Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Originally posted 2016-08-02 17:00:20.

I finished this book nearly two months ago. It has taken me exactly that long to work up the courage to revisit its asinine plot and intensely unlikable characters. Do not read this book. If you feel like reading a Michael Chabon book, why not read Wonder Boys? Pretend that you never heard of Telegraph Avenue – the literary world was a better place before it existed. I’m sorry, Michael Chabon – I admire your work, well, some of your work. Just not this book.

Between Berkeley and Oakland exists a record store. The aptly named Brokeland Records is owned by Archy Stallings and his buddy Nat Jaffe, and their little business is in danger. Gibson Goode, “the fifth richest black man in America,” is going to open his own music store in the area, a “Dogpile Thing” that is destined to demolish Brokeland. In a parallel storyline, Archy and Nat’s wives, Gwen and Aviva, are celebrated midwives. Their business, the Berkeley Birth Partners, is facing some difficulties of its own. Now, throw into the mix a parrot called Fifty-Eight, Gwenn’s own progressing pregnancy, Archy’s infidelity, Nat and Aviva’s  bi-curious teenaged son (who has a crush on Archy’s illegitimate love child) and a runaway air bus.

No matter how skilled an author is, there is abolutely no way to rectify all of these plot points without the end result being a ridiculous mess. I didn’t even include everything up there. Oh yes, there’s more. There’s the Bruce Lee Institute, Archy’s estranged cult-hero father, race relations, gender issues. The list goes on and on and on and on. But the main problem is this: this world is only big enough for one tale of a down-and-out record store, and that is, of course, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. I love High Fidelity. Telegraph Avenue is certainly bad enough on its own, but the added stress of a superior record store novel certainly doesn’t help matters.

Chabon has some great one-liners, don’t get me wrong (Archy’s description of Julius as “some kind of little Jewish soul elf,” for instance, is simple yet telling). More often than not, though, the prose just seems unnatural. Where Wonder Boys felt effortless,Telegraph Avenue feels crudely forced, at times. Take, for instance, the following excerpt:

“Lawsuits, real estate, a long cold war fought against a backdrop of redevelopment money using proxies and attorneys. West Oakland rumor traced the source of beef to the late 1970s, tendering the story that Singletary had married his wife out from under a preexisting condition of Chan Flowers. Rumor further added the dubious yet somehow credible information that her reason for choosing Singletary over Flowers came down to an interadicable odor of putrefaction on the undertaker’s hands” (36).

This is not a main plot point. This is long-winded and only vaguely relevant to the plot at all. This is why I found my mind wandering and often had to re-read such painful passages, since by the end I had completely forgotten what the point was, if there was one at all.

I have never been happier to finish a book. I’ve read a lot of books, and I’m not saying this is the worst one I’ve ever read, but it’s close.

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