I enjoyed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and I loved The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, so I was quite excited to read Michael Chabon’s most recent book, but I was also a little apprehensive, because the premise was quite different. Rather than historical fiction, or science fiction, Telegraph Avenue is just straight fiction. It is a bit more complicated than that, as it has themes ranging from burgeoning teenage homosexuality to race relations via daddy issues and the demise of the independent music shop. This wide range may be why I found myself mildly underwhelmed by the book, it’s just too complicated.
However, in spite of this complication, the overall plot is actually barely strong enough to sustain over what is a fairly lengthy novel: the two main protagonists own a vinyl shop that is threatened by the opening of a new entertainment complex nearby, while their wives’ midwifery business is collapsing. There’s very little urgency going on, as the book seems to drift from one event to another with very little indication of how much time has passed between them. This could be intentional, one of the main protagonist’s entire character could be summed up with the word languid, thereby making the plot a reflection of this. I’m not so sure, and even if this is the case, I don’t think it works in the way it’s intended to.
There is of course another possible reason. Most of the characters in the book are black, and I’ve recently started watching Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which tells the story behind the scenes of a weekly sketch comedy TV Show in the vein of Saturday Night Live (this is going somewhere, I promise). At one point Simon, one of the stars of the show (played by D.L.Hughley) complains to the head writer Matt (Matthew Perry) that the lack of black writers is a problem that must be addressed. This is partly for diversity issues, and partly because as a white guy from New England with liberal leanings, Matt would always self-censor on race related comedy due to his guilt. Chabon clearly doesn’t have this issue; I can’t think of many authors who would write a book that featured an over the hill Blaxploitation actor without devolving into questionable parody. The issue, I think, is not with Chabon, but with me. I can’t help but feel that some kind of taboo has been challenged, though I’m not entirely sure that this is justified. There’s very little stereotyping going on, and as I said, it’s all sincere. I just couldn’t shake the sense that it shouldn’t be allowed. Which I’ll admit, reflects more on me than it does on the book.
There’s also a frankly bizarre cameo from Barack Obama, who for some reason is campaigning for his (Illinois) Senate seat in a suburb of San Francisco (California).
Telegraph Avenue is okay, and I think that that’s the best I can say about it. I liked the coming-of-age/coming-out sub-plot for the most part, but that was the only bit that really grabbed me. It doesn’t engage in the way that the other two of Chabon’s books that I’ve read did, though the prose is for the most part good, and at the time I did feel like I was enjoying it. Once I’d finished however, I don’t think I took much, if anything, away from it.