Monday, September 30, 2013

Telegraph Avenue : A Mom & Me Review

This is a novel that sticks with you.

I read Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue in the spring of 2012 and traveled to Oakland that summer, visiting many of the sites that form the backdrop for its plot.  It was a journey I relished, and many vivid scenes from this novel still leap easily to mind.  I reread Telegraph Avenue and enjoyed it perhaps more the second time around.

Mom, on the other hand, read the new paperback copy just this week. 

What's it 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.  And it's the story of their long-suffering and brilliant wives, Gwen and Aviva, who are partners in a progressive midwifing business.   Archie is black, Nate is white; Gwen is black, Aviva is white.  And, 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.

How did our responses stack up? 

And so it goes…Telegraph Avenue, that is. Life after life unfolding before our eyes (and ears, too, if we’re  reading Michael Chabon’s prose). Sentence after sentence explodes across the pages, drawing the reader into a world most likely don’t know or even realize they would like to know. Until one meets Archy and Gwen, Nate and Aviva, their families, friends and acquaintances.  These are lives lived in a gritty world that includes jazz, a small business in a world where change is inexorably moving into the neighborhood, midwifery,  issues of race and gender, family interactions—in all, a microcosm of life.

Michael Chabon has a distinctive way of putting words on paper, making his characters and their worlds “activate” for us. Those lengthy sentences portray a scene in a way that “normal” sentences cannot: it’s an event that unfolds itself into the mind.

There is a scene in which Nat reminisces about his father, Julius the First (Nat’s son is also Julius). Nat describes an event in his Dad’s life: “A high point in a life, lived at sea level, prone to flooding.” Have you ever felt  that your life was “prone to flooding”?

And how is this for description: “engine heat troubling the atmosphere above its hood.” Who of us hasn’t seen heat making the air waver over pavement or some other object? But did we think of it as “troubling the atmosphere”?

And here’s another language delight. Nat is frying eggs, reminding himself of how his stepmother worked in the kitchen, how she kept things clean with her Scotch Brite pad and “wiping down every surface to a laboratory shrine, leaving herself to contend at the end only with the baking sheets, the big cast-iron skillet and the blast radius of spat fat on the stovetop.”  That ‘spat fat’ drew a picture for me.

Finally, I point you to pages 193-195: one continuous sentence that describes the people and place and sets a scene that continues to unfurl as Chabon’s opus weaves its narrative magic for us.

Me:  I enjoyed this novel even more the second time around.
Setting plays a major role, as does pop culture from the '70's through today.  Here Chabon inhabits characters of many backgrounds and gender identifications, all from a pretty close third person perspective, which is quite ambitious for a writer and sometimes problematic 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 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 Chabon's period details and pop culture references.
* If  you've pondered questions of race, father-son relationships, the viability of 'living the  dream' in the U.S.A. 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.

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.*

So, that's two thumbs up from Mom & Me.  We both feel lucky to have found so many worthy books through our feature here; unusually lucky, really.  Neither of us would have predicted that we'd both genuinely appreciate so many of the books we've chosen to review.

Many thanks, as ever, to all at TLC Book Tours and, this time, to Mr. Chabon and his publishers for allowing us both to enjoy his novel in exchange for this honest review.

* Please note that some of my comments are simply revised from an earlier post.  I relied on my
copy from last year for the re-read, and did edit after my current read.


Anonymous said...

I have to admit I couldn't make it through this book. The writing was beautiful but the story didn't hold my attention. But I'm glad you both enjoyed it so much!

Anonymous said...

What fun to have traveled to the places in the book when you first read it! I'm sure the reread brought back some fun memories of your travels!

Thanks for being on the tour.

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