I admit to having gone to Amazon to check out readers’ reviews of this book. The insecurity comes from wondering what I could have been missing.
After all, "Telegraph Avenue" is by Michael Chabon, one of the most lauded American novelists of our age. Maybe the most lauded, alongside Jonathan Franzen. "Telegraph Avenue" itself has received the highest praise from some of our most distinguished critics.
So I felt more than a bit like a dolt because, to be honest (and if a critic isn’t honest, what’s he doing writing criticism?), I just plain couldn’t follow the action. Oh, it’s not "Finnegan’s Wake"-level obscure. But maybe "Golden Bowl"-level; certainly it approaches "To the Lighthouse"-level difficulty.
Maybe I’m just turning into an old-fashioned curmudgeon in my (youngish!) old age. But give me a forthright, honest declarative sentence like "Reader, I married him" over Chabon’s much fancier technique any day. The problem is that Chabon continually circles his characters, action and place.
This works in cinema, where the director establishes a mise-en-scene using signs: A man’s footsteps, a hand knocking on a door, a shot. We are never shown, but we know a man has walked up to a door, knocked and shot whoever answers.
Interesting that so much of "Telegraph Avenue" is concerned with jazz and film, two media where circling is preferred to directly explaining, much more showing, as it were, than telling. But as Sartre explained, when a reader picks up a book, he enters into a contract, as it were, with the writer. There’s a dialogue.
There’s no dialogue in "Telegraph Avenue." Instead, the narrator interjects himself -- and the omniscient writer-narrator is unmistakably a "him" here. The narration can be amusing, but most of the time it’s just oblique and at times, just plain confusing.
There’s also way too much dialogue for my taste, so much so that it reads suspiciously like a treatment for the (probably inevitable) screen version. That’s not to say that much of that dialogue isn’t fun, or, at times, very funny. It is, especially when the hard-driving pro athlete-turned-mogul (think Jay Z, although I strongly suspect Chabon was using Magic Johnson as a template here) enters the frame.
This jivey dude pits himself against the aging hippies who manage a record shop along the eponymous street that moves from Downtown Oakland to the heart of Berkley. And if you think that’s meant to be symbolic of the divide between the two sets of protagonists ... well, you’d be right.
Now, there’s a certain charm, I suppose, in writing a contemporary novel about a couple of music lovers who cling to vinyl. But it’s also quixotic to the point of weirdness. Although Chabon doesn’t spare us the proprietors’ travails, still, the inevitability of their store’s demise is obvious from the first few pages -- to the reader, if not to the author.
There are some nice set pieces here, such as the disquisition about the Vincente Minelli film "The Bandwagon" and its relationship to the films of Quentin Tarantino. But although amusing and mildly enlightening, I could have wished that Chabon had gone completely into left field.
Instead, like so much else in this novel, there is a feeling that Chabon is showing off. The novel’s best aspects by far are Chabon’s genuinely free and easy approach to man-on-man (or, rather, boy-on-boy and man-on-transgendered) sex.
This is a novel by, about and for straight men of a certain age. But Chabon throws these readers a hard curve ball by a lovely description of two teenagers discovering their bodies in each other. It’s not "gay sex," it’s adolescent sex, and it’s perfect. I only wish more of "Telegraph Avenue" had followed down this particular alleyway.
by Michael Chabon
Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon
$28, hardcover. 470 pages with slipcover
Published by Harper Collins