Telegraph Avenue: A Novel
“. . . 500 pages of hypnotic, pokey verbosity. . . . The writing is amazing.”
There is a kind of cinematic perfection in the opening moments of Telegraph Avenue, the new novel by Michael Chabon in the manner in which the author rather dreamily informs his reader about time and Northern California:
“Summertime Berkeley giving off her old-lady smell, nine different styles of jasmine and a squirt of he-cat.”
And the way in which he tweaks it, until the reader can see that:
“Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned, Archy Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records, holding a random baby, wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his noted yet not disadvantageous resemblance to Gamera, the giant mutant flying tortoise of Japanese cinema.”
And this, a rhapsody, an ode to fishing through a crate of old records, while holding a baby:
“The science of cataloging one-handed: Pluck a record from the crate, tease the paper sleeve out of the jacket. Sneak your fingers into the sleeve. Waiter the platter out with your fingertips touching nothing by label. Angel the disc to the morning light pouring through the plate window. That all-revealing, even-toned East Bay light, keen and forgiving, always ready to tell you the truth about a record’s condition.”
And finally this, the punch line, telling us the why and how of it that Archy has, because of a deep, abiding love of vinyl, become an atheist:
“’What kind of heaven is that, you can’t have your records?’”
The reader cannot help but mouth the words, “waiter the platter out,” tongue, lips, and teeth working, a wrinkle of appreciation on his forehead. Ditto: “touching nothing but label.”
What follows such perfection of content and form is nearly 500 pages of hypnotic, pokey verbosity.
And therein lies our tale . . . somewhere . . . I am quite sure that there’s a story in there. Somewhere.
Michael Chabon already belongs to the short list of creators of fiction—Annie Proulx and Jayne Anne Phillips among them—whose sentences are striking enough to be worthy of a second, how-did-he/she-do-that reading. But here he writes as if he has something (even after The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) to prove.
I mean, why else does a novelist include a sentence that runs for 12 full pages?
Certainly not as a means of actually telling his story.
Michael Chabon has, throughout his career, written well, but here he seems intent to have it said that he has writ large, writ loudly and writ very, very long. It is as if he were more interested in having his work acknowledged, admired, respected, even rewarded, than he is in having it actually read. To say nothing of having it enjoyed.
Telegraph Avenue—a title taken from the name of the long California street linking Oakland and Berkley, where the author lives these days—is a tale set post 9/11, pre New Depression, in the year 2004.
It’s the story of Archy, the kindhearted baby-holder of the opening beat, and Nat, a lost soul if there ever was one, the kind of guy who lives life under a cloud through which the sun seldom breaks. The kind of guy who says:
“You know, I actually hate records. No. Let me restate that: I hate music. All music. Yeah, I repudiate it. Fuck you, music! Music is Satan. We serve its hidden agenda. It’s like a virus from space, the Andromeda Strain, propagating itself. We’re just vectors for the contagion. Music is the secret puppet master.”
Now, this kind of talk is particularly poignant since, together these two middle-aged friends run a dinosaur of a thing, a record store (named Brokeland, referencing the urban zone which it inhabits) that still sells vinyl records. Old jazz disks, mostly.
Their wives run a midwifery business. Their sons are friends and more-than-friends.
Their lives are those lived at the end of an era, with a giant media megastore threatening to open just down the block. It’s The Cherry Orchard, but without the cherries.
Not since Anne Rice followed a several hundred page digression into the history of witchcraft to end her supersized novel with the terrifying “to be continued,” has this reader felt such a reading-induced shudder as he did upon reaching Section Three of Telegraph Avenue, and the aforementioned long long sentence (Pages 239 through 250 to be exact, out of a total 465) that makes up the whole of that section of the book.
Now forget the fact that all of his characters speak with the same voice, with the same intense ease of language, with “propagating vectors” always at the ready. The writing is amazing.
We are spoiled by him, really, by Michael Chabon, by his internal thesaurus, by his eye for the telling detail—details, honestly, would that he would occasionally stick to only one—by the way his mind ponders a simple action, engages it, imagines it, and carries it to the page.
But even while in the thrall of language most Chabon-ish (and/or its video variant, all things Sorkin-esque), the creeping feeling does arise that suggests that, however lovely the verbs, adverbs and nouns, it all is a bit much.
As here, for instance, in this very simple thing, when a guy walks in the door:
“In the shade of a wide-brimmed black hat whose vibe wavered between crime boss and Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, pin-striped gray-on-charcoal three-piece, black wing tips shined till they shed a perceptible halo, Chan Flowers came into the store. Slid himself through the front door, ineluctable as a final notice from the county. Straight-backed, barrel-chested, bowlegged. A model of probity, a steady hand to reassure the grieving, a sober man—a grave man—solid as the pillar of a tomb.”
It goes on from there. After looking up “ineluctable” and maybe “probity,” you may continue onward.
What amazes even more than Mr. Chabon’s ability is his sense of self-indulgence. His willingness to allow the manner in which he writes to impede the reader’s ability to share the joy of that writing with him.
In truth, it is the kind of book most start reading with the intention of actually finishing, only to abandon it to the bottom of the pile on the bedside table—from where it haunts them in perpetuity.
It is the kind of book that you will likely elsewhere be told is “good for you,” that it is “literature at its finest.” Both are true.
And reading literature is like eating spinach. Good for the mind and body.
And this is a great American writer writing greatly. Arduously. And yet, the book itself is not so great, as it represents the outcome when a writer loses sight of the eyes of the reader.
Were this a first book and not the product of one of America’s most successful novelists, it would likely never have been published, at least not the in form it now enjoys. In a world in which formula-obsessed agents and editors alike demand that the dialogue begins by page two and that something or other explodes by the end of the first chapter, it would have been perceived as a bloated beached whale of a thing, and, again, relegated to the bottom of the reading pile.
And what amazes the reader when at last, deadline impelling him forward, ever forward, he reaches the Acknowledgements (aside from who wonderfully brief they are—the reader feared that Mr. Chabon might have chosen to thank the citizens of Berkeley one by one) is that, among individuals, writer’s colonies are also acknowledged for their help and support.
Which raises a question in the mind of the reader: Was no one, in that colony or out, before or after, willing to tell this author that while cooking up his great huge, wordy banquet, he ended up with a great deal of literary spinach in his teeth?
Wouldn’t that have been the polite thing to do?