Telegraph Avenue – Michael Chabon (Review)

Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue is a novel in five parts. The third part, entitled “A Bird of Wide Experience”, is a 12 page long sentence that follows an escaped parrot as it flies around Oakland and happens upon each of the novel’s central characters at the midpoint of their stories. A 12 page sentence is just one of many risks taken by Chabon over the course of this frantic novel. Some others:

  • Telegraph Avenue features a primarily African American cast of characters written by a white author.
  • The book includes numerous descriptions of a woman’s perspective on the pain of childbirth written by a male author.  
  • A litany of ridiculously obscure pop-culture references inhabit almost every page– even President Obama makes a cameo.

The novel is weird, disorienting, kinetic, and yet, thanks to Chabon’s skill and passion, it still manages to be moving, insightful, and uplifting.

Telegraph Avenue does not have a particularly original premise. Archy Stallings and his best friend Nat Jaffe own and operate Brokeland Records, a vinyl shop on the titular Telegraph Ave., the road that connects Oakland to Berkeley and has a long history of activism, diversity, and art. The store is already on its last legs financially when former NFL star, Gibson Goode, announces that he is bringing his music megastore chain to the neighborhood, a move that will no doubt put the finishing touches on Brokeland. The novel is primarily concerned with Archy and Nat attempting–and occasionally not attempting–to keep the store alive. Of course, this hardly does the novel justice, as Chabon also weaves in the stories of Nat and Archey’s respective wives. Aviva and Gwen run a midwife practice and are similarly seeing their “antiquated” business struggling to keep pace with the times. Also integral to the novel are a down-on-his-luck blaxploitation film star, a Black Panthers blackmail scheme, a lawyer for whales, an elderly Chinese woman who taught martial arts to Bruce Lee, and a huge, shimmery black blimp.

Much like the music that is so central to the novel–jazz, funk, and soul–the story moves quickly, and occasionally it seems to do so without rhyme or reason. Yet if anything grounds this novel and gives it a feeling of consistency and momentum, it is the language. Chabon is certainly a living, breathing dictionary/thesaurus hybrid. A cursory skimming of Telegraph Avenue surfaces words rarely seen (chifforobe, mendacious, crewelwork, inchoate, perspicacity, bougainvillea, cetacean to name a few). More interestingly, though, Chabon is a magician when it comes to descriptive prose. He can turn a phrase or describe a scene with metaphors and similes that are wholly original and completely unexpected.

Take for example a description from the opening scene of the novel in which Archy Stallings, whose pregnant wife is due any day, holds a friend’s baby: “Baby Rolando had a nice, solid feel to him, a bunch of rolled socks stuffed inside one big sock.” Or this from one of the many almost palpable scenes describing live music: “The bass man felt his way up and down the fretboard like a blind man reading something passionate in Braille,” and “His fingers skipped and darted as if the keys of the organ were the wicks of candles and he was trying to light all of them with a single match.”

Sometimes Chabon takes great pleasure not only in giving the mundane a weighty, poetic significance (“Gwen had fitted herself improbably into the space between seat and wheel like some novelty marvel, a ship in a bottle, a psalm on a grain of basmati”), but just as often, he will use this skill the opposite way and try to make indescribable, larger-than-life concepts more tangible. From the ethereal: “Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars,” to the practical: “She carried her pregnancy like a football tucked into the crook of a fullback’s arm.” Chabon comes as close as anybody to perfecting the arts of metaphor and simile to bring his characters, and then his story, to life in a more connected way.

The best storytellers know that there are great, essential truths that cannot be described in a vacuum. Michael Chabon is as good as any living writer when it comes to making the plight and triumph of his characters felt by the reader through vivid, representative language. In Telegraph Avenue feelings of abandonment, jealousy, sadness, and elation appear on every page, and because Chabon has such control over the language, he can make us feel these feelings in new, tactile ways.

While it might be useful to consider the potential redemptive arc of Chabon’s book, or to look at the potential crises of “belief” in the lives of his characters, the Christian reader may more fruitfully walk away with a deeper appreciation for the function and necessity of language, metaphor and contextualization. After all, it was Jesus who put these illustrative tools to work most masterfully. He made radical, metaphorically rich claims (“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jn. 15). He planted miniature narratives of misplaced faith in the minds of his listeners (“And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand,” Mt. 24). And his parables still have literary giants talking nearly 2,000 years on. Throughout the Bible, the mysteries and difficult truths of the gospel are communicated through the use of nearly every literary genre available to its human authors. Letters and poetry, apocalyptic and prophetic, travel narrative and proverb–all of these approaches are employed for the sake of anticipating, revealing, and coming to terms with the person and work of Christ.

In this way, the reader who is familiar with the Christian scriptures may be the best reader of a novel like Telegraph Avenue. She will be accustomed to sudden shifts, less-than-familiar vocabulary, and sizeable authorial ambition (ex. the Book of Job is no small literary feat). Turning the novel in the other direction, an author like Chabon can help us to hear the metaphors, similes, and cultural references of the Bible with fresh ears. And, finally, once this has occurred, we can hope that our enjoyment of the scriptures’ daring, broad-sweeping literary approach to the presentation of the gospel will revivify our own presentations of the gospel. Every genre and metaphor is at our disposal. This ought to give us great hope, not to mention immense joy, as we seek to go on telling and retelling the story after which all other stories are chasing.