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When I was growing up, my tenth grade English teacher, Ms. Nitkin, explained to us students of American Literature that what distinguishes a novel from a novella or a short story is that a novelist creates an entire world, one we feel we're entering each time we crack the cover. Few novelists take the time to do that these days, it seems, opting instead for character- and plot- driven narratives that may grip us with their pacing, their trajectory, or their psychological insights, but don't actually create fully faceted worlds with richly specific atmospheres for us to inhabit. Chabon does in Telegraph Avenue, and in my book that's an achievement to celebrate.
This week, I found myself staring down my (typical) multiple reads, hopping over Transcendentalist New England (the Pulitzer-winning Alcott bio, Eden's Outcasts), contemporary NM/LA/Midwest/reality TV (the newer and thus far slight Gruen novel Ape House), and 1980's Bangladesh (Tahmima Anam's The Good Muslim), landing squarely in Brokeland territory every time. For a reader who found the first 100+ pages more than a tad annoying in many respects, that's a triumph of the author's craft and the collective pull of this read-along community over my own capriciously critical proclivities.
To the specifics:
- I took one look at the form of "A Bird of Wide Experience" and thought, "Please. No. Not another and even more obvious flexing of Chabon's Style muscles." But I took a deep breath, dug in, and found that section to be a fluid read despite the mannered choice of writing it in a single sentence. Jury's still out on whether, as a part of the whole in which no other segment is crafted in this way, it works. (I do get that, as a set piece, the shape's meant to in some way support the bird's eye view, on multiple levels. I just need to reread it after I've finished the novel to see whether I think it succeeds as an integrated chapter.) In any case, I was sad to see Fifty-Eight go, and it did call to mind a relatively recent climb up the stairs on Telegraph Hill in SF (not to be confused with our title street in Oakland), as the famous parrots flitted about, screeching, overhead. And there were flocks of wild parrots in Palo Alto/Redwood City too, now that I come to think about it. They were all green and smallish, so despite the mild climate, I don't know how a big African Grey like Fifty-Eight would fare in the urban landscape... I guess we'll find out.
- I learned a word which could have been applied to my circumstances nearly every day of my life, and I'm grateful to Mr. Chabon for it: trepverter. It means "thinking of a clever comeback or witty remark when it is too late." Aviva recognizes that, because she's a cautious communicator, she often catches herself in moments of trepverter. As a teacher, for me each day is filled with opportunities to offer just the right observation, ask just the right question, or pipe up with a bon mot or a humorous but non-harming remark to lighten the journey. I do a decent job of it, if I do say so myself, but every day I drive home thinking of how I could have done better. And who among us hasn't "trepverter-ed", probably within the past week? Note to self: trepverter would be a sparky idea around which to build some writing exercises too, both of the autobiographical and the fictional sort. Might even be worthy of a poem: How would that concept influence both form and content?
- Too many laugh-out-loud moments to count. I especially admire comedy that works on multiple levels, and here character-driven comedy is supported by linguistic comedy within situations that offer both humor and pathos. Well played, Mr. Chabon.
- I appreciate the way that Chabon continues to build nuances into the motif of apology in this section. Most of the main characters have plenty of cause to both offer and receive apologies, and an American novel with race as foundational element pretty well must address the issues of apologies and reparations. Chabon highlights the complexities of the act of apology without - IMHO - waxing too didactic or taking sides in any heavy-handed way, and his treatment of this motif truly made me ponder.
- Lest anyone think I'm responding with unqualified raves for this novel, please know that I've saved all my critiques in a private file. I do not think that Telegraph Avenue is a perfect piece of writing, especially style-wise. However, I'd still recommend it. (Is that too critical, yet sans support? If you think so, let me know and I'll offer up some thoughts on the many moments when stylistic choices jarred me out of the narrative and/or out of the fictional world.)
MFB, as we careen down the home stretch,
p.s. Please, y'all, whether you've stopped by this read-along for the first time today or whether you've been following from the beginning (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3), do check out the varied, trenchant, and often funny responses from the other read-along participants, whose posts are linked at host As The Crowe Flies and Reads. And buy the book. Despite my concerns, I know that it will linger in my memory for a long time, and suspect you'll find it worthy as well.
p.s.s. Telegraph Avenue Film School continued with The Band Wagon. Um. Seemed like a decidedly second rate Singin' In The Rain to me. I can't tell how this would be a Tarantino influence, but perhaps one of you out there has more than just a passing knowledge of his films and you could fill us all in... Here was the one fun moment in an otherwise dull film:
Yup. That's the best there was. Consider yourselves spared.
Next up? The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly with Clint Eastwood.