Monday, June 3, 2013

Notes on Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue

American novelist Michael Chabon, begging, borrowing and mining his own material, has crafted an epic timepiece with Telegraph Avenue. The 465-page book, set in Oakland, California, is a stew of Chabon's recognizable themes, almost unbearably imperfect characters, shot through with comic-book and other pop-culture references. The plot centers on Archy Luther and Nat Jaffe, the proprietors of Brokeland Music, a community hub for customers who daily loiter at the counter. Archy, a black character, and Nat, a Caucasian one, are best friends. They are the centre of the wheel whose spokes include Gwen Shanks, Archy’s imminently pregnant wife, Aviva Roth-Jaffe, Nat’s wife, and midwife partner of Gwen, as well as Julius Jaffe, their 14-year-old son, emerging into his own teen identity.

What drives the plot forward, despite Chabon’s seemingly best efforts at delay, are baron-of-industry Gibson Goode’s plans to install a massive Dogpile megamall. Dogpile could foster black community spirit through jobs, but also grind the flagging Brokeland Music into bankruptcy.  

The locals view the larger-than-life personality of ex-pro football athlete, Gibson Goode and his plans to install his extremely successful business in Oakland, as untrustworthy at best and menacing at worst. His enterprising villainy acts as a foil, bringing out the worst and best in Archy and Nat. Goode also flies around in a zeppelin displaying the Dogpile logo. The name is both a crude reference to a white male inferiority complex regarding black male virility, and a metaphor for the menace Goode represents to Brokeland Records and, thus, its owners. The zeppelin, as absurd a visual device as it is (i.e.: Look what’s looming overhead! The uncertain future!), does add an Ahab-and-Moby-Dick allegory that shadows Archy and Nat.

Chabon mixes in rich references to not only music (characters’ reviews of jazz, funk, soul, blues), but also pop culture,  particularly Marvel Comics and DC Comics characters, and sci-fi film staples such as Star Wars and Star Trek. These topics are so hot and heavy that the reader often wonders if Chabon was on a Quentin Tarantino and comic book bender when he wrote the novel. Characters also repeatedly discuss the director, and his films.

Telegraph Avenue’s first half lurches more than moves forward, with character establishment aplenty. Gwen and Aviva endure professional trials as midwives. Archy and Nat grapple over whether to fight the Dogpile move, or to join Gibson Goode. Julius develops a friendship with an estranged black  boy named Titus Joyner.

About halfway through this rich narrative, anyone who has read Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or has seen or watched Chabon’s Wonder Boys will note several familiar elements, here. The latter novel was also a 2000 feature film starring Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Tobey Maguire, and Katie Holmes (arguably Holmes' last good role). The film is stellar and odd at once, and worth repeated viewings.

Without revealing more of the plot, there are long-lost relatives, massive works-in-progress, gifted young artists, dope, and chronic indecision in Telegraph, all of which Chabon has used before.

There is a long-lost father and a long-lost son in Telegraph, as there were in Kavalier. There’s a character coming out of the closet, as in both previous books. Telegraph also features an unfinished opus, a common trait in Wonder and Kavalier. Archy’s deadbeat, drug addict dad, Luther, a washed-up kung-fu action hero, has for years been planning a third installment of his ubiquitous Strutter series, much like Professor Grady Tripp in Wonder has been writing a never-ending novel and much like a character in Kavalier chips away at a novel over the course of many years.

Chabon also adores a prodigy. Titus, Julius' chum in Telegraph, has written three screenplays, showing signs of a young ingénue. The James Leer character in Wonder is an English Lit major with a novel under his belt, a work that might be brilliant.

Marijuana features in Wonder and Telegraph; while Archy is alright with indulging, in moments of deep self pity, of smoking pot in Telegraph,Professor Tripp in Wonder is a pothead, hence his endless prose. 

Archy is also yet another chronically indecisive person, as Tripp was in Wonder. Tripp’s problem was that he smoked too much dope, wouldn’t finish his novel, and wouldn’t commit to his girlfriend and leave his wife. Thus, the currents of life washed Tripp about at their whimsy. Likewise, Telegraph’s Archy navigates the eddies and flows of a furious wife, a courting Gibson Goode, an irascibly cranky best friend, an absentee father who asks for a handout, and other challenges that he is simply ill-equipped to handle.

As a reader, the weight of these above comparisons detracted from my initial enjoyment of Telegraph.

Luckily for me, and, moreover, for Chabon, he rises above his rather familiar literary playground. He increases the pace of the prose after half-time. Chabon also displays characters enduring the human condition. He places readers in their shoes, miserable or no, and immerses the reader in their lives and mindsets.

What also won this reviewer over was not knowing exactly how Chabon would conclude his tale. At one moment, readers might expect a kung-fu rally from Luther Stallings, or perhaps a cheaper plot turn, a bad fate for the aforementioned zeppelin. But to speculate further would ruin many surprises. As it stands, I was uncertain what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised by the ending, where (A lesser reviewer would insert a spoiler here, assuming everyone would want to know everything before reading the book.).

With many of Chabon's names, one also sees a tongue-in-cheek humour coming through. After all, in a story drenched in comic-book tribute, it cannot be coincidence that the shifty  father figure who abandoned Archy is named Luther (as in Lex Luthor) Stallings (as in his career did not take off after his heyday of blaxploitation/kung-fu flicks). Gideon Goode is also a good handle. Gideon means “Warrior” or “Feller”, taken from Judges 6 to 8 in the Hebrew Bible. The surname Goode, admittedly, is a cleverly ironic surname for an antagonist.

And Goode does antagonize Brokeland’s proprietors, quickening both plot and interest for readers and making ordeals unbearably uncomfortable. Will Luther, a hapless former action star, make his movie, through blackmail and subterfuge? Will Archy join Goode or fight for Brokeland Records? Will Gwen continue being a midwife and tolerate indignities foisted upon her by medical professionals? What will become of Julius, struggling to realize who he is? Chabon’s characters are flawed—hotheaded or lazy or uneasy or simply trying to find their way. They stumble through a dense murk of pop culture fixations, as well as wild and dangerous circumstances far beyond their control, perhaps toward salvation, perhaps towards further indignities, accompanied by the soundtrack of their lives, and their continuing passion for music they love.

On that note (pun intended), Chabon takes the long way around, blowing notes and solos and getting into flights of fancy about the music obsessing his characters and, presumably, himself. He blows prose like musical notes through a trombone or trumpet or saxaphone, perhaps with a dash of Jack Kerouac melody in there. One rather amazing chapter features a parrot’s point-of-view of all of the major players dealing with their lives, as the bird coasts above Oakland, adrift on the whims of an unexpected fate. Likewise, Archy and Nat, for all their foibles, feel cast adrift together. They represent an era where vinyl records sold well, customers loitered in the store for hours, and listeners cared about unearthing amazing music.



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