I have a book called The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi. Its Forward explains that the writers were inspired by what it might be like to take “a guided tour of Paul Feval’s vampire city, Selene,” and, “excited by the idea, it did not take long for us to compile a list of other place we felt we would like to visit: Shangri-La, Oz, and Ruritania readily sprang to mind.” But, they write, “as the project developed, our list of entries kept going, threatening to become endless,” in what sounds less like a real book than an imaginary story about an imaginary book about imaginary places by, say, Jorge Louis Borges, who as far as I know is not imaginary.
So the writers imagined up some rules: no imaginary places that were “in effect, disguises, or pseudonyms, for existing locales.” Not “Pooh’s turf or Watership Down” because “these exist… the characters, the actions, were imaginary—not the places.” No imaginary worlds set in the future, for reasons I still don’t get. And more. Even then, the book runs 755 double columned pages. And it raises some serious ontological problems: aside from the place where we are at any given moment, aren’t all places imaginary places? This sounds like solipsism: if I close my eyes, the world disappears. But it’s a little different, in that places in our minds, and certainly in every work of fiction, become imaginary places, even movies filmed in real (or “real”) locations. Any world from our past, and even anywhere we are not, becomes a mental reconstruction, a psychological set as unreal as any façade Hollywood might construct. And that’s still assuming we can trust of our senses, ignoring every philosopher from Descartes through Lacan.[i]
Michel Chabon is best known for constructing imaginary places, fanciful conceits, and high concepts. It’s no wonder that he is one of the few award-winning Serious Novelists to have co-written big Hollywood screenplays, including Spider-Man II (yay!) and John Carter (um…) . Can you imagine Jonathan Franzen putting time into Blade III, or Jane Smiley revising a few drafts of Fantastic Four II: Rise of the Silver Surfer?[ii] In keeping, Chabon invented a number of imaginary places in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—the world of his superhero The Escapist, who is imaginary even by the already imaginary standards of superheroes, in that he is not a “real” superhero, even acknowledging that there are no “real” superheroes.[iii] But he also invents an alternative Prague for Josef Kavalier, one that includes magic and a real (no quotations) Golem, although unfortunately Chabon does not imagine it without Nazis. And the world of late 1930s Brooklyn, with Sammy Clayman and Josef’s comic book collaboration and the rise and fall of the costumed superhero’s Golden Age, while not entirely imaginary, is entirely imagined.
The Sitka Alaska of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is even more imaginary, although Sitka itself is not. It is a kind of alternative history, a What If? in the great Marvel comics tradition, imagining a Jewish state not placed contentiously in the Middle East but rather somewhere no one would want. And even within this imagined world, we see the double imagined world of the Jewish hardboiled detective novel, Yiddish-speaking flatfoots and underworld goons, an invented genre that becomes palpable in the book’s pages. This is to say nothing of Chabon’s foray into Harry Potter and Narnia-esque Young Adult Fiction in Summerland, or its opposite, the seemingly realistic by comparison Wonder Boys. While the movie adaptation does a great job of dramatizing blocked writer Grady Tripp, the novel does a better job dramatizing the blocked novel itself, a universe that is imaginary even within the imaginary confines of the novel itself.
All of this is a way of getting to Chabon’s new novel, Telegraph Avenue, which, by the standards of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, contains no imaginary worlds at all. Its setting is the intersecting space around Oakland, California. No one invents any superheroes, although there are plenty of allusions; no one speaks Yiddish, although there are prominent Jewish characters. Here’s the blurb:
As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there—longtime friends, bandmates, and co-regents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, two semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart—half tavern, half temple—stands Brokeland.
When ex–NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in America, announces plans to build his latest Dogpile megastore on a nearby stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear it means certain doom for their vulnerable little enterprise. Meanwhile, Aviva and Gwen also find themselves caught up in a battle for their professional existence, one that tests the limits of their friendship. Adding another layer of complication to the couples’ already tangled lives is the surprise appearance of Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy has never acknowledged and the love of fifteen-year-old Julius Jaffe’s life.
And here’s the thing: all of this is a long way of setting up that the Chabonian emphasis on setting, on imaginary places, is, in fact, misplaced. It’s only a part of the story. The other part, the one that makes Chabon’s novels elaborate works of the imagination—along with, I’ll add, the works and worlds of JK Rowling, CS Lewis, HG Wells, JRR Tolkien, and so many others—are not the imaginary places, with apologies to Manguel and Guadalupi. It is his language. Language turns Oakland and Brokeland into worthy entries in the Dictionary of Imaginary Places.
Unlike his contemporaries like the aforementioned Franzen, Eggers, Smiley, or David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon is yet not recognized as a first rate prose stylist. I think this is, in part, as I will argue, because his style varies from book to book. That ability to transform, one of Chabon’s key themes, is part of what makes him so great. And no other novel showcases Chabon’s prose powers better than Telegraph Avenue—which I will get to next week, since my hour is almost up.
Time: 55 minutes. I ended where I intended to begin, hence the hastily added Part I to my title.
[i] My plan is in fact to ignore them.
[ii] Although I suppose Dave Eggers wrote Where the Wild Things Are. Which is not the same thing.
[iii] I’m going to stop before I make anyone’s brain hurt. You know what I mean.