 43 million school-age children in the United States, the total cost of our proposed program is 26.9 billion dollars.

We can assure those concerned about the size of the federal deficit that our proposal to arm children is revenue neutral and may even run a slight surplus.

This is because public health experts estimate that 7% of children in each generation – or just over 3,000,000 boys and girls – will die from accidental or intentional misuse of their weapons.

It costs $80,000 to provide each child in America with a public education. Therefore, the deaths of these 3 million children will save taxpayers 240 billion dollars per generation.

These savings will cover the cost of the program as well as the projected short-term and long-term costs of caring for the estimated 34% or 14.6 million children who will be injured by accidental or intentional misuse of their weapons.

While we recognize that these are not an insignificant number of deaths and injuries, we believe that the other 28 million children will be saved from gun death or injury as a result of our proposal. We also believe these deaths and injuries are a reasonable price to pay for the preservation and protection of the constitutional freedoms Americans enjoy.

As a result, we urge each of you to contact your representative and senators in Washington DC and demand they swiftly enact a comprehensive program to arm all children in the United States. Thank you for your support.

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On Beyond Zebra cover by Dr. SeussThe children’s books of Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as “Dr. Seuss”) are divided between the didactic and the anarchic.

Didactic books, often with a solidly liberal agenda, predominate. These include The Lorax (a warning against environmental destruction), The Sneetches (a satire of mindless consumerism and status-seeking), and The Butter Battle Book (a Cold War cautionary tale).

Some of Dr. Seuss’ most famous books combine the didactic and the anarchic. The Cat in the Hat is one of the great agents of anarchy in children’s literature, his inspired chaos opposed by Sally and her brother, and finally contained only by the re-appearance of their mother.

Dr. Seuss’ teaching books show the same dynamic. For example, Dr. Seuss’s ABC makes learning the alphabet fun through a wild collection of assonance- and alliteration-heavy nonsense rhymes (and one highly inappropriate image for children).

What I like about Geisel’s On Beyond Zebra (1955) is that it is the mirror-opposite of the ABC book and many others. On Beyond Zebra opens with this quote:

Said Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell,
My very young friend who is learning to spell:
‘The A is for Ape. And B is for Bear.
‘The C is for Camel. The H is for Hare
‘The M is for Mouse. And the R is for Rat.
‘I know all the twenty-six letters like that…
‘… Through to Z is for Zebra. I know them all well.’
Said Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell.
‘So now I know everything anyone knows.
‘From beginning to end. From the start to the close.
‘Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes.’

Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell from On Beyond ZebraConrad is a young boy with neatly parted hair wearing a sweater and tie. He is speaking to a wonderfully beatnik-looking boy. This boy picks up a piece chalk, draws a new letter, one which Conrad had “never dreamed of before,” and announces “…most people stop with the Z / “But not me!”

And with this, On Beyond Zebra is off to the races, devising fantastical creatures in fantastical lands based on fantastical letters.

Along the way, On Beyond Zebra argues for the supremacy, the freedom, the possibilities, the joy, and the exuberance of the world of imagination over the world of knowledge and fact. The anarchic soundly trounces the didactic, for once.

And yet, at the end, somehow the didactic gets the last word.

Conrad Cornelius is so impressed with what he’s seen that he exclaims,“This is really great stuff! / And I guess the old alphabet / ISN’T enough!”

Oh well, if Dr. Seuss had to deliver a lesson, at least it was, “Don’t be afraid of curiosity. Don’t be afraid of the new. The world is always bigger than you think!” Those are good points. I’m writing them down. Will they be on the test?

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Fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels value the scenes where Jack and Stephen are playing music in the great cabin of a ship or having particular conversations, like this one which considers the feathers of a paradise bird:

Stephen said, ‘Have you every contemplated upon sex, my dear?’

‘Never,’ Jack said. ‘Sex has never entered my mind, at any time.’

‘The burden of sex, I mean. This bird, for example, is very heavily burdened; almost weighed down. He can scarcely fly or pursue his common daily round with any pleasure to himself, encumbered by a yard of tail and all this top-hamper. All these extravagant plumes have but one function – to induce the hen to yield to his importunities. How the poor cock must glow and burn, if these are, as they must be, an index of his ardour.’

‘That is a solemn thought.’

H.M.S Surprise, pg.259, Norton paperback edition, 1991

HMS Surprise by Patrick O'BrianIt seems strange, at first, that this should be so. The Aubrey-Maturin novels recount the adventures of Jack Aubrey, a British naval captain, and Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan naval surgeon, naturalist, and intelligence agent, during the Napoleonic wars.

The series is full of battles, storms, shipwrecks, spycraft, political intrigue, the scientific discovery of new species, social manners, and problematic relationships between men and women.

And yet, both O’Brian and his fans always return to the quiet scenes between Jack and Stephen playing music or talking, as they are in the passage above. Why?

The reason has to do, I think, with the consolations literature offers us.

Good books have many uses. They are a pleasure and a comfort. They offer a hedge against loneliness. For centuries, readers have found their own thoughts and feelings in literature, and in finding these have been reassured that they are not alone and unknowable in this world.

And good books console us by offering a permanence to characters we love that we cannot find in the lives of the people we love outside of books.

Not all literature offers this consolation. It is no relief to know that Lear is always at the British camp near Dover, howling with the lifeless Cordelia in his arms, or that Antigone is always hanging in the cell to which Creon condemned her, dead by her own hand. Tragic works of literature offer us many things, but consolation is not one of them.

For consolation, a book must offer us characters who are convincingly human, not simply credible or familiar, and who engage our sympathies through both their virtues and their faults.

The book must also give these characters moments if not of happiness, then of peace and ease, because this is what we wish for ourselves. Among all our troubles and suffering, I think we all want – and believe we deserve – moments of at least modest contentment.

But we cannot stay in these moments or keep the people we love with us in them. Time moves. Circumstance and age separate us, further and further, until death makes the separation final and our only hope becomes reunion in another world; which many of us picture as being much like this one, except that hunger and violence and suffering and disease and death are banished.

Which makes heaven or the Summerlands or the after-life (or even reincarnation in the Indian religions) very much like the passages in the books we love.

Elizabeth Bennet will always be sparkling after dinner in the drawing-room at Netherfield, getting the best of and bettering Mr. Darcy, as alive today as the first moment she was written. Timofrey Pnin will always be playing croquet on the lawn at Al and Susan Cook’s summer house or discovering that Victor’s beautiful glass bowl is not broken after all. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin will always be playing music while the wake of the Surprise stretches away behind them.

In this world, that is consolation indeed. Perhaps not enough. But I’ll take it.

 

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Turkey & Tofurkey, Freedom Fighters for ThanksgivingSteam rises off Turkey’s roasted-to-perfection skin as he rapidly surveys the dining room. It is empty.

“Get up, get up quick,” Turkey whispers to Tofurkey.

Tofurkey rolls to a standing position and rubs his superfluous wings against each other. “Is he gone? Oh where is he? Oh he looks so mean.”

“Never mind that,” Turkey says. “We have to make a break for it.”

“I can’t. I’m scared!”

“You’ve got to or you’ll be …”

Suddenly, a man holding a carving knife walks into the room. The birds freeze at the sight of the over-sized blade. The man looks at Turkey and Tofurkey with interest.

“Hey guys. You ready?”

“Ready for what?” Turkey asks. “Ready for the zombie apocalypse you call a celebration of family?”

“Well yes,” the man says. “It’s Thanksgiving. You don’t seem very cheerful about it.”

“If someone chopped off your head, shoved bread up your ass, and stuck you in an oven – would you be cheerful?”

“I’d like people to acknowledge that I suffer too,” Tofurkey says.

“You don’t even have a nervous system.”

“That’s kingdomist.”

The man puts down the knife, pours a glass of wine, and takes a sip. “I do see your points. But you are, like, after all … food?”

“That’s just what I’d expect a sadistic member of your genocidal species to say,” Turkey tells him.

“What are you doing in there?” the man’s wife calls from the kitchen.

“Disputing with the entrees.”

“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”

The man takes another sip of wine and watches Tofurkey thoughtfully. “You know his people eat your people.”

Turkey stares straight ahead, deeply uncomfortable.

“We’re here to talk about your crimes, man with big knife!” Tofurkey says.

“Would you excuse me?” the man says. “I have to mash the potatoes.”

The man leaves. Tofurkey turns to Turkey. “How do we get out? There’s no way out!”

“Here’s how,” Turkey says, pulling a 38 automatic, slapping the magazine home, and releasing the safety. “Turducken next door will distract that guy with a human call. Then I’ll shoot him. Then we scram. There’s Turducken now.”

Turducken pops up outside the dining room window and waves what appears to be a large kazoo at Turkey.

Turkey nods. Turducken blows the human call.

“You are the most attractive middle-aged man we’ve ever seen. Come back with us to our bachelorette boudoir,” the call announces in a seductive female voice.

“Oh I just knew this had to happen someday,” the man says, rushing into the room with the potato masher. “Coming girls. Hello? Hello?”

BLAM-BLAM-BLAM. Turkey fires three shots and misses the man, although he does destroy several Christmas plates hanging on the wall.

“Oops,” Turkey says.

“Give me that!” the man says, taking the gun from Turkey and unloading it. “The sooner I eat you two, the better.”

He looks up. Tofurkey is holding an extra-large can of cranberry sauce. “Say there, what are you doing with that Ocean Spray?”

“Freedom or death!” Tofurkey yells, throwing the can with surprising force and striking the man in the forehead. He spins to the ground.

Turkey and Tofurkey jump down from the table and run out the back door, singing as they do, “Oh, life, life! Sweet life! Away to the waters and the wild! Away to the Summerlands! Oh freedom! Oh more life!”

The man rises slowly to his feet, rubbing his forehead, and watches them go. “Well, I can’t really blame them I guess.”

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The Seven Lady Godivas by Dr. SeussWhile doing research for a future review of On Beyond ZebraI made this delightful discovery: Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as “Dr. Seuss”) wrote and Bennett Cerf of Random House published The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family — a nudie novelty book aimed at adults.

Jack St. Rebor at Seussblog has done a good job describing the book, so I recommend you click the link and read the post.

Maria Popova of The Atlantic posted a nice collection of illustrations. My favorite Lady Godiva is “Dorcas”. You may not want to know that.

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The Ayn Rand postage stamp from the US Post Office

Does anyone else find it ironic that Ayn Rand appears on a postage stamp? Or that she appears to implicitly endorse government controlling the price of mailing a letter? But I digress.

Paul Ryan. Ron Paul. Alan Greenspan. The Republicans are the party of Ayn Rand, right?

Wrong. The Democrats are the real party of Ayn Rand.

Now I don’t mean the whole “any government other than police equals instant tyranny” Ayn Rand. Or the “I’m a genius, leave me alone, if you left me alone I would have already invented hyper-drive or a fusion reactor or whatever the heck it is in a gulch in Utah” Ayn Rand. Nope, those Ayn Rands the Republicans still got locked up. I mean…

The “Existence Exists” Ayn Rand

We hear a lot about this in Atlas Shrugged and it apparently applies both to people who have read the novel and people who … well … really have a whole lot better things to do with their time than read Atlas Shrugged.

But I digress. It seems that Romney and big Republican donors and Republican pollsters and Republican pundits really did think Romney was going to win.

And all that crap they dumped on Nate Silver and every poll except Gallup and Rasmussen and David Axelrod was sincere crap, not just the standard-issue “I talk up my side and talk down your side when I’m on tv” stuff the everybody does all the time no matter who they support.

Which led to the spectacle Tuesday night of the Republicans denying existence was existing even as it was existence-ing itself into existence. And after everyone else had noticed. But this isn’t the only reason the Democrats are the real party of Ayn Rand.

The “Those Who Are Thinking Are Thinking” Ayn Rand

It’s hard to believe the party which spent its impressionable teenage years reading Siddhartha out-thought the party which spent them reading The Fountainhead, but they did. The 2012 Ayn Rand data-crunching cage match goes to Siddhartha.

But losing the title of “the party of Ayn Rand” doesn’t stop there. All the Republicans saying the reason they lost the presidency is because their candidate wasn’t conservative enough, despite a great deal of electoral and demographic and polling data to the contrary, and instead believe the key to winning is to repeat their core beliefs more and more frequently and more and more fervently rather than …

Wait a minute. That does sound a lot like Ayn Rand. But I digress.

The other group coming up short in the “those who are thinking are thinking” category are the Republicans suggesting that all they need to do is change their “tone”.

This implies Republicans believe they can promote policies such as God wanting women to have babies resulting from rape, or driving anyone who doesn’t look Anglo-Saxon across the southern border of the United States with electric cattle prods, or risking recession to defend tax cuts for 2% of the population – and if they get nice looking people in nice clothes to explain these policies really nicely (hello Paul Ryan!) – the people getting screwed by them won’t notice because the people getting screwed are easy-to-manipulate idiots.

In “the those who are thinking are thinking” versus “the those who are thinking are thinking” show-down, I’m putting $20.00 on the idiots.

Now before the Democrats get too happy that they are the new party of Ayn Rand, I’d like them to embrace one more Ayn Rand.

The “I Can Do Simple Arithmetic” Ayn Rand

You don’t have to be a free, self-sufficient, independent genius to do simple arithmetic and the simple arithmetic is this. Obama got 50.8% of the popular vote. Romney got 47.9% of the popular vote. About 61.7 million people voted for Obama. About 58.5 million voted for Romney.

That, Democrats, is not a landslide. That is basically fifty-fifty.

And when you think about how badly the Republicans blew it with women and Latinos and young people, there are a lot of votes against Republicans – rather than for Democrats – in that group.

So Mr. Obama, please remember. Data is data. Existence exists. You have power and momentum, but not a mandate and not a free hand. Listen to the whole country. Think about what you hear. And get to work. Ayn is counting on you.

** My apologies for drifting out of my usual topic of consideration. But I mentioned several books, so that makes it okay, yes? **

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"Telegraph Avenue" a novel by Michael ChabonI’ve read a large number of pretty good novels by pretty good authors, and now I’ve read one more: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon.

This is both praise and criticism, but not blame. It takes real talent and hard work to write a pretty good novel. Pretty good novels are less common than merely mediocre novels, or frankly bad novels, but they aren’t that uncommon either. In fact, with care and a little luck, you could spend your entire life reading pretty good novels.

If you want greatness, you won’t find it in Telegraph Avenue. If you want a pretty good novel, read on and see if Chabon’s latest matches your taste.

Telegraph Avenue: The Obligatory Summary

Telegraph Avenue is principally concerned with two couples, one African-American (Archy Stallings and Gwen Shanks) and one white (Nat Jaffe and Aviva Roth-Jaffe), and the two businesses they own in Oakland, California.

The men are the proprietors of Brokeland Records, a used vinyl record store specializing in jazz and funk, while the women are mid-wives and the owners of Berkeley Birth Partners. Both businesses are under threat, the record business from a proposed entertainment superstore, and the midwifery practice as a result of a complication that Gwen is perceived to have mishandled.

Gwen and Archy’s marriage is also in danger because Gwen, who is nine-months pregnant, no longer can tolerate Archy’s serial infidelity. In the mix are Archy’s father, Luther Stallings, a feckless former blaxploitation star looking to finance a new movie, and restart his career, using dubious means; the teenage sons of Archy and Nat, who are both friends and having sex; and an assortment of uniformly colorful secondary characters who round out the mise en scene.

I expect strong, well-drawn, complicated, but largely sympathetic characters from Michael Chabon, and he delivers these in Telegraph Avenue. I also expect a well constructed story, and on this quality Chabon is only middlingly – but I think deliberately – successful.

It’s clear Chabon intended to write a big, sprawling novel so I’m not going to ding the structure of Telegraph Avenue for being a bit of a mess.

But I will ding the novel for lacking a vision that might unify its multitude of elements. And I will knock Telegraph Avenue for its relentless, too-cool-for-school pop-culture fanboyism and for its prose style, in which some fine writing gets lost in Chabon’s inability to leave a sentence alone when he could adorned it with an excessive, frequently self-indulgent, and sometimes incoherent description, metaphor, reference, anecdote, or editorial aside.

Telegraph Avenue’s Message is … What?

The fastest way to lose me as a reader of novels is to hit me over the head with your talking points. But the lack of a vision, sitting behind the action, also weakens books. The best writers make you see the world in a new way. Telegraph Avenue doesn’t.

Chabon does feint a couple punches toward social comment, but without actually throwing one.

The first is toward soul-less big capitalism, embodied by the entertainment megastore and the healthcare industry. But this goes nowhere because the novel is firmly grounded in the bohemian middle class, who expect to enjoy the wealth of capitalism while rejecting its crass aesthetics (and pretending to themselves that this rejection is moral strength).

The second is toward race in America and here, Chabon either doesn’t throw a full punch or he throws a couple sly sucker ones.

One sucker punch is thrown at the white liberal middle class and upper middle class who are unable to distinguish their (I suppose I better say “our”) sense of personal injury and entitlement from our sense of social justice. Which leaves the people who actually need social justice out in the cold.

The utterly typical example of this is the opposition of Nat, and a few other neighborhood folks, to the entertainment megastore, which would bring new economic life to the community and provide steady work to a whole bunch of residents who don’t have it. If Chabon meant to criticize his most likely audience, he has. Sorta.

** Spoiler alert in the second example **

The second punch is a single scene which I would say was a knock-out blow if it weren’t one incident in a book that spends much more energy making comic book references than taking a clear-eyed look at America today.

The scene is when Gwen comes before three white male doctors at the local hospital who are addressing a complaint lodged against Gwen by a fourth white male doctor, who was the attending ob-gyn on the day Gwen and Aviva brought one of their home-birth patients to the ER because of a complication.

The attending ob-gyn had disparaged Gwen and Aviva’s work as dangerous and incompetent “voodoo” (among other phrases) and Gwen had gotten into his face. The stakes behind the complaint include Gwen and Aviva’s privileges at the hospital without which their practice would collapse.

Gwen goes on the offensive, accuses the attending doctor of racism, and threatening an EEOC complaint, which sends the doctor and the board into full retreat.

How much of a role did race play in this conflict? Clearly some. But how much of the attending doctor’s behavior was driven by the sometimes arrogance of physicians and their sometimes contempt for health providers without MD degrees? How much by underlying competition between two professional groups vying for the same group of patients? How much by personality, both the doctor’s in particular but also Gwen’s? How much by the circumstances of the moment of the argument, when both Gwen and the attending were stressed and exhausted?

If Chabon had done more of this, Telegraph Avenue would have been a novel with more power. Instead, we get a lot of Superman and Kung Fu.

Telegraph Avenue and Fanboy Sterility

Fanboys are enthusiastically followers of a particularly genre of art or culture. They use intellectual sophistication, encyclopedic knowledge, and painstaking analyses to compete with each other.

They also fiercely defend the purity of their fixed canon against subsequent changes, which they regard as corruptions. Because of this, fanboys are mostly born only after the energy, innovation, and creativity of a genre have been exhausted.

Telegraph Avenue is full of fanboys. Most prominently, there are Archy and Nat, who curate funk music on vinyl in their record shop and play funk music in their band. There are also Archy and Nat’s sons, who are enthusiastic fans of 1970s kung-fu movies. This enthusiasm spills over into Chabon’s plot, which embraces Luther Stallings and Quentin Tarantino, as well as Chabon’s narrative voice, which frequently makes references to comic books and pop culture.

The problem with all this fanboyism is that if you don’t share Chabon’s enthusiasms, large tracks of Telegraph Avenue cease to be interesting or compelling.

Worse, Chabon’s fanboyism seems to have diverted his attention from his real task. After all, it is the job of artists to bring energy, innovation and creativity to their work. It is the job of artists to corrupt fixed canons. It’s the job of artists to imagine the new, not protect the old. And it is the job of the artist to engage us, not talk to himself.

I think Chabon did these things well in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, where his enthusiasms became part of the blood of the book. In Telegraph Avenue, fanboy creative exhaustion seems to have infected the novel itself and Chabon’s enthusiasms just seem like distractions or self-centered obsessions. Or filler.

Telegraph Avenue and the Porn Star’s Testicle

You can open Telegraph Avenue at random and almost instantly find a sentence or a part of a sentence Chabon should have cut.

Take the one below from page 14, describing one of the security guards who is escorting Luther Stallings out of a memorabilia tradeshow because he doesn’t have a ticket.

The younger of the goons [had a] head shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.

I have a number of problems with this. First, technically, male porn stars don’t shave their testicles. They shave their scrotums.

Second, the look of the skin on a shaved head is not the same as the look of the skin on a shaved scrotum. A shaved head is shiny and smooth. A shaved scrotum, no matter how tightly stretched, has wrinkles and dimples. When a sentence implicitly compares the appearance of thing A to thing B, then I believe thing A should actually resemble thing B.

Third, what is this testicle doing here? What purpose does it serve? How does it make the sentence better? What system of imagery does it extend or what resonances with other themes does it share?

Because the words “porn star” plus “testicle” are a real attention-getter, and if you are going to grab the reader’s attention like that, it should be for a good reason. Closer examination should produce an “Ah ha!” not a “Huh?”

I’ve read this passage many times. I don’t see a good reason. I just think Chabon’s well-earned success as a writer has made him sloppy.

Page after page of Telegraph Avenue is lousy with this stuff. If you enjoy writing of this type, you are in for a real treat because there is a lot of it. But if you don’t, then like me, you are going to need to adopt a friendly tolerance for the quirks of a writer you generally respect and do a whole bunch of skipping.

Which I recommend. Because the virtues of Telegraph Avenue are still greater than its faults.

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