Archive for the ‘Michael Chabon’ Category

"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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