Peel away Michael Chabon’s luminous prose, and his new novel Telegraph Avenue would be a pretty lackluster book. In the novel, two old friends, Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, one white, the other black, run a used-record shop under threat from a gigantic new mall devoted to music and movies planned for their racially diverse neighborhood between Oakland and Berkeley, California. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Telegraph Avenue offers side plots galore, but the central engine of the plot is a direct steal from the 1998 Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks rom-com You’ve Got Mail, which was itself a remake of a 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner, which was itself an adaptation of an 1937 play called Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo.
You get the picture. There may not be any truly original plots left, but in this case Chabon’s seems unusually shopworn. It also feels oddly dated. The book is set in 2004, but its preoccupations with race, class, and corporate co-optation of poor people’s art seem far better suited to 1994, when identity politics were the rage and people still looked upon Borders and Tower Records as cultural hegemons and not roadkill on the information superhighway. Chabon himself seems to sense this and loses interest in the-mall-eats-the-scrappy-corner-shop tale two-thirds of the way through, returning to his old chestnuts, marriage, fatherhood, and quirky folk obsessed with popular culture, before tying the whole thing up with a treacly happy ending, which seems to suggest that all the problems the characters were worrying about for the past 460 pages could be solved if a few people just said they were sorry.
Thus, to sum up: plot-wise, Telegraph Avenue is a sprawling, ungainly mess. In addition to the struggling used-record shop plot, there is a secondary plot involving Nat and Archy’s wives, Aviva and Gwen, who are themselves partners in a small, marginal business, in their case midwives to Berkeley’s fascistically right-thinking, litigationally trigger-happy professional moms. Then, too, there is the subplot involving Nat Jaffe’s gay son, Julie, who falls madly in love with Archy’s long-lost son, Titus, who is straight as a one-dollar bill but not above accepting the occasional public hand job. And that doesn’t even touch on Gwen’s troubled relationship to her own pregnancy, or Archy’s troubled relationship with his druggy father, Luther, a down-at-heels former blaxploitation film star who is trying to blackmail an Oakland city councilman over a thirty-year-old botched hit on a pimp named Popcorn Hughes who crossed Black Panther leader Huey Newton back in the day. Oh, and wait, I almost forgot another side plot involving a musician named Cochise Jones and his talking parrot, Fifty-Eight, who during one tour-de-force twelve-page, single-sentence riff, flies above the Berkeley-Oakland flatlands like some great omniscient parrot God.
See what I mean? That’s just a paragraph and already your eyes are glazing over. In an interview, Chabon told Mother Jones that the novel began life as a 90-minute television pilot for TNT and that he struggled to shift from a TV pilot model, which is designed to set up a situation that other writers can riff upon for many seasons to come, to a novel, which must tell its own story. It’s obvious that as talented as Chabon is – and, sentence for sentence, he may well be the most talented American writer of his generation – he never truly made that leap, and the book remains all wind up and no follow-through.
Yet until the final pages, when the meshugas that is the plot of Chabon’s novel finally falls of its own weight, Telegraph Avenue is a sparkling, mesmerizing read. As a prose stylist, Chabon possesses two great gifts in abundance: a talent for giving inanimate objects a personal identity and purpose, and an eye for the outlandish but weirdly appropriate simile. He also has a hell of a way with an adjective. These talents, along with an omnivorous intellectual curiosity and a working vocabulary that rivals Shakespeare’s, enable Chabon to create on the page a world that looks and sounds very much like the one we see every day, but is richer and more nuanced, more alive, than anything we mere mortals can see with our own eyes.
Early in the novel, for instance, we find ourselves at a memorabilia convention where a scuffle breaks out requiring a pair of private security guards to escort one of the offenders off the convention floor. We have all seen these security guys. They are large men, squat-built and neckless, their hormone-pumped pecs stuffed into too-tight white shirts. Chabon knows you know all this, and so his lone physical descriptor is that the younger of the two goons has his “head shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.”
There it is, in a phrase, what makes Chabon’s books so electric, so much fun to read. The simile is apt: a private security goon’s head and a porn star’s testicle are both shaved, and both look frankly a little weird. But it’s more than that. The line is funny because it would never occur to anybody but Michael Chabon to compare a security guy’s head to a porn star’s balls, but we should have because, of course, in both cases, the men are shaving away a sign of their masculinity – their natural body hair – to better play their role as a symbol of masculinity. It’s a joke, but it’s also a lightning-quick commentary on the demeaning lengths working-class guys will go to in order to take on the only jobs left to them, that of being professional slabs of man-meat. Chabon tosses all this off in eight words and we’re back to the scene at hand.
The book is filled with these brilliant little brushstrokes of language. Here’s another, taken almost at random, depicting a moment when Archy Stallings, anticipating a marriage-threatening fight, is watching his wife pull up in front of their house in her car:
Daylight was taking its sweet time fading into dusk, and the street at suppertime seemed to be holding its breath, torn into patches of deep shadow and sunshine, motionless but for the little white moths stitching their loopy crewelwork in the honeysuckle. In the sandpit of the tiny playground, dozens of toy vehicles and appliances lay bleached and upended, primary-colored plastic ruins as of some toddler cataclysm.
This is marvelous writing on so many levels that it by itself makes an argument why, in a digital age when no byte of information is ever out of reach and images can be frictionlessly zapped from one corner of the globe to the other, the humble printed book is still culturally relevant. Look at what Chabon has done here. At one level, it’s a pretty accurate description of how a semi-urban Berkeley street looks and feels at the moment when day slides into night. But it also captures, in its superbly rendered details, precisely what is going on inside Archy Stallings as he watches his wife pull up in her car: he is a man “holding [his] breath,” his life “torn into patches of deep shadows and sunshine,” standing “motionless” as he prepares to see the “ruins” he has made of his marriage laid out “bleached and upended,” except in this case he is the “toddler” who has created this “cataclysm.”
That’s what Chabon’s books do, sentence after sentence, page after page: they force you to bring your game up to his level. Chabon is such a good noticer, and such an effortless explainer of what he’s noticed, that you, his reader, become a better noticer under his spell. For the week I was reading Telegraph Avenue, I found myself studying the world around me more closely, drawing mental similes, seeing new patterns in the avalanche of data we all are assaulted with every day.
I will never write a line as smart and funny as his about the security guard’s “head shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.” But then I don’t have to. We have Michael Chabon for that, and even when he is not at the top of his game, his writer’s eye makes the world a more vivid, vital place to live.