When I mentioned the Oakland setting of “Telegraph Avenue” to my father—born and raised in the Bay Area—he asked me if there was a corrupt overlord-esque City Councilman and a zoning battle. Bingo. Michael Chabon, best known for his over-imaginative Brooklyn-based protagonists in “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” has flipped to the opposite side of the country for a romanticized portrayal of 2004 Oakland. Record store owners Nat Jaffe and Archie Stallings are the beleaguered hold-outs against media conglomerate Gibson Goode, but the fight between Goode and Brokeland Records isn’t the forte of “Telegraph Avenue.” Rather, Nat and Archie’s wives Gwen and Aviva, who work as midwives to the “60/40 boho to bougie” Bay Area population, show that Chabon can write complex female characters well without relying on the crutch of over-powering them. But the most admirable triumph of “Telegraph Avenue” is Chabon’s ability to write a novel—whose visceral descriptions are more akin to a movie—without the exposition sounding like a raw screenplay, lending a fantastical air and a level of palpable emotional depth.
The novel is styled as an album that is broken down into five “tracks” that serve as long chapters; each chapter has a different mood and focus as it skips wildly between three generations and the various exploits of these characters. Archie and Nat desperately try to keep Brokeland Records open while Archie’s itinerant father Luther Stallings looms large above every action. Gwen and Aviva fight their own battle for the right to midwife. And on the youngest tier is Archie’s illegitimate son Titus, who becomes friends with, and eventually the lover of, Nat’s quiet son Julie—lovingly described as “twenty-five minutes to gay o’clock.”
At its heart, the book is styled to be a slightly dampened Tarantino flick. There’s a delightful Chinese kung fu master named Irene Jew, whose martial arts expertise and ferocious temper would easily place her in one of his films. The dialogue between Luther Stallings and Chan Flowers (the slightly unscrupulous councilman) and Nat and Archie often resembles that between Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction,” with catty references to scientific concepts and the generic category of weird trivia. Body parts are shot off, dramatic encounters with food ensue—think Hans Landa’s love affair with milk—and most notably, State Senator Barack Obama appears to interact with Gwen at a bar in a gloriously surreal scene. However, where Chabon differs is the humanity with which he portrays Gwen and Aviva. During one of their more difficult births, Chabon writes a lovely interaction between the two women: “The defeated look was gone in an instant, smuggled off, hooded and manacled, to the internal detention facility where Aviva Roth-Jaffe sent such feelings to die.” Instead of Tarantino’s unreadable femme fatales, who often exist as a sex challenge against the males, the two women are depicted as human beings who are strong and yet still human.
One of Chabon’s greatest technical strengths has always been a tendency to park each sentence in an unpredictable spot—a style reminiscent of John Updike, which keeps the reader entertained when the characters are just waiting for something to happen. However, while this worked for “Kavalier & Clay,” in which the protagonists were hyped-up young adults who came up with wild comic book plot lines for a living, it seems a bit more contrived when the characters are older and world-weary. After developing Archie as a sort of desperate character who obsesses over cream cake and clenches his wife’s body pillow in a vice grip, Chabon’s attempt to create dynamic lines about the character’s “heart tipping over, falling from its shelf” become overused and thus stale. In some parts, he begins to rely solely on these brief segues from the action, which leads to an absurd string of sentences in the form, “He looked as if...” or “It was somewhere between...” in an unrelated line of attempts to try to describe the world anew instead of more effectively fleshing out dialogue. In some parts, he even seems to be parodying this technique by including long paragraphs of block description followed by a desperately unenlightening “Huh!” from either Archie or Gwen.
In this way, it appears that Chabon is trying to make a TV show like “Scrubs,” with constant segues to absurd scenes happening in the characters’ imaginations rather than a smooth, holistic narrative. When the third chapter is told solely from the view of a parrot flying over the city in sequence that Werner Herzog (who also gets several shout-outs in the book) would probably love to shoot, it becomes a bit confusing as to whether this is a movie, a TV show, an album, or what it actually is-—a book. External dialogue is substituted for weird musings that are shared 50-50 between narrator and character. The more memorable scenes present themselves in a Tarantino guns-a-blazin’ way that would be best for screen, but the physical descriptions of a resplendently pregnant Gwen are best described in prose, and yet the saga of her struggles and those around her are serialized like a TV show. Usually, these characteristics would be indicative of any well-written novel, but with all of the references to cinema and television as well as deviation in form like in the parrot scene, it approaches instead a strange twilight zone between four types of media that lends it a completely new form entirely. “Telegraph Avenue” is not only a movie that opens up on the jasmine trees of Berkeley and flies through conflict after conflict, but also a well-writen TV show where the audience is equally invested in all of the characters, and yet again a technically wonderous novel whose clever, quippy sentences keep the reductionist level safe, and most importantly, an album that moves smoothly from one idea to the next before a gentle, clicking stop.
—Staff writer Christine A. Hurd can be reached at email@example.com.