It’s no secret that Michael Chabon is a fan of science fiction and fantasy. His Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the story of two comic-book creators before and after World War II, was heavily steeped in superhero derring-do, and his 2007 novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, took place in an alternate present-day reality in which a Jewish refugee settlement had been created in Alaska after the Holocaust.
And so it is with Chabon’s latest work, Telegraph Avenue. It’s supposed to take place in the real world of Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., circa 2004, but Chabon’s fictional universe is, well, completely fictional.
First, the plot: Archy Stallings and his partner Nat Jaffe run a struggling record store called Brokeland Records. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, are midwives and have a practice together. Archy and Gwen are black; Nat and Aviva are Jewish. Gwen’s about to have her first child, which means Archy is freaking out, which means he’s getting laid by a waitress at the local Ethiopian place. Except it turns out he already has a son, Titus, who’s just appeared on the scene long enough for the Jaffes’ son, Julius, to fall in love with him. Oh, and there’s Archy’s dad Luther, a former blaxploitation star who’s wrapped up in a shakedown scheme.
So what’s so fantastical about all that? Where to start! It’s not just that a local independent record store in 2004 would be more worried about a corporate chain moving in than illegal electronic downloads tamping its sales, and it’s not just that a corporate chain record store would still be expanding in 2004, and it’s not even that said corporate chain would actually specialize in rare and used vinyl, especially of the soul/funk/jazz genres, or even that the chain’s owner would have managed to become the nation’s fifth-richest black businessman just five (or four?) short years after leaving the NFL, and that his transportation of choice from Los Angeles to the Bay area would be a blimp—oh, wait, I mean a zeppelin.
No, what really sends Telegraph Avenue over the edge from realism to fantasy is that it’s a book about a record store in a mostly black neighborhood focused mostly on black music that neglects any mention at all of hip-hop culture until more than 200 pages have passed. Basically, in 2004, in Chabon’s fictional alternate reality, it’s like black music ceased to exist after the late 1970s—there’s no Prince, there’s no N.W.A., there’s no Tupac, there’s no Jay-Z, there’s no Mary J. Blige, there’s no Missy Elliot. Even the teenage characters are obsessed with the ‘70s. And this is in a book where hardly a paragraph passes without some mention of pop culture.
“Okay,” you say, “so Chabon wrote some of the whitest black characters possible, characters who live in an alternate reality where an ex-NFL player dismisses RZA because he can’t play an instrument in about the only passage of a 465-page book about music that actually acknowledges that hip-hop exists. But at least he wrote about black people, right?” And it’s true, this cross between the best of Nick Hornby and Empire Records felt somewhat refreshing in that regard, if only because Chabon didn’t try to make his black characters speak in dialect, a la The Help.
Alas, Chabon has all his characters speak in some kind of stilted scat, like in this excerpt between Nat and his son:
“Is that guy kind of, like, scary?”
“I have always thought so, yes.”
“Kind of a creeper?”
“At times he gives off that vibe.”
“But he buys a lot of records.”
“An all too common conjunction of behaviors.”
The dialogue isn’t the worst of it. Telegraph Avenue is one of the most overwritten texts I have ever had the opportunity of reading, and I’ve read my fair share of Joyce and Faulkner. With modernism, at least the authors were trying to do something new. With Chabon, it’s like he’s never met a metaphor he didn’t immediately use, one after another, none of which add up to much meaning in the end. To wit:
“Archy stood in the front bay window of his house like a doomed captain on the bridge of a starship, pondering, as if it were a devourer of planets, the approach of his wife’s black BMW. Stroking his chin, using the intricate mental tables of cosines and angles to decide whether the intensity of Gwen’s response to the business with Elsabet Getachew would be squared or full-on cubed by the news that his child had appeared out of nowhere.”
The purple prose gets worse from there, including a 12-page-long sentence from the perspective of a parrot grieving its dead owner.
Chabon recently said in an interview that Telegraph Avenue started out as a script for a pilot for TNT and that he had problems turning the teleplay into a novel. I don’t know if that explains why he overwrote every single sentence—Kavalier and Clay certainly wasn’t full of laughable phrases the way this book is—but it still doesn’t make the book any more enjoyable to read.
It’s been a couple of days now since I finished it, and I still can’t get past the language. If only Chabon had spent as much time developing his characters as he spent describing them. And don’t get me started on the birth described as “a vaginal sigh” or the conversation with advice-giving candidate Obama.
In the end, Telegraph Avenue is supposed to be about fatherhood, and growing up, and some other bullshit, but its resolutions seem unrealistic and forgettable. You’re better off throwing another LP on the player than reading this would-be ode to vinyl culture.