The Novel As Raw Data


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Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon


For all the verbiage there’s not much here – but then there is. If you’re looking for interior looks at characters and a memorable story, you won’t find either. But then that’s the way of this postmodern novel genre. (I won’t go into any depth here in my views of this genre, but you can find my perhaps jaundiced perspective on it at this location).

What you will find in this book of Chabon’s is a look at one of the U.S.’s premier melting pots, the San Francisco/Oakland Bay area, its people, the day-to-day cross currents, this pot’s people, and their reactions to changing times and the cultural clashes they can’t seem to avoid.

The story sprawls about the lives of a few central characters – Archy Stallings, his wife Gwen Shanks, and Nat Jaffe and his wife Aviva Roth. Archy and Nat own a small recording business, and a large business juggernaut threatens to swallow them. Gwen and Aviva are midwives, their livelihood in turn threatened by the biases and business interests of big-time medical establishments.

Chabon allows many other characters to wander in and out of these core characters’ lives, all in an attempt to depict the conflicts between corporate realities and entrepreneurial struggles, black, white and Asian American conflicts – even a smattering of gender issues.


Sounds like a damn fine read, doesn’t it? It is – and it isn’t.


The main problem is that Chabon’s narrator dominates the story, even the characters’ lives. As a reader, you’re allowed little depth to the characters; you’re only allowed to see what the narrator allows you to see, which is largely their reactions to various events and conditions. This of course gives you some idea of the characters’ depths, but mostly you’re allowed only a two dimensional view of them reacting to social stimuli.

This predominance seems to violate one of the precepts of the storytelling craft, which is to present characters and situations as a microcosm in ways that suggest that microcosm magnified to macro scale. This approach to depicting twenty-first century life is long on detail, but it doesn’t make a novel personal to the reader. In a sense, reading a novel like this is like scanning raw data on a computer printout. That’s not the project of literature, and it’s not a healthy state for a novel.

To be sure, Chabon’s talent is monumental. His writing, given the limitations of this subset of literary novel, is spectacular, and any aspiring writer would do well to study the ways he describes things, the metaphors and similes, the analogies and allusions.

He’s written books that are more reader-friendly, though, and I’d hate to see him go the way of Miles Davis’ jazz, in which the trumpet player decided, “Screw the audience, I’m just going to play for me,” and he began turning his back to the crowd during gigs.


My rating: 12 of 20 stars





2 thoughts on “The Novel As Raw Data

  1. This novel was not my cup of tea. I loved The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, because it opened up to me a world I didn’t know about, the golden age of comic books. I grew up in Oakland and this wasn’t anything new to me nor did it put a new spin on what I already knew. It is a bit like that long-ago nonfiction book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, which was hailed as giving a window into a little-known world, Ireland of the Middle Ages. But then the Cahill decided to write similar books about Greece and Israel, which I knew a lot about, and that made it much less interesting. I am somewhat fine with the device of novel as raw data if the data is new and compelling. But old data and no drama leaves me a bit cold.

  2. Not my beverage either. I bought Kavalier & Klay at the Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris on our way back from eastern Europe, enjoyed it greatly, and promised I’d pick up another Chabon. Finally did with this one, and was disappointed. Story telling is an art, of course, and some of these talented writers forget that as they experiment with style.

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