Prior to Telegraph Avenue, I had read exactly one and a bit books of Michael Chabon. I discovered Wonder Boys after the movie adaptation came out (eschewing the movie tie-in cover so I could be all “oh I read it before the film”). I really enjoyed it. So when The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay came out, I was excited and bought a copy right away. And then I hated it so much I gave up in less than 100 pages. No, wait, come back! I KNOW that I’m pretty much in the minority of one with that. So much so, that I decided I must be wrong. Rather than revisit Kavalier though, I decided to give his latest novel a spin.
I was initially cautious about reading it. Why? The jacket copy, pretty much. Allow me to share it with you here: “An intimate epic, a NorCal Middlemarch set to the funky beat of classic vinyl soul-jazz and pulsing with a virtuosic, pyrotechnical style all its own,Telegraph Avenue is the great American novel we’ve been waiting for. Generous, imaginative, funny, moving, thrilling, humane, and triumphant.” Fuck off. Seriously, just take your ridiculous hyperbole and fuck right off.
That Chabon is a genius wordsmith is not in doubt. Throughout the book, I found myself quietly marvelling at his dexterity with language, as well as often laughing out loud. Introducing one of the six main characters, Chabon gives us “‘Well, you’ve got gravity working for you,’ Gwen tried, less inclined than her partner to patience or politeness, but good for at least one go-round with an upside-down naked lady in labor”. Later on, the aftermath of a disabled man’s bird allergy is dealt with thusly: “‘I feel terrible’, said the man in the wheelchair, but in the tonelessness of his voice-o-tron, it was hard to be sure whether he was referring to the his remorse at the ejection of [the bird] or to the onset of anaphylaxis”. Those are just two examples. Telegraph Avenue is littered with numerous other moments of lyrical genius and laugh out loud asides.
The issue I have with this book is the plot. There’s so very much of it. You know when you are coming back from a holiday and you’ve done too much shopping, so you are frantically sitting on your suitcase while three other people zip it closed? That’s what the plot of this book feels like. There are at least three main plot strands, dealing with Archy Stallings, Nat Jaffe, their wives, their offspring, their businesses, and from those main plots, there are many sub-plot spin offs. It could have done with a little bit of a trim. Archy and Nat trying to save their failing used record store while their wives try and deal with the outcome of a bad birth at their midwifery home birth business is enough. Throw in Nat’s gay teenage son having a clandestine affair with Archy’s illegitimate, previously unacknowledged and sexually ambivalent teenage son, and you’re already threatening to over-egg the pudding.
But Chabon doesn’t stop there. There is so much other stuff a-going on, that to cover it all would make this review almost as long as the book. It’s a frustrating experience, as you’d quite like it to slow down and focus. The writing, as demonstrated, is so pin sharp and glorious that if nothing much happened in the book, it would be fine. The characters are all colourful enough to support a thin narrative. That Chabon shackles them to such a bloated one is this book’s undoing, for me, rather than its salvation.