The setting is Oakland, in the late summer of 2004. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are best friends and co-owners of Brokeland Records, a vintage vinyl store specializing in jazz, blues, and R&B on the titular avenue, a dying commercial drag. The store is already just barely making ends meet, but when Gibson Goode, former football star and "the fifth richest black man in America" announces his intention to build one of his trademark shopping and entertainment complexes, including a media store with its own vintage vinyl department, on Telegraph Avenue, its days appear to be numbered, and Archy and Nat scramble to recruit neighborhood business owners and power brokers to stop Goode's plan. Archy and Nat's wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkley Birth Partners, midwives who perform home and hospital births. When their latest patient has to be rushed to hospital due to uncontrollable bleeding, the partners find their painstakingly amassed reputation and respect within the medical community quickly crumbling, while the heavily pregnant Gwen is dealt an extra blow in the form of the discovery that Archy has been cheating on her. Meanwhile, Archy's abandoning father, former blaxploitation film star Luther Stallings, is back in town, trying to raise money to bankroll a comeback film, and Nat and Aviva's teenage son Julie has fallen in love with new kid in town Titus Joyner, who turns out to be Archy's unacknowledged son.
This plot description hints at, but by no means comes close to expressing, the importance of race in Telegraph Avenue. Archy, Gwen, Titus and Luther are black; Nat, Aviva and Julie are white. The two families' close relationship is allegedly a model of post-racial coexistence, but it conceals irreconcilable gaps in their worldview. Gwen and Aviva nearly lose their privileges at the hospital to which their patient is rushed because Gwen loses her temper at the doctor who takes over the patient's care, and she does that because he peppers his unconcealed disdain for midwifery with comments like "whatever voodoo you were working" and "It's a birth ... that's one of those things you don't want to try at home. It's not like conking your hair." Though Aviva urges her to smooth things over by apologizing, Gwen realizes that an apology from her means something very different than it would coming from Aviva. Gibson Goode's purpose in building a store in Oakland is "not to make money but to restore, at a stroke, the commercial heart of a black neighborhood," and when Nat gathers together the local business owners of Telegraph Avenue to oppose the project, he's dispirited--and, when Archy walks in on their meeting, embarrassed--by their near-uniform paleness. But Telegraph Avenue isn't nearly as much about race relations as it is about the African-American experience, and specifically about the history of the black community in Oakland, which Chabon spins out from his main characters, shading in their relationships with the stalwarts of the neighborhood and those characters' pasts, touching not just on music and filmmaking, but on the Black Panthers, the Vietnam and first Iraq wars, and, of all things, the Pullman trains that terminated in Oakland.
For Michael Chabon, of all people, to take it upon himself to chronicle the African-American experience is a somewhat dubious endeavor, and by the time Barack Obama, fresh off his star-making turn as the keynote speaker of the 2004 Democratic convention, showed up at a Berkley fundraiser for John Kerry to tell Gwen that "I would ask you to dance, but I don't think my wife would be happy if it got back to her that I was observed dancing with a gorgeous sister in your condition," my eyebrow was cocked high enough to touch the ceiling. The issue here isn't whether Chabon has gotten black Oakland "right"--something that I am anyway in no position to judge (though I'm quite curious to see how locals will respond to the novel)--or whether he is "entitled" to write about this community (though it does give me pause to consider that there are probably dozens of books out there about black Oakland by black authors, none of which have received even a fraction of the publicity and attention that a new novel by Michael Chabon does), but the fact that there is something artificial about the way Chabon constructs his Oakland, and that the novel seems to draw attention to that artificiality, as if Oakland were as much a lost fantasy world as Sitka in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, or the Jewish Khazar empire in Gentlemen of the Road.
As well as being Chabon's most low-concept novel in years, Telegraph Avenue is also probably the densest novel he's ever written, full of digressions spinning off of digressions, plot strands that fork and spawn multiple offsprings as the life history of every newly-introduced character is delivered to the reader, then expanded upon as their connections to the other characters are revealed, chapters that start in a confusing middle only to slowly work themselves back to their more comprehensible beginnings, and the kind of literary pyrotechnics that Chabon has become known for, ratcheted up to eleven. The lynchpin of the novel is a ten-page chapter titled "A Bird of Wide Experience," which is actually a single sentence told from the point of view of an arthritic parrot, the former property of Archy's recently-deceased mentor who has been released into the semi-wild, and who in his flight visits each of the novel's main characters. Chabon has never been a transparent writer, but in his previous novels his prose had the effect of carrying the reader along. Telegraph Avenue is the first of his novels that requires a close and attentive reading, and its prose is more clotted than flowing:
as they came closer, Mr. Nostalgia saw that it really was him. Thirty years too old, twenty pounds too light, forty watts too dim, maybe: but him. Red tracksuit a size too small, baring his ankles and wrists. Jacket waistband riding up in back under a screened logo in yellow, a pair of upraised fists circled by the words BRUCE LEE INSTITUTE, OAKLAND, CA. Long and broad-shouldered, with that spring in his gait, coiling and uncoiling. Making a show of dignity that struck Mr. Nostalgia as poignant if not successful. Everybody staring at the guy, all the men with potbellies and back hair and doughy white faces, heads balding, autumn leaves falling in their hearts. Looking up from the bins full of back issues of Inside Sports, the framed Terrible Towels with their bronze plaques identifying the nubbly signature in black Sharpie on yellow terry cloth as that of Rocky Bleier or Lynn Swann. Lifting their heads from the tables ranged with rookie cards of their youthful idols (Pete Maravich, Robin Yount, Bobby Orr), with cancelled checks drawn on long-vanished bank accounts of Ted Williams or Joe Namath; unopened cello packs of '71 Topps baseball cards, their fragile black borders pristine as memory, and of '86 Fleer basketball cards, every one holding a potential rookie Jordan. Watching this big gray-haired black man they half-remembered, a face out of their youth, get the bum's rush. That's the dude from the signing line. Was talking to Gibson Goode, got kind of loud. Hey, yeah, that's what's-his-face. Give him credit, the poor bastard managed to keep his chin up. The chin--him, all right--with the Kirk Douglas dimple. The light eyes. The hands. Jesus, like two uprooted trees.This is by no means a bad thing, and taken as a piece of writing Telegraph Avenue is an impressive feat (though there are moments--most especially "A Bird of Rare Experience"--when one senses that Chabon is showing off, riffing for the pleasure of it rather than working to get his story where it needs to go). But its denseness, the way it calls attention to Chabon's stylistic accomplishments, has the effect of casting the novel's characters and their setting in an otherworldly light, as if it were not enough for Chabon to have shown his readers a world that for most of them would have been entirely foreign, he also needed to somehow dress that world up, make it whimsical and amusing, in the same manner of his invented worlds, or his madcap romp version of history in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
"Here's my concern in this matter. I know you think I am messing around in all that protest shit your partner's stirring up to annoy Chan Flowers. Just because I maintain historically cool relations with the councilman. And true, that is part of the reason. But the real reason is something that's not that. The reason, I remember when that record store used to be Eddie Spencer's. And before that, when I first out of the army, right after the war, it was called Angelo's Barbershop, and those old Sicilian dudes used to go in, get their mustaches looked to or whatnot. I have known Sicilians, and so I feel confident saying, your store been full of time-wasting, senseless, lying, boastful male conversation for going on sixty years, at least. What that Abreu said the other day at that meeting, he was right. It's an institution. You all go out of business, I don't know. I might have to let in some kind of new age ladies, sell yoga mats. Everybody having 'silence days,' walking around with little signs hanging from their neck saying 'I Am Silent Today.' I would take that as a loss."Unlike other works, like Treme or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that seek to introduce a non-white community to an audience of outsiders, Telegraph Avenue doesn't quite avoid the pitfall of making its subject matter seem "colorful," and this is not merely because of Chabon's stylistic flourishes (there is no shortage of these in Oscar Wao, for example) but because the novel's attitude towards black culture often seems to slide into what can only be described as fannishness. This is no different, of course, from how Chabon treats comic books in Kavalier and Clay--the same romanticizing, mythologizing tone with which he describes superhero comics in that novel is used in Telegraph Avenue to describe Luther Stallings's Shaft-like Strutter films--but the crucial difference is who Chabon is trying to appeal to. If Oscar Wao is a novel that takes areas of pop culture usually associated with white people and appropriates them for Dominicans, Telegraph Avenue is a novel that seems to be trying to "sell" black culture to its non-black readers, and to do so not simply by exposing them to it (as Treme does) but by trading on that culture's implied, inherent coolness. Jazz, blaxploitation, the Black Panthers, midwifery, even fried chicken--these are all things that Telegraph Avenue holds up as exemplars of black culture, but it does so in such a way as to stress their appeal to white people.
But then, that's something that Chabon seems very much aware of and may even be trying to stress. The fact is that many of the characters within Telegraph Avenue who love black culture are white, and that this is something that the black characters are deeply ambivalent about. The character who prepares fried chicken is Nat, from a recipe taught to him by his black stepmother, and he does so in order to curry favor with the neighborhood's most prominent businessman and landlord in order to garner support in his fight against Gibson Goode, a maneuver that meets with only limited success. Archy is a connoisseur of predominantly black musical forms, but his customers are mostly rich white people. Gwen, similarly, became a midwife not only to escape the stifling expectations of a family that has spent generations climbing the ladder of respectability, but in order to reconnect with a tradition of black midwifery, but she finds herself catering exclusively to the rich white women of Berkley, whose frou-frou birth plans and new age mysticism drive her to distraction, while black women disdain her work as "country shit." Over the course of the novel, some of its characters attempt to reclaim black culture for black people--Gibson Goode tries to recruit Archy to run the vinyl department in his new store by promising him the opportunity to reintroduce young black people to a musical heritage that has been coopted by white America, and Luther Stallings, who was passed over for the Samuel L. Jackson role in Jackie Brown by another white lover of black culture, Quentin Tarantino (whose movies Julie and Titus are studying, discovering Luther's filmography through a class on Kill Bill), is trying to bankroll his own blaxploitation film. But these projects are rejected by the main characters--Archy turns down Goode's job offer, and sneers at Luther's dreams of a comeback--and at the end of the novel both Archy and Gwen have rejected their inter-racial endeavors with Nat and Aviva. Archy decides to settle down and provide for his family, and starts pursuing a real estate license. Gwen, despite triumphing over the racist doctor and regaining her privileges at his hospital, decides that "I'm sick of having no power in this game, Aviva, and of them having it all. Of always fighting against feeling useless. Of how sad it makes me feel that sisters won't go to a midwife." So she decides to go to medical school, so that "when I reach out to a black woman while she's having a baby, maybe then she's going to reach back."
And then there's this point to consider: Telegraph Avenue ends with Archy, Gwen, Titus and the new baby as a happy middle class family. Archy and Gwen have abandoned their bohemian pursuits and buckled down to chase the American dream, complete with bourgeois professions: medicine, real estate. Real estate. In 2004. In four years' time, when the bottom falls out of Archy's new field and Gwen is still accumulating student debt, that decision might not seem so wise after all. Nat and Aviva will be fine--at the end of the novel, Nat moves the vinyl business online, selling to collectors in Japan and France, and Aviva will still have her 1% moms to cater to, but Archy and Gwen? There's nothing in the idyll of Telegraph Avenue's final chapter to suggest that we're meant to take away anything sinister as we turn the last page, to believe that Archy and Gwen's future is anything but rosy. Nothing except for our knowledge of history, which Chabon no doubt possesses as well.
My core problem with Telegraph Avenue is that I'm not certain what I'm supposed to take away from it--the sunny, sentimental portrait of a black neighborhood, or the dark undercurrents that seem to run beneath it, the ambivalence with which the black characters view their own culture and history and its appropriation by white people, and the uncertain future, and possible collapse into poverty, of the main characters who end the novel certain that they are taking their first steps on the path to financial stability. Has Chabon written another fantasy world, this time based on a real place, or has he written a novel about the financial crisis? With Chabon, it's never a bad bet to assume that sentimentality is the end-point--see, for example, Meyer Landsman's romantic act of renunciation at the end of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, after which he walks off into the sunset with his newly-reconciled wife, the financial and professional consequences of his actions left discreetly off-page. On the other hand, there are enough hints in Telegraph Avenue to suggest that Chabon knows what kind of criticism he's left himself open to ("What do I know about being black?" is Aviva's stated policy when asked to do what Chabon has apparently done with this novel, interpret or judge the black experience), and thus, presumably, that he had some greater purpose for the exercise than mere sentimentality. Depending on the answer to this question, Telegraph Avenue is either a successful novel whose project strikes me as reductive and potentially offensive, or a much more interesting novel that is nowhere near as successful at what it tries to do, whose barbs are muffled beneath that sense of the otherworldly produced by Chabon's stylistic excesses. Perhaps Chabon would be better off wading back into genre, where his failures to fully face up to the messiness that underpin his fantastic worlds have less bearing on reality, and are thus easier to forgive.