Monday, 28 July 2014

Telegraph Avenue Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue is, at its heart, a novel about two interconnected families trying to make it in America. Archie Stallings and Nat Jaffe run Brokeland Records, a struggling used record store on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, that is threatened by the extensive vinyl section of a new chain-store. Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, the very pregnant and not-pregnant respective wives of Archie and Nat, are a team of midwives whose livelihood are threatened by an asshole doctor and birthing mishap. Julius Jaffe, the son of Nat and Aviva, is realizing that he is maybe probably gay and in love with his new friend Titus Joyner, who in turn has a strange fascination with Archie Stallings.  And against all of this struggle, Luther Stallings, Archie's good for nothing, kung fu master, frequent junkie, former blaxploitation film star father, blows into town with a plan and secret leverage from the past that threatens and promises to change everything or blow it all to hell.

Telegraph Avenue is a pretty thematically dense novel. Beyond the wealthy, elegant prose of Chabon and the essentially human stories of familial complexity, this novel his novel has a lot to say about black and white America, growing up, and Oakland. It delves deeply into the lore of a million things: from blaxploitation and kung fu film and retro African American music, to parrot ownership and the art and politics of midwifery. And the nostalgia of these things: that encompassing tension between the romance of the culture of the past and the requirements of living in the present and looking to the future is a major force in Telegraph Avenue. As a guy trying to find a way to negotiate being an actual human grown up who still has his hobbies and nostalgic passions, I found this aspect of the book pretty resonate.

I think, though, that my favourite aspect of Telegraph Avenue is its fraught relationship with genre and literary fiction. Many of Michael Chabon novels are in some way, great or small, genre fiction. There is almost always some spark of Sci-fi, some flourish of Pulpy detection, or a thunderbolt of superheroics in my favourite Chabon novels. I mean, they are all gorgeous works of literary fiction with prose that just hangs, heavy with artistic truth. But they still mostly play with genre. I feel that Telegraph Avenue is deliberately trying to tell a very classic literary fiction story, of character and relationship and family, while playing with genre elements like blaxploitation and kung fu, while still not itself being genre. And the tension between these two forces is awesome: I found myself frequently wishing for Telegraph Avenue to turn into the skid and have Archie and Nat shotgun up and rob banks to save their store or Gwen full on chop some jive turkey doctor in the neck, but at the same time was always relieved when the story pulled back and stuck to its great family-focused narrative. I found this to be a really cool way of exploring the Telegraph Avenues theme of nostalgia and moving on.

(And, as someone trying to reverse engineer himself from child-geek to functional-adult-with-geeky-overtones this story tension really got me at the moment.)

Telegraph Avenue is another easy to recommend book. I think it's universal enough in it's appeal and core story for most people to engage with and the quality of the writing should impress anyone. I feel like the novel's breadth makes it hard to specifically recommend it to anyone (except fans of Chabon's other books), but if you are looking for something to read, Telegraph Avenue would be a great choice.

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