It’s clear in the beginning of Michael Chabon’s newest novel, “Telegraph Avenue,” that Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings are fucked. In fact, it is the second sentence emitted from Nat’s mouth to his co-owner of Brokeland Records, a fictional, yet realistic, jazz music store in the fold of Berkeley and Oakland. Brokeland is the place where the owners can name their loyal customers’ favorite jazz musician, the place where the locals come to hang out and the place that is about to be bought out by a movie theater franchise.
Nat and Archy can’t afford to stay open against any competition whatsoever, let alone ex-football mogul Gibson Goode and his movie theater that will be called “Dogpile Thang.” Neither can their respective business partner wives help with their midwifery practice’s earnings.
Frustration is one emotion that all the characters in the novel understand too well, which Archy’s illegitimate son (Titus) describes as “tears in the motherfuckin’ rain.” This is what makes the novel realistic at times, paired with the local references of Cheese Board, Pac-10 games, tempeh, Alice Waters and other thoughts of “hopeless Berkeletude” that embarrasses Nat’s son.
But the characters are ones that seem too familiar, and it seems to be more because they are repetitive archetypes rather than realistic renderings. The characters seem forcibly connected, leaving the hand and mind of Chabon a little too noticeable. Nat is the father ignorant of his gay son. The gay son Julie is withdrawn and dorky. Julie’s lover Titus is the black nonverbal youth with only five pairs of socks. Titus’ estranged grandfather is the aging ex-movie star rich with denial but broke from his drug addiction. Even Chabon’s characterization of Obama at a fundraiser twangs with insincerity. Frankly, it just seems obvious that a White writer has put words in a Black politician’s mouth: “Brother puts his heart into it … don’t be too hard on the brother.” Obama’s cameo doesn’t even add anything to the novel other than a sense of time as he is still a senator from Illinois.
But this grandiose detail that doesn’t truly seem crucial either stylistically or narratively is consistent throughout “Telegraph Avenue.” The descriptions grow tiresome in their length. Some may see it as complex language, but “over-saturated” or “excessive” can be another description.
In the midst of Nat making fried chicken, more than 11 different kitchen items are described in the process of him simply finding a plate on which to serve his meal. Most tiresome is the third section of the book, a 10-page sentence that mirrors the flight of a parrot through Berkeley, But the reader falls into a lull despite the potentially admirable risk of prose.
Narrative interest picks up near the end of the story, but maybe too late, reflecting the motif and song featured in the book “It’s Too Late” by Carole King. There are imaginative and unusual factors of the novel that reflect a sense of soul in a place so rich in culture and history. Where else could someone liberate a blimp or a funeral take place in a record store? However, Chabon reflects squalor and struggle perhaps a little too much in his writing, creating too many non events and complexities for the reader to stay interested.
There is no way to describe nostalgia and the propensity for reconciliation without showing the bleak aspects, but Chabon could have done so with more vibrancy.
A.J. Kiyoizumi is the lead literature critic. Contact A.J. at [email protected]