DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. Harper. 480pp., $27.99.
Back in the dawn of the home computer age, when ordinary households across the U.S. were just beginning to acquire Apple IIes and Commodore 64s for their living rooms and dens, I would occasionally gaze over the hunched shoulders of my older brother and his friends as they sat before the glowing computer screen in our study. They played games that involved navigating abandoned castles and journeying through enchanted forests. The sun would rise, the sun would set; one paid careful attention to the position of the stars in the sky. Occasionally a dwarf would appear on the screen and say something foreboding. The game, such as it was, was entirely text-based—a minimalist style that would inform you and your party that, say, you’d arrived at a closed door at the end of a long hallway and could choose to open that door or turn back. What I found most beguiling about this entire process were the discrete objects that would appear: a pair of leather gloves offered for trade by a halfling, a brass key held out by a hulking innkeeper, an amulet sunk in the folds of a friar’s robes. It was the objects themselves, conveyed only in that glowing green text on the black screen of the Apple IIe, that made the world seem real, three-dimensional. As if they were always there, whether or not you actually opened the cabinet or stumbled across the halfling; there they were.
Michael Chabon’s prose produces the same effect, I find. Which is to say, Chabon is a world-builder. That term, world-building, so typically associated with the science fiction and fantasy worlds of comic books, pulp novels, and role playing games, is also highly applicable to Chabon’s realist fictions. And while my own association with those genres has remained, since the days of the Apple IIe, limited to glimpses over someone else’s shoulder, in reading Chabon’s novels I experience that same delight I felt in watching the amulets and brass keys and leather gloves of a role-playing game cohere into a habitable world. Chabon crams the nooks and crannies of his fictional rooms with palpable, specific objects and peoples them as expertly as a Dungeon Master. Every character who enters has a history, whether noted with the economy of a D&D character sheet or afforded a digression that spans several pages. You get the feeling that, in Chabon’s fictions, none of the doors open onto an empty room.
And indeed, Chabon’s last two major novels embraced his abiding love for genre fiction, trading in the set pieces and personae of explicitly imaginary worlds: the vivid comic book narratives threaded throughout The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, followed by the alternate history and homage to the hardboiled detective novel that is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. With Telegraph Avenue, his latest novel, Chabon returns to the present and to recognizable geographies—but happily, its world is constructed and populated with the same fantastically concrete sensibility of the world-builder.
“Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned, Archy Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records,” we are told, in something like mock epic tones by way of James Joyce, at first sight of Telegraph Avenue’s major protagonist. Archy, we see, is
holding a random baby, wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his noted yet not disadvantageous resemblance to Gamera, the giant mutant flying tortoise of Japanese cinema. He had the kid tucked up under his arm as, with his free right hand, he worked through the eighth of fifteen crates from the Benezra estate, the records in crate number 8 favoring, like Archy, the belly meat of jazz, salty and well marbled with funk.
Truly, we are not so far from the ekphrastic passages of Kavalier & Clay that conveyed the intricate panels of an Escapist comic book. Here, though, the prose style mirrors not the hyperbole of the comic book, but seems to approximate Archy’s own casual speech, inflected by the funk-marbled jazz he’s sorting through. And because there are no mere facades in Chabon’s worlds, we also get the contents of crate number 8:
Electric Byrd (Blue Note, 1970). Johnny Hammond. Melvin Sparks’s first two solo albums. Charles Kynard, Wa-Tu-Wa-Zui (Prestige, 1971). As he inventoried the lot, Archy listened, at times screwing up his eyes to the dead man’s minty quadrophonic pressing of Airto’s Fingers (CTI, 1972) played through
(And here another object, its history attached to it like a liner note, is set down in the world.)
the store’s trusty Quadaptor, a sweet gizmo that had been hand-dived from a Dumpster by Nat Jaffe and refurbished by Archy, a former army helicopter electrician holding 37.5 percent – last time he’d bothered to check – of a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from SF State.
The caveat, clotting the first chockablock paragraphs of every Chabon novel, is that seekers of minimalism need not turn the page. But for those of us given to burrowing into these object-laden lines, it is a world called Brokeland that Chabon is building here, founded on “the ragged fault where the urban plates of Berkeley and Oakland subducted.”
The center of Chabon’s Brokeland is Brokeland Records, where we first see Archy Stallings inventorying crate number 8. The vintage vinyl store, founded on the site of a barbershop that had been something of a neighborhood institution, fits into a block where one can also find the United Federation of Donuts, a serious family owned funeral home inherited by a hardnosed city councilman by the name of Chan Flowers, and a landlord known as the King of Bling , who hawks grilles, gold finger rings, and “rope by the yard,” from a shop three doors up – all not far from the Bruce Lee Institute, whose director, a tiny Chinese woman named Mrs. Jew, is by some estimates 130 years old.
Within this variegated purlieu whose style Archy will later eulogize as “Brokeland Creole,” it is conceivable that Archy, a black man, and Nat Jaffe, a secular Jew, can be longtime friends and co-proprietors of Brokeland Records. That their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, respectively black and Jewish, can also be friends and business partners in the field of midwifery, is an extension of this conceit. Any discontent that does exist, then, between either set of business partners or spouses will only begin its slow bubble to the surface with the news that Brokeland may soon be the site of a massive entertainment complex and retail galleria that will, most devastatingly, feature a media section specializing in the kind of vintage vinyl recordings that are Brokeland Records’ raison d’être. Reaching a simultaneous boiling point is the uneasy stew of friendship and partnership between melancholy Nat and the eternally lackadaisical Archy, a crisis in Gwen and Aviva’s midwifing practice that leads to Gwen’s own crisis of faith, and Archy’s deep reservations about the filial, paternal, and spousal obligations he has always failed to meet (obligations of the sort that surface in every Chabon novel and are explored explicitly in Manhood for Amateurs, his collection of personal essays).
As a narrative vehicle, the outlines of Telegraph Avenue have neither the breathtaking span of Kavalier & Clay nor the clever novelty of Yiddish Policemen’s Union’s genre-pastiche fusion. In that respect, it is a novel with more modest aims. But in another respect, it aims to be the kind of social novel that Chabon’s early novels (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys) were too small in scope to be and his later novels were too otherwise preoccupied to be. Telegraph Avenue is as much or more about place as all of Chabon’s novels, as dedicated to carving out whole worlds in their pages as they are, but the question of place is freighted here with a distinct social significance.
The thing about the massive entertainment complex and retail galleria that threatens Nat and Archy’s livelihood is that it is part of a corporate franchise. In the Creole hodgepodge of the uneven space between Oakland and Berkeley, the franchise branch is a homogenizing, leveling force. Certainly, the era of the big box store and combination Pizza Hut-Taco Bell has rendered both the phenomenon and the complaint ubiquitous. But the corporate franchise brings a particular menace to the Chabon world, here represented by Brokeland, built from and furnished with the kind of attention to idiosyncratic detail that only a serious world-builder can muster. For this reason alone, the groundbreaking for a franchise is emblematic of all that is anathema to the Chabon world. But the looming franchise threatens Brokeland and the Chabon world in another way, too.
A reader of Chabon will note, among the genre tropes and questions surrounding masculine roles, that other abiding preoccupation of Chabon’s: nostalgia, of course. It’s there from the beginning of the Chabon oeuvre. Here’s the young and hapless hero of Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon’s first novel, remembering “that dizzy summer, that dull, stupid, lovely dire summer” that the novel has recounted: “No doubt,” the novel closes, “all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.” As Chabon has matured as a writer, his engagement with the idea of nostalgia has grown more nuanced, and certainly less youthfully romantic. Yet his consciousness of it as the maddening, melancholic force that drives his characters remains.
In Telegraph Avenue, which begins in the late summer of 2004, a year already past, Chabon has planted an actual figure named “Mr. Nostalgia.” Allegorical as all get-out, and still as fully fleshed as any Chabon character, “Mr. Nostalgia” makes an appearance at a trading card show (“behind the Day-Glo patchwork of his five-hundred-dollar exhibitor’s table . . . under an eight-foot vinyl banner that read MR. NOSTALGIA’S NEIGHBORHOOD”), where he sets the gears of a key plot point in motion, only to disappear until the final page of the novel. Chabon himself, reflecting in a recent New York Times Magazine essay on the impulse behind his latest novel, describes a close to idyllic scene—a racially harmonious scene—he witnessed in an East Bay record shop – which shuttered its doors not long after. “And so,” he writes, “once again . . . I found myself obliged, and eager, to recreate through fiction, through storytelling and prose, the lost utopia that never quite happened, that I never quite knew, that I have never since forgotten, and that I have been losing, and longing for, all my life.”
The thing is, all of Chabon’s characters are looking for that place. None of them feel quite at home, quite at ease or at rest, where they are. You can see it fairly prosaically, early on in Wonder Boys, as the mildly depressed Grady Tripp reflects, “I’d spent my whole life waiting to awake on an ordinary morning in the town that was destined to be my home, in the arms of the woman I was destined to love, knowing the people and doing the work that would make up the changing but essentially invariable landscape my particular destiny.” Or there’s semi-hardboiled detective Meyer Landsman of The Yiddish Policemen’s League, allowing that “Simply having a place to put his car that is twenty-four stories down from a standing invitation to breakfast should never pass, in a man’s heart, for a homecoming.”
Because, of course, nostalgia, that painful homecoming, is very much about never quite finding the place you were looking for, the place you imagined you’d feel at home. It seems especially poignant, then, that Chabon takes such great care in building these solid, nook-and-crannied homes for his characters. And thus we see the particular blow that a vast generic franchise is to a place like Brokeland—how the place built out of the motley elements that constitute “Brokeland Creole” could indeed be leveled by a place that’s home for nobody.
Thus it’s occasionally possible to detect an edge to Telegraph Avenue that isn’t in Chabon’s other novels—an edge that comes as close to social critique as a Chabon novel gets. It gleams, for instance, at a moment when a downtrodden Archy seeks solace in a bakery that has been in the neighborhood since his childhood. A whiff of the place upon entry “filled him with a sense of loss so powerful that it almost knocked him down.” There’s that old nostalgia. But the longing here is more pointed:
The cakes and cookies at Neldam’s were not first-rate, but they had an old-fashioned sincerity, a humble brand of fabulousness, that touched Archy in this time when everything good in life was either synthesized in transgenic cyborg vats or shade-grown in small batches by a Buddhist collective of blind ex-Carmelite Wiccans. And now word was that Neldam’s, too, was slated to close its doors.
Archy ventures into Neldam’s bakery for a specific variety of cream-filled chocolate cake, not least because it contains the kind of personal history the dumpster-dived Quadaptor in the record shop also has, as do all objects in a Chabon novel. But this “humble brand of fabulousness” and “old-fashioned sincerity” simply does not apply to the corporate franchise, more space than place, standardized instead of personalized, and certainly not habitable. The plaint here is formulated in comic book hyperbole, but it points to a real fear. Chabon’s style is to make this fear local and highly personal—which it is—but it’s also a concern that extends beyond individual nostalgia and suggests what will be lost for an entire community.
That community, “the minor kingdom of Brokeland,” is, as I say, habitable for the reader because of how Chabon builds it. But if a reader remains in any of Chabon’s worlds, it is ultimately because of how Chabon himself inhabits his characters. One reason I continue to read Chabon’s novels, whereas I could never quite get lost in those early role-playing games – as real as the physical worlds seemed – are the moments of sharp insight that open within the materially weighty worlds he builds. Surely, much of this insight comes directly from Chabon’s own experience. But I think he has come to be a compelling writer of all kinds of characters because he has such a generous imagination: he strives, always, to understand, and this requires him to inhabit his characters.
And so, in Telegraph Avenue, Chabon can write from the point of view of a black man and from the point of view of a black woman in her 37th week of pregnancy without our much questioning the vantage point, because these characters are distinct personalities before they are anything else. To occupy these positions is, on the one hand, a departure for Chabon, in that his major characters have always been white and male. Yet on the other hand, the view from here is just as plausible as that of his more standard characters. In the racially mixed world of Telegraph Avenue, we never feel as if Chabon is surveying race relations from the outside because, instead, we’re immersed in how the story unfolds, variously, from the distinct points of view of black and white, female and male characters both.
Here, for instance, is the uncomfortably pregnant Gwen Shanks, returning home after a particularly trying day,
feeling that smooth cranium of dread lodged against her rib cage, prepared to let her lying, cheating, no-good Darling Husband off the hook tonight—and look at the fool! Messing around with his bungee cords and his moving-van blankets. Big and purple as the cause of all her problems, the ridiculous splendor of his platform saddle shoes measuring in lofting inches the distance between him and any world that might construe itself in terms of duty and obligation.
It is this location in the physical world that anchors and substantiates the interiority of a Chabon character, as here it does the jiving lilt that conveys Gwen’s visceral discomfort and absolute exasperation. Intending to forget for the evening not only her husband’s marital infidelity and his apparent indifference to the child she’s about to have, but also their scheduled Lamaze class, she arrives home only to discover that Archy hasn’t remembered in the first place and is loading his van for a gig. The distinct sensation of the child’s head beneath Gwen’s ribcage (“just under her heart, right at the spot where Gwen ordinarily felt premonitions of disaster”) contrasts sharply with Archy’s lazy handling of the items used to secure his recreational cargo in the van. The particulars of Archy’s dress-up costume go further still, that trademark Archy Stallings outlandish suit—this one purple silk—only illuminating for Gwen the bane her husband has become, while the ridiculously thick soles of his platform shoes seem like the very sign of his irresponsibility. In a paragraph, out of objects, Chabon has constructed Gwen Shank’s state of mind.
Call it the “object correlative,” if you will (with apologies to T.S. Eliot): how a susceptible reader’s eyes may be drawn, like, say, a kid peering at the glowing green words on an Apple IIe screen, to the bright material of Chabon’s sentences—and follow them through to find that they form an emotional world.
Alyssa Pelish writes and edits in New York. Her reviews, essays, and fiction have appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, 3 Quarks Daily, PopMatters, Science, The Denver Quarterly, On the Issues Magazine, and MAYDAY. She is currently at work on a novel.
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