Thursday, September 13, 2012

The church of vinyl

Telegraph Avenue
by Michael Chabon

Depending on who you ask, Michael Chabon is either one of the finest writers of the English language working today or he is the finest writer of the English language, full stop. My opinion vacillates between the two. A reputation like that comes with some pretty lofty expectations for each new book. I'm pleased to say that Chabon's latest, Telegraph Avenue, did not disappoint.

At the core of this novel is Brokeland Records, described at points as "the church of vinyl" and "an institution." You know the place, or someplace like it—a down on its heels shop that's a gathering spot for a passionate community of its own making. Brokeland is owned by Archy Stallings (black) and Nat Jaffe (white, Jewish) and these partners echo the diversity and cultures of the Berkeley/Oakland neighborhoods straddled by the eponymous avenue.

This is a long book. It's not epic. I'm not even sure that it's sprawling. But it is full. By the time you reach the end, you will be thoroughly familiar with the businesses, marriages, and families of both Archy and Nat. You'll have met and followed their lives, and the lives of their customers, their adversaries, and one well-educated parrot. You'll know the intimate details of their relationships and their personal histories. Chabon packs a whole heap of detail and digression into the course of his 480 pages, and that doesn't even include a boatload of pop culture references to 70's jazz, Blaxploitation films, and martial arts.

Chabon's affection for his characters is contagious and it's hard not to love

Michael displays a rare copy of the Theme from Telegraph Avenue
them, despite some glaring flaws. However, the Brokeland community is facing any number of threats. Perhaps the most looming is a media megastore helmed by an NFL legend that's being planned for the neighborhood. Their David won't survive this Goliath. Archy and Nat's wives, Gwen and Aviva, are also in business together, and Berkeley Birth Partners is likewise under threat due to a birth gone wrong. Things at home are equally challenging. Will Archy and Gwen's marriage survive his infidelities and the appearance of a previously unacknowledged 14-year-old son just weeks before the birth of their first child? A novelist recently told me that "the clock of your mortality is what moves you." Well, births and deaths are major events driving this narrative, and I'd argue that the clock of an 8-months-pregnant wife moves a story along as well. Meanwhile, the Jaffe household is dealing with their adolescent son's first serious infatuation—with Archy's teenage son. And also the fact that Nat is his own worst enemy. And into this rich stew is a complex subplot involving Archy's estranged father and a crime of the past resurfacing.

Commemorative button & special stamp
It's a lot to take in, really. There's a lot going on. Despite all of this, the action of Telegraph Avenue is character-driven rather than plot-driven. At times, the meandering plot seems almost incidental, as we peer through the windows at these character's complicated lives. Some readers may feel frustration with the digressions, but for me, every word was a delight. It was the path, not the destination. And the path of this novel is strewn with Mr. Chabon's legendary language, the staggering vocabulary, the abundant humor, the soaring similes, the awesome freakin' sentences! I, personally, am ill-equipped to articulate just how extraordinary his gifts are. The man is a virtuoso. "Buoyant," "joyful," "exuberant"—these are words that are frequently used to describe Mr. Chabon's writing. He takes on serious subject matter, and deals with it suitably, but his language is simply irrepressible.

Yes, there are some flashy scenes in this book that you will hear about—the 12-page sentence, the Obama cameo—but for my money Chabon's achievement is in the entirety of this work. He's created a world that's familiar and recognizable, yet somehow just a little better, shinier than reality. As I began reading this novel, I thought it was fantastic, but wouldn't replace Kavalier & Clay in my heart. But now I wonder. The real Telegraph Avenue is a short commute from my home, but it's Chabon's version that will stay with me.

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