The other huge release on September 11 this year was Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, clocking in around two hundred pages longer than Junot Díaz’s collection of stories, This is How You Lose Her. It’s pretty special to get a release from either of these smart, Pulitzer winning authors. For them to come on the same day is more than one reader can handle, not to mention the likely result of some odd marketing fight between publishers. I took on Díaz’s first. He is, currently, the more exciting author, and though Chabon’s first three novels range from charming to brilliant, his fourth I left sitting halfway through. He’s been dabbling (to much success) in genre elements since 2000, but Telegraph marks Chabon’s return to straight literary fiction. This is reason enough to be excited about the novel.
Of course, no genre elements doesn’t mean the novel is altogether absent of would-be genre elements. The novel primarily follows two couples and two kids, and it just so happens that one man’s father was a star in old blaxploitation flicks, a real kung-fu master, if he weren’t so washed up these days. Blending the fiction of Luther Stallings, the man, and Strutter, the action star, effectively infuses the novel with the type of excitement that genre elements brings, while keeping the novel within the literary realm. This works well. Chabon manages to sell both Luther’s power and Luther’s faded power simultaneously.
This speaks to the novel’s sensibilities. While it’s grounded in realism - Luther is washed up, drugged out, and an awful father - the sensation of having a blaxploitation star around - that is, effortlessly cool and edgy - is attempted but never quite realized. The two kids go so far as attending a course on Tarantino, with a focus on the uber influence mashup Kill Bill in particular. Chabon wants us to see what he’s doing here, either out of debt and gratitude or simply to further the routine, but all we can see is how this pales in comparison. Fortunately, this isn’t a case of mimicking Tarantino when one should be mimicking the bizarre and wide ranging influences of Tarantino - Telegraph isn’t that deep into this lore - but we can see the areas that Chabon is trying for a slick wittiness and can’t quite pull through.
This isn’t to say that he fails, however. Telegraph’s primary plot lines follow the male half of the two couples, who together run a used record store, and the female half of the two couples, who work together as midwives. Largely, we’re watching both sets chatting about work and about their partner, and Chabon has them doing this in what would be a snappy and constantly humorous way. The dialogue works beyond that (as actual dialogue), which means that the novel itself doesn’t fall flat for its failure not to stay as cool is it hopes, but at the times that this all works, it only makes it all the more clear that Chabon wanted it to work everywhere else. One trick Chabon recycles a few times across the novel is George Saunders styled dialogue in which one character speaks ad nauseum in an infinitely roundabout way. For instance:
“Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we could make something like that happen here in Oakland. And hey, he’s a hometown boy, right? A homeboy. Wouldn’t something like that be awesome? A shot in the arm. Well, yes, maybe it would be awesome. It sounds awesome. It looks awesome on paper. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, and hey, I’m a homeboy, too? Born in East Oakland, right at Highland Hospital?”
It works for Saunders to a point, and Chabon’s tasteful use of the style in small bites works fairly well, albeit to a inherently fatiguing effect.
Over the last decade Chabon has done a bit of work in screenwriting, most notably writing a draft of Spider-Man 2 and most recently making edits to John Carter. This perhaps speaks to the structure of Telegraph. The novel is heavy on dialogue, but more notably, the dialogue is the primary means of storytelling here. Just about every conflict occurs through conversation, just as just about every piece of information comes through conversation. This isn’t explicitly problematic - it’s never obvious exposition - but it isn’t careful, subtle storytelling either. Emotions aren’t quietly conveyed through movements. Rather, they’re just things that happen in the course of conversation. It all works. This story is told, and it’s often quite interesting. It is, however, not as fulfilling as we’d like it to be, or even as fulfilling as Chabon’s earlier novels.
To further craft the narrative of Chabon’s changing influences on his writing, it’s hard to overlook his treatment of the two kids. Chabon is now raising children himself, most around their teenage years. Though Chabon’s depictions are accurate, very occasionally he’ll include a moment that feels precious and inappropriate, something that might seem a lot more charming to Chabon the father than Chabon the writer. The phrase “awkward turtle” should have no place in this novel. It’s uncomfortable and odd to begin with, and though a teenage boy might say it, it doesn’t express anything beyond him being a mildly inane teenager.
It’s interesting to note the span of time in Telegraph. It’s at a moment in which, suddenly, many big things seem to come crashing in, or so it seems. In reality, these events aren’t all necessary to deal with immediately, but for legitimate enough reasons the characters decide to. It does make it something of a jumble of events to parade through, however. Chabon’s second novel, Wonder Boys, took place over the span of three days. Telegraph doesn’t take that structuring, but it does spend long periods of time across each day, detailing what each person did during just about every moment. The novel covers (I believe) five days total, not counting a brief change for the final sequences. This type of compression works well in stories and novels. Everything becomes urgent, everything becomes more straightforward to the reader. It may not be necessary here, but it’s an interesting choice.
In many ways, Telegraph seems as though it may have been best suited as a television series. There is a massive cast of characters here, and Chabon evidently found it important to detail each and every one of them to us extensively. So we have a large cast, big characters, and looming but longterm issues. There’s a whole lot here, and it could easily have come in a more paced manner with a clearer development in a lot of ways. Instead, we have Chabon seemingly out to confuse us, or else a little trigger happy at the novel’s open. To situate us in the novel, Chabon finds it appropriate to switch the perspective every other page with no hint that we’re changing location or character, and he also finds it necessary to explain to us that each character has like five different, convoluted, and uncharacteristic nicknames, and then proceed to call that character by the one you are least likely to have remembered two pages later, forcing you to turn back or else be endlessly confused. In fact, one of these many characters, who Chabon has us spend several pages with, returns for all of one pseudo-important sentence after this passage. Additionally, one of the novel’s plot lines revolves around an event from the past that we’re shown early on in a flashback. It feel appropriate then, but in the broader scope of the novel it’s out of place. We’re given no other flashbacks to flesh out the moment or the characters. Instead, this retroactively comes off as an easy way of explaining something to the reader, and really, the uncertainty without it may well have been more interesting.
For all these criticisms, there are moments where Chabon’s mastery shows through. Certain movements, once they occur, feel utterly inevitable. In one instance, again and again we see a physical representation of one character’s looming concern. When that character is finally forced to interact with that physical version, it feels so perfect and obvious that you might feel dumb for not having predicted it. Later, another character must have his own interaction with the object. His interaction is unpredictable but, we realize, the only possible thing that he could have done, however extreme it may seem. Afterward, that character has yet another moment of enlightenment that is both awful and remarkably accurate when he decides to help a friend.
Telegraph takes a short while to ease up to the reader. In the end it feels like a complete novel but not necessarily the right novel. It all happens, and we’re privy to it, and that’s about it. Moments don’t feel special, emotions don’t feel deep, and there are so many characters that, even with this novel’s length, we don’t get to deeply know any of them, save perhaps our main(est) character. It’s consistently enjoyable, but it infrequently maintains the type of laid-back humor that it wants to be hitting. It doesn’t need it, but man, it’d feel a whole lot more purposeful with it.