Monday, July 30, 2012

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon : Review

Reserve your copy at
And final post for the pre-publication read-along ably wrangled by E. at As The Crowe Flies and Reads.

First and foremost: I offer my thanks one final time to E. and all the read-along bloggers for encouraging me through this novel with their widely varied, thoughtful, and often hilarious commentary.  The experience - all parts of it - has been one of the particular blessings of this summer.

Read-Alongers: I'm going to offer a few thoughts after my general review of Telegraph Avenue below.  Please click the link at the bottom of the post to respond to my specific responses to the "Brokeland" chapter, as I have truly valued your comments along the way and would love to know whether you agree with me or not.

Next, to the text.  I'll try for summative comments in the review below, rather than a response to the last chapter alone, as such an endeavor would needs be full of uber-spoilers, and I think that many who visit this blog would appreciate the finer aspects of Telegraph Avenue.

The Review
What's it all about?
Essentially, Telegraph Avenue is the story of Archy Stallings, floundering part-owner of Brokeland Records on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, CA, and all those who contribute to the web of relationships in his life.  It's also the story of his teenage son, Titus, and his partner Nate's son, Julie.  In the end, the issues of race and gender in the United States and how they continue to morph from generation to generation form the central themes of the novel.  Finally, motifs of jazz music, film, pop-culture, and the homogenization of all three weave their way through this story.  Oh, and then there's the nearly unavoidable motif (in any contemporary novel written about the U.S.) of The American Dream and its (lack of?) viability today.

What makes this novel unique?
Setting plays a major role, as does pop culture from the '70's through today.  And here Chabon inhabits characters of many backgrounds and gender identifications, all from a pretty close third person stance (I say it's free indirect discourse with occasional authorial rather than narrator's intrusions, but others on this read-along disagree), which is quite ambitious for a writer and interesting to process for readers.  Chabon's flexing his style-muscles here too, so expect a hefty dose of simile and metaphor, plus leaps in narrative timeline within the multi-character third person narration.  Also - and this was a major plus for me - it's funny. Often.

Who would particularly enjoy it?
  • A major plus in this novel is Chabon's successful creation of a richly populated fictional world, so if you enjoy immersing yourself entirely in a novel, this one won't disappoint! Characterization drives plot, so if that's your cup of tea, this will be too. 
  • If you enjoy music, and particularly - though not necessarily - jazz, this book will hold particular appeal, as it will if you lived through the '70's and thus connect easily with many of the images and pop culture references.
  • If you liked any of Chabon's earlier novels, I suspect that this one will please you somewhat too.
  • If  you've pondered questions of race, father-son relationships, the viability of living your dream in the U.S. today, and what - exactly - love is, then this novel will offer you another chance to explore these issues.
  • If you enjoy layered comedy, you'll appreciate this novel even more.
  • For more detailed kudos with examples, hop to my previous post about Telegraph Avenue.
Any "cautions" with regard to content and/or style?
Telegraph Avenue requires a mature reader.  I'm not talking about age, but rather experience and sensibility.  Why, what do I mean?  I mean that you have to persist through the first chapter's exposition to get to "the good stuff" when the plot kicks in during chapter two.  You have to endure sometimes oddly incongruous yet interesting metaphors and similes and accept that pondering them will be part of the experience.  You must accept the gamut in terms of language and characters' behaviors, some of which you might not use or engage in yourself.  And if a good laugh is low on your interest barometer, well, maybe you should lighten up a bit and then pick up Telegraph Avenue.

The Nitty Gritty about "Brokeland"
Read-Alongers and anyone who won't mind potential spoilers, keep reading!
So here I'm assuming that my primary audience is read-alongers and anyone else who's finished the novel already, and - because time is scarce today - I'll offer quick thoughts for your response.  Choose one, choose all, or offer another thought from your own blog post, but do tell me what you're thinking.

"Brokeland" Thoughts:
  • The second I'd posted last Tuesday, I grabbed the book and kept on reading; I was that enthralled with the characters and hoping for a brilliant, rich, unexpected culmination.
  • When I'd read the last word and closed the cover, I thought, "Huh."  In some ways, the last section was satisfying, and in others not.  The ending was all too tidy and "happily ever after, almost" for me.  And we didn't get to see what became of the Jaffes, really, so that was a bummer.
  • And Fifty-Eight never came back: Waaah.
  • Julie played a more significant role in this section, and we got to see him - and Titus too, in some ways - rise to meet a challenge.  Through these developments, we also perhaps can project that their generation will be better able to acknowledge, wrestle through, and come to terms with issues of race and sexual orientation more swiftly and surely than their parents. 
  • And I found myself mulling for many days over what I will take away as a heightened awareness in my life.  Here's the question I'll keep close:  Do relationships with fathers and father-figures determine how balanced and self-actualizing adult males can become?
"Let me explain. No. There is no time; let me sum up."  (Virtual star if you recognize the cinematic reference.)
One blogger wrote that she thought this would be a pretty polarizing novel for Chabon fans and first-timers alike.  Could certainly be.  But, after a week's percolation, I still feel decidedly mixed about it.  Somebody give me a reason to hop down off the fence!  On balance: I felt that my time reading Telegraph Avenue was worthwhile and I'm grateful for the opportunity.

MFB, and hoping to read along together again one day soon,


Marie said...

I would also say the book requires a reader who enjoys intensely language driven writing as opposed to a focus on plot. I will admit for me the plot never really kicked in. I admire what Chabon did here in some respects but I can't say it's my favorite book of all time.

Anonymous said...

Laurie: I agree. I'm mixed. I do think there will be a good many that have enjoyed Chabon before that may not like this one at all and I do think there will be an adequate amount of 1st time Chabon readers that will give up after Part I. For the lucky ones that read through to the very end and allow the story to percolate a bit, I think we will have a pretty satisfied crowd.

Robyn Ryle said...

Princess Bride, of course, a source of infinite wisdom second only to Buffy. I also experienced a distinct "Huh" sensation at the end of the novel.

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

I'm so glad that I experienced this book as a readalong, and that you were a part of it. I probably would have given up otherwise because I'm small minded and don't like having to work for my fiction! :)

Reading Rambo said...

Oh man, good point about the mature reader thing. If I'd looked into this when I was in my teens, I think I would've hated it.

Amy said...

Sorry, I can't give you a reason to hop down off the fence, since I'm still stuck there myself.

Nicole said...

I thought the quote was from Murder by Death, but no. It's from The Princess Bride. I lose.

Anyway - I felt the same at the end. I thought it was a little too tidy and, as you put it, happily ever after almost. I'm not really fond of endings like that.

Lindsey said...

I closed the book and said hmm myself. It wasn't that I needed them to have a happy ending; it was more that I felt like their choices didn't really make sense.

Laurie said...

Ooh: Robyn gets a star! Long live Inigo! And Nicole gets a star too for looking it up.
Marie: I agree, and I would say that for a language-driven reader like me, I wish Chabon's language had been more satisfying rather than distracting.
BB: I so agree, and I'm off to see what you wrote about Telegraph Avenue. Thanks so much for stopping by!
E: Me too, and hugs aplenty for hosting.
Rambo: As a person who's taught teens for nearly twenty years, there would be few to whom I'd recommend this particular novel. Yet I can immediately bring to mind some seniors who would definitely qualify as mature enough in every regard to apprecitate it.
Amy and Nicole: I just learned the abbreviation DNF froom Bookzilla's blog, and last night I used "TBR" with my IRL book group. They responded with, "Huh?" Maybe we need to add OTF (on the fence) to the book bloggers' lexicon. What say ye?
Lindsey: Agreed, in part. One thing I've learned from years as a teacher, it's that adults and adolescents make choices all the time that don't seem congruent with past behavior. Then I learned from a psychology teacher about "the fallacy of continuity". Since then, I don't expect characters to make choices that make sense based on their past behavior any more than I expect real people to!

Laurie said...

Jeeminy: Typos, much? Must. Practice. Typing. On. iPad. Apologies.
And a quick addition:
RR - I can also think of frosh who would be mature enough to appreciate this novel.

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