Last month, I concluded by saying that “no other novel showcases Chabon’s prose powers better than Telegraph Avenue.” It turns out that the New York Times later agreed (who knew they read my blog?), placing TA on the 100 Notable Books of 2012 list with this summary: “Chabon’s rich comic novel about fathers and sons in Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., juggles multiple plots and mounds of pop culture references in astonishing prose.”
It’s the “astonishing prose” part that I want to analyze. Here is a sentence on the opening page, the first appearance of the one of the novel’s main characters:
Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned, Archie Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records, 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 tortoise of Japanese cinema.
In this sentence, we can already see both the novel’s preoccupations and style: the alliterative opening, the juxtaposition of images, the mild surprise of “random” before “baby”; the low culture reference to Gamera; the interests in vinyl, threads, and film. But we can also see begin to hear its music: the record store is more than a setting. It establishes that Chabon’s prose will be musical to match.
Telegraph Avenue also distinguishes itself from the novels I immediately thought of from reading its description. One is Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street—its title, like TA, uses a real-life street name as metaphor, with Chabon going for assonance and an overt communication message vs. DeLillo’s more subtle allusion to longing and drugs. For all of its seeming preoccupation with music, though, GJS—an underrated early ‘70s novel about a rock star trying to escape the life—is not singing TA’s tune. Contrast Chabon’s earlier first page (although not first paragraph) with DeLillo’s opening paragraph:
Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. I mean long journeys across gray space. I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic. Understand the man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation. Even if half-mad he is absorbed into the public’s total madness; even if fully rational, a bureaucrat in hell, a secret genius of survival, he is sure to be destroyed by the public’s contempt for survivors. Fame, this special kind, feeds itself on outrage, on what the counselors of lesser men would consider bad publicity—hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs. Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide.
(Is it clear I was a hero of rock ’n’ roll?) (1)
It’s brilliant, but the rhythms and repetitions (“I mean”), to say nothing of DeLillo’s unique imagery (“chinless kings,” “vulval,” “bureaucrat in hell”), are nothing like Chabon’s gee-whiz sincerity.
The other obvious comparison is between TA and High Fidelity, another novel about another record store owner on the brink of economic and romantic collapse. But again, the voice in Nick Hornby’s novel could not be more different from Chabon’s, or DeLillo’s. Here is Hornby’s opening:
My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:
- Alison Ashworth
- Penny Hardwick
- Jackie Allen
- Charlie Nichilson
- Sarah Kendrew.
Gone are Chabon’s—and DeLillo’s—meandering cadences. This is clipped prose that captures narrator Rob’s solipsistic and obsessive (a period at the end of a list?) yet engaging character. Hornby’s use of hyphens, to say nothing of lists, makes Rob as different as possibly from laid-back, often dispassionate Archie and Sphinx-like, cipher-like Bucky in Great Jones Street.
You can leaf through Telegraph Avenue and pick nearly any passage on nearly any of the book’s 465 pages and see the same superrealistic attention to detail, details that mostly do not accrue or foreshadow; they are like ornate, lovingly crafted background shots and costumes that the camera pans over closely to capture and create tone:
Page 176: The door to the office creaked open with its trademark creature-feature spookiness, a sound, impervious to old can and WD-40 alike, that had in turn haunted the practices of a Jungian analyst, a couples therapist, a specialist in neurolinguistic programming, a hypnotherapist, a shiatsu practitioner, and a life coach before settling on to lock the tenure of the Birth Partners in suite 202.
280: A last morning glad of summer, blue banded with gold and peach, unfurled slowly over the streets as the two wanderers, denizens of the hidden world know to rogues, gamblers, and swordsmen as “the Water Margin,” made their way along the Street of Blake toward the ancestral stronghold of the Jew-Tang Clan, its gables armored in cedar shakes faded to the color of dry August hills.
412: On the dilapidated sign of Steele’s Scuba, a ghostly diver confronted the lost submarine mysteries of Telegraph Avenue.
On each page, but especially in the longer sentences—and many of the sentences are very, very long, including a single-sentence tour de force chapter that runs over a dozen pages—we see the clauses balanced, sometimes Jenga-style, so that the reader is sure that the whole thing will fall apart or dissolve into run-on cacophony (it never does), often phrased like a long jazz phrase, the reader almost hearing the horn player just make it to the end on a single breath.
Benjamin Percy in Esquire, however, doesn’t see it that way:
…Telegraph Avenue aligns itself more with [Chabon’s] earlier pre-Marvel novels — about real people in the real world, such as in the remarkable Wonder Boys — yet he’s stuck with his over-the-top hyperactive style of recent years. It’s the equivalent of Michael Bay directing a romantic comedy. It may be entertaining, and there may be a great story buried beneath the special effects and explosions, but it doesn’t track.
I think Percy is using the wrong metaphor. Despite my earlier movie simile, I don’t see the sentences as “the equivalent of Michael Bay”—big, dumb, show-offy spectacle—at all. Instead, I hear them, and, in keeping with the novel’s recurring use of real songs to provide a quasi-soundtrack to accompany the story, the sentences sound like Charlie Parker or early Miles Davis. (Percy compares them with Sergeant Pepper, which I can see, but that comparison contradicts what he also suggests about Chabon’s show-offy virtuosity.) Sometimes I hear Frank Zappa, when it gets far out. And mostly Chabon sound like a hyperarticulate yet dreamy poet more than a realist novelist. Typed differently, the opening page passage (or again, really, any of them) begins to look and sound like Allen Ginsberg, except I suppose for the Gamera part, which I’ll excise:
Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned,
Archie Stallings manned
The front counter of Brokeland Records,
Holding a random baby,
Wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his
Noted yet not
Disadvantageous resemblance …
Yet at the same time, despite the breathes, cadences, and musicality, the prose—or the neighborhood, or these characters—can exist only as words, as language. Percy’s Bay analogy is doubly off base, and even my music is a metaphor. It’s no surprise that William Grimes, also writing in the NY Times, declared the audiobook of TA a dud, despite what seems the obvious potential:
A prime example of a good book defeated by the format is TELEGRAPH AVENUE (Harper Audio, $44.99), Michael Chabon’s teeming novel about race, human relations and a lot of other stuff swirling around a vintage record store in Oakland, Calif. The language is dense, allusive, hip and sharp, which is to say, very difficult to perform. Clarke Peters, who played Detective Lester Freamon on the television series “The Wire” and Big Chief Lambreaux on “Treme,” picks his way carefully through this minefield, articulating painstakingly in the sonorous, low-pitched voice of a late-night D.J. on a progressive jazz station. It’s a swinging style, perfectly attuned to the novel’s setting and falls easily on the ear, but Chabon’s relentlessly brilliant prose style makes heavy demands on performer and listener alike. By the second disc in a marathon that goes on for more than 18 hours, the thought arises that some books simply need to be experienced in black type.
Despite seeming to be based on Oakland, despite the voluminous attention to real-life detail with occasional real-life people thrown in for good measure, Telegraph Avenue, is, in the end, a purely imaginary place, a fantasy that exists only on the pages of the book of the same name. Chabon originally wanted TA to be a TV series, and plot- and character-wise, I can see it. But no screen, or even spoken reading, can do what words alone on the page achieve. Telegraph Avenue makes the case that the printed word can still do things that music, television, and even Michael Bay cannot.
Time: 90 minutes. Yes, this is a long entry even for going overtime, but I copied and pasted or retyped more than usual. I still feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of this novel—what about race?—but I’m ready to move on.