Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Beyond the limits of nostalgia lies a strange land of wistfulness, dream, and fetish. This is the landscape that Michael Chabon charts in Telegraph Avenue whose nominal focus is Brokeland Records, a struggling used-record store on Oakland’s storied Telegraph Avenue. Brokeland is a natural focal point for nostalgia, as customers seek to revisit the music of their youth. But it is also the jumping off point for visitations to the land beyond nostalgia, as some customers seek out the false (?) nostalgia of times which were not their own. As, for example, when one customer, the hefty white whale-lawyer Michael “Moby” Oberstein, embarrassingly takes on the argot of the black hip-hop artists he admires. Or, when Julie Jaffe and Titus Joyner, both teenage boys, live their imaginative lives in films that were released when their fathers or even their grandfathers were young. This slip from nostalgia to false nostalgia to outright fetishism tokens a corresponding, and possibly worrying, disconnect with one’s own time and place.

Chabon’s writing here is never less than rich, at times moving up the colour palette to lurid, as when he takes on the stylistic excess of H.P. Lovecraft in order to dramatize young Julie’s imaginative life, or when he follows an exotically coloured, escaping parrot in one long paragraph over ten pages. This might be described as filmic writing, as Chabon moves from scene to scene, with long-shots and close-ups and jump-cuts. Initially it works against a close emotional connection with any one of the large cast of characters. But over the course of such a long novel that temporary distancing is more than compensated for by the emotional impact of culminating plot.

Fathers and sons, without doubt, are the pervasive motif in this novel, as well as the respect due to each. And although motherhood and certainly pregnancy are important both in terms of plot and language—the two main female characters share a midwifery practice—Chabon does not succeed in bringing them or their concerns fully to life. Perhaps there are some territories that remain yet unexplored by this absorbing writer.

Don’t be put off if the music and films referenced in the novel are only on the edge of your awareness. This is not, or at least it shouldn’t be, a contest in geeky knowledge. Indeed the suggestion is, iterated over and over again here, that it doesn’t matter whether you have direct experience of pop-cultural phenomena. Second or third-hand experience will more than suffice. Or even just a name dropped in the right place.

Plenty to think about and enjoy here. Highly recommended.

Posted in books, review.