I have been carrying Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue with me everywhere I go for a month, dipping in whenever I have a minute or two. It’s a good book to read like that, actually—people are coming and going and only occasionally is there a long, overhead flight to show you how they’re all tied together. That is my favorite part of the book, incidentally—the bird’s-eye view (it’s all one long sentence, as I eventually realized, deep into it).
At this point, so many book bloggers have read the novel and said what they think about it (there’s an entire blog tour going on) that I feel even less need than usual to give you much idea of the plot. I meant to write about it sooner–especially since HarperCollins sent me an advance copy–but events intervened. Let’s just say it’s a bit like one of those Shakespearean set-ups with two sets of twins, but involving two couples. The first couple is Archy and Gwen, and the second is Nat and Aviva.
The fun is in how you get to know the couples, by way of seeing Nat through Archy’s eyes as he “kept his gaze fixed on the baby so that, Archy understood, he would not have to kill Mike Oberstein with gamma rays shot out of his eyeballs.” By way of the inventive metaphors this author sprinkles in with a liberal hand: “Only Mr. Jones has always stopped to drop a needle in the long inward spiraling groove that encoded Archy, and listen to the vibrations.” And this one: “Grief was itself a kind of chair, wide and forgiving, that might enfold you softly in its wings and then devour you, keep you like a pocketful of loose change.”
The allusions are endlessly diverting, and the geographical narrowness of the setting amplifies their general appeal to anyone born in the fifty-year period between 1950 and 2000. You get an idea of how this area compares to yours when Gwen thinks, fairly late in the novel, that she wants to go to “some town without fixations, one that had sent its vinyl records to the dump and would eat any kind of an egg you set before it.” When someone goes up in a blimp and thinks “Oh, the humanity,” you don’t need much more to know how he’s feeling. Each time the music these characters listen to is mentioned, you know more about them: “Now here he was, back in Oakland, working for the fifth richest black man in America, driving this flawlessly restored piece of carflesh, blasting some Zapp or maybe it was solo Troutman on the indash factory cassette player, and in general, as he and Archy would have put it during their salad days, keeping it surreal.” Also, I think this is the first time since the seventies I’ve read an extended allusion to Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, one which eventually turns into another allusion, to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. And to top it all off (and topping off the flyover chapter), there’s an allusion to one of my favorite children’s picture books, The Leaf Men by William Joyce.
We’re seeing the characters at a turning point in their lives, when Archy and Nat’s record store and Gwen and Aviva’s midwife practice are being forced into some kind of change, while they wrestle with themselves and each other about how far they can let what they do change before it changes who they are. Gwen and Archy each get a moment in which they stand up for what is most important to them. Nat and Aviva get a larger idea of what their friendship with the other couple means in terms of how they see the world. Everybody gets forgiven, because everybody is able to swallow their pride and work on pairing what they want with what the people they love want.
Telegraph Avenue was a great novel to finish while lying in a hospital bed, healing up after the tensions and the trauma of living through all that had to be done. I was weak with gratitude and love for these all-too-human characters, and my head was full of music. The book is a journey, and what a long, strange trip it’s been.