Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

Since we enjoyed Kavalier and Klay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union so much, my book club selected Telegraph Avenue for this month's read. Chabon's 2012 novel has gathered a lot of critical praise, but we struggled with it. Only one person besides me finished it, and most of the others couldn't make it past the first 50 pages.

Old friends Archy and Nat run a used record store—yes, records as in vinyl—called Brokeland Records on the title's street in North Oakland. Their struggle to keep the store going is dealt a serious blow when a former football star plans to open a megastore just down the street, with a large used record section. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, work together as midwives. Eight months pregnant herself, Gwen has trouble keeping her temper as she wrangles doctors and babies and Archy and her own cumbersome body.

Julius, whom everyone calls Julie, is Nat and Aviva's 14-year-old son who has become friends with Titus, a boy his age who has arrived from Texas to stay with a distant relative. Further complicating matters is the appearance of Archy's father, Luther, a former star of blaxploitation films. He deserted his family long ago and has struggled with drugs and stints in jail, but now he's been clean for over a year and looking for a relationship with Archy.

I wish I'd had that summary before I started reading. We all found the beginning confusing and overwhelming. Even I was put off, and I'm a big fan of Chabon's writing. I thought too many characters were introduced without enough information to keep them straight or perhaps they were just not clearly presented. I didn't understand who they were or what their relationship to each other was; it took me forever to figure out that Luther was Archy's father. We spend a lot of time with one character who then disappears except for a single brief reference near the end. It was also unclear at the beginning who the main character is. Presumably it's Archy since the book starts with him, after a gorgeous brief paragraph about the (as yet unnamed) boys, Julie and Titus, but then Archy's gone before we have a chance to care about him.

I think the heart of the story is what it is to be a man. Archy stumbles through each of his roles: friend, business partner, husband, potential and unexpected father, community member, son. His failures mount as he seems unable to assert himself, to make a plan and carry it through. This section moved me: Gwen has not slept well, troubled “By thoughts of Archy and his furtive approach to grief. Holding his sadness close, as if it were a secret, the man always moving from one thing he couldn't talk about to the next, sneaking across the field of his emotions from foxhole to foxhole, head down.”

What I haven't captured is the immense exuberance of the text. Each sentence explodes with references and allusions and sneaky bits of fun. I enjoyed the verbal fireworks, but found the prose so demanding that I was not able to read more than a few pages at a time. By then, I felt pummeled and drained. Some members of my book club thought Chabon was just showing off and felt manipulated, but I can see how the style supports the story. I think the prose is a brilliant capture of today's environment with its rapid-fire demands on our attention, but it sure is exhausting. Section III, though? Even I thought that was just showing off. Quite remarkable, but unnecessary.

Chabon's references and allusions are great if you get them. I found myself snickering and laughing out loud as I read. One person started looking them up but soon quit. Several people felt that the ebullient prose distracted and distanced them, keeping them from delving into the story and caring about the characters. The character who interested me was Julie, so smart and self-possessed, so willing to give of himself.

Many of these references and allusions are embedded in the imagery—metaphors and similes—which pack every sentence. Some are brilliant. Others you just have to go with and not try to analyse. I found that I was kind of surfing, letting myself be carried along; that was the best way to handle the confusion, chaos, and conflicting demands of the text.

And by doing that, I was responding exactly the same way Archy responds to the chaos of his life. Brilliant!

I'm glad I stuck with this book, but I don't think my book club is likely to read another Chabon novel. That's a shame because he's such an amazing writer.

What is your book club reading?

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