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