Michael Chabon has long moved easily between the playful, heartfelt realism of novels like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys and his playful, heartfelt, more fantastical novels like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. In his new novel, Telegraph Avenue, he has declared his stylistic freedom again, turning the techniques of fantasy fiction to a comedy of manners. In some ways, Telegraph Avenue, the story of the ordinary lives of two imperfect, rather ordinary families, is as much a fantasy as Kavalier & Clay or even The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It might, oddly, be his most original book as well.
Chabon sees the shins of a beautiful woman glow “like the bells in a horn section.” A pregnant woman’s thighs peel “away from each other with a sigh, like lovers reluctant to part.” An old man’s advice to a young man falls like “rain against an umbrella.” A Hammond B-3 organ is “diesel-heavy, coffin-awkward, clock-fragile.” The smell of fried chicken wafts by as a “breeze off the coast of the past.” Chabon’s worlds are lyrical places, and they often include those sweet breezes from the coast of the past.
Telegraph Avenue itself blows in from Oakland, California, in the 1970s via 2004. Set in the recent past, the novel is driven by an unabashed nostalgia for a slightly less recent past. And like much of Chabon’s work, it celebrates not only the object of its nostalgia—the music and Afros and leisure suits and muscle cars and kung fu blaxploitation movies of the funky Seventies—but also the pleasure of nostalgia itself.
Chabon is an extraordinarily generous writer. He is generous to his characters, to his landscapes, to syntax, to words, to his readers—there is real joy in his work. The act of nostalgia—of looking back with reverence and yearning and regret—is another facet of this generosity, like the lavish attention a collector shows his collection.
And Chabon seems particularly drawn to collectibles, the ephemera of modern pop culture. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, it was comic books. In Telegraph Avenue, the material objects of Chabon’s nostalgic gaze are the vinyl records of funk musicians and what they represent—a particular moment of vigorous, flourishing black culture. Both ambitious and light-hearted, the novel is a touching, gentle, comic meditation on the mess that is racial relations in the United States and on what fathers can and cannot pass on to their sons. It also includes some of the best writing about women I’ve read in recent years.
Which brings us to science fiction. In essays and interviews, Chabon has been eloquent on behalf of genre fiction, science fiction in particular. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was an ode to comic book superheroes, magicians, Houdini-like escape artists. Chabon was one of the writers for Spiderman 2 as well as the ill-fated fantasy film extravaganza John Carter—he loved the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs as a child. What is remarkable about Telegraph Avenue is that Chabon has transferred that boyish curiosity and imagination, that willingness, perhaps need, to create and make real worlds he does not and cannot inhabit, that loony science-fiction obsession with logical detail and preposterous premise, into a novel that has nothing to do with science fiction—that in fact deals with some of our most uncomfortable facts. In his new novel, he has trained his love and understanding of a very white, very male genre—science fiction—onto the universe of a black community and the very female land of midwives and pregnancy.
Telegraph Avenue is set in the alternative universe of Northern California. It begins in a store that sells vintage vinyl records. Situated in what was once a barbershop on Telegraph Avenue in West Oakland, “Brokeland Records was nearly the last of its kind, Ishi, Chingachgook, Martha the passenger pigeon.” One of the two owners, a former helicopter electrician in the Gulf War and sometime bass player, Archy Stallings, is round, Buddha-like in girth, and black. His partner, Nat Jaffe, is a skinny, vaguely bipolar, white Jew. Archy and Nat share the store and an obsessive love of Seventies funk jazz, of musicians like Donald Byrd and Johnny Hammond, and of all things vinyl.
They are, in other words, out of place. As are their wives. Aviva Roth-Jaffe and Gwen Shanks are partners, too. They are midwives with a practice called Berkeley Birth Partners, which caters to privileged counterculture mothers, the ones who live in Berkeley and want their birthing “experience” to be bathed in incense and what Gwen cannot help thinking of as “hippy-trippy whoop-de-doo.” Aviva, the “Alice Waters of Midwives,” is the politic one of their partnership,
skilled in every manner of wheedlings and wiles. It was a skill that was called upon to one degree or another almost every time they went up against hospitals or insurance companies….
Gwen, with her “virtuoso hands…, freaky-big, fluid as a couple of tide-pool dwellers, cabled like the Golden Gate Bridge,” has a relationship toward authority that is more complicated than Aviva’s. “She could not as blithely subordinate her pride and self-respect to the dictates of hospital politics…. But Gwen knew, the way a violinist knew tonewood, how to work it.”
This is a novel set not in the deep racial divides of America, but on a border as bright and defined and easily blurred as a chalk line, a place where people meet and so inevitably make mistakes. A place where everybody is out of place. The partnership and friendship between Nat and Archy is as natural and as unlikely as the community itself.
On the day the novel begins, Gwen is thirty-six weeks pregnant. She catches Archy cheating on her, then, devastated but dutiful, heads to a delivery in Berkeley. The parents are faintly ridiculous. Their little girl is there, bearing a birth plan she has decorated “in four colors of marker with flowers and vines and a happy-looking fetus labeled BELLA,” and waiting to watch her slippery sibling appear. When the placenta does not follow, the mother is rushed by ambulance to the hospital. Although the mother is fine, the midwives are dressed down by the doctor on call as “sage-burning” practitioners of “voodoo.” Suddenly, their privileges at the hospital are in jeopardy and “like a pair of shit-caked work boots, they were being left outside on the porch.” This earnest, anachronistic partnership is faced with the prospect of going out of business.
For Brokeland Records, equally earnest and anachronistic, the threat is gentrification: the imminent arrival two blocks away of a megastore run by Gibson Goode, known as G Bad, the former all-pro quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the fifth-richest black man in America. A ten-screen Cineplex, a food court, a gaming arcade, a twenty-story retail galleria—the Dogpile Thang, as the complex will be called—will radically change the neighborhood. According to Goode and his supporters, the store will revitalize the area. According to Archy and Nat and the other local merchants, it will destroy the character of the place. It will also put Brokeland Records out of business.
This struggle for the future and character of a neighborhood, a staple of the pre-2008 boom times, carries with it the faint trace of a different struggle: the fierce racial tensions of the 1960s and early 1970s that led to the violence and radicalism of the Black Panthers, born and bred in Oakland. Chabon touches glancingly on that time of rage: a botched murder in 1973, motivated more by personal ambition than ideology, by a young Black Panther named Chan Flowers. Flowers later turns up as the powerful, proper city councilman for Oakland, Chandler B. Flowers, owner and director of Flowers and Sons Funeral Home. He has left that violent time behind him as quickly as he could, and so, in a way, does Chabon. Political fury and revolutionary passion interest him here only insofar as they twist themselves out of shape and into the form of Chan Flowers, a character of delicious comic malevolence. Flowers, smart, self-serving, and thuggish as a renegade revolutionary, is smart, self-serving, and thuggish as a respected councilman.
Chan is not the only citizen of Telegraph Avenue who carries with him the faint recognizable scent, like that of mothballs, of the Sixties. The citizens who turn up at a meeting to save the neighborhood from Gibson Goode’s commercial invasion are perfectly rendered in their Northern California liberal glory. But in one of the stylistic paradoxes of this superb writer, Chabon uses idiosyncratic detail after idiosyncratic detail to render them universal: a local variety of the same citizen who turns up at every local civic meeting in any place, any time:
Solemn, smiling, mildly puzzled, or with a beneficent swish of Glinda the Good, each Concerned Person put down his or her alphanumerics…: Shoshana Zucker, who used to be the director of Julie’s nursery school, a chemotherapy shmatte on her head; Claude Rapf the urban planner, who lived on a hill above the Caldecott Tunnel in a house shaped like a flying saucer…; a skinny, lank-haired Fu Manchued dude later revealed with a flourish to be Professor Presto Digitation, the magician…; two of the aging Juddhists who had recently opened a meditation center called Neshama…; that freaky Emmet Kelly—as Gloria Swanson—impersonator lady from the apartment over the Self-Laundry, holding her Skye terrier; Amre White, godson of Jim Jones, now the pastor of a rescue mission…; a city of Berkeley arborist…; that Stephen Hawking guy who was not Stephen Hawking; the lady who owned the new-wave knitting store…; a noted UC Berkeley scholar of Altaic languages…carrying on his right shoulder without acknowledgment and for unspoken reasons a ripe banana…; Sandy the dog trainer….
Will the neighborhood be saved? Not quite, and by the end that is not the main question. This is also, and perhaps primarily, a story of fathers and sons. Nat Jaffe’s son, Julius, known as Julie, is an irresistible character, “bopping all over town in his woeful Isro and his bell-bottom jeans, some kind of little Jewish soul elf.” An effeminate nerd wearing tie-dyed longjohns, skate-boarding through town with a vintage boom box hanging from his shoulder, he is in some ways the most vulnerable of the inhabitants of Telegraph Avenue, but there is also something harmonious about him: in a world of people who do not fit in, Julie is the one who does not fit in the most. When we first meet him, he is
rereading his memoir in progress, working-titled Confessions of a Secret Master of the Multiverse. He had begun to write it two months earlier in a six-inch Moleskin, in a fever of boredom, drug-sick on H.P. Lovecraft, intending to produce an epic monument to his loneliness and to the appalling tedium he induced in himself. That first night he had cranked out thirty-two unruled pages. Page one started thus:
This record of sorrow is being penned in human blood on parchment made from the hides of drowned sailors. Its unhappy author—O pity me, friend, wherever you lie at your ease!—perches by the high window of a lightening-blasted tower, on a beetling skull-rock beside the roaring madness of a polar sea. Chained at the ankle to an iron bedstead, gnawing on the drumstick of a roasted rat….
What rescues Julie from his fourteen-year-old ennui is the arrival of Titus Joyner, a motherless fourteen-year-old African-American refugee from Tyler, Texas,
a mystery boy fallen from the sky like the Wold Newton meteorite, apparently inert and yet invisibly seething with the mutagenic information of distant galaxies and exploding stars.
Julie was in love.
Titus is living with an auntie in a kind of foster-child flophouse. He asks Julie if he can stay at the Jaffes’ instead:
“Just tell them I’m your imaginary friend,” Titus said. “A only child, come on, you got to have a imaginary friend.”
“I did when I was little.”
“Yeah? What was his name?”
“His name was Cherokee.”
“Cherokee. He still live here?”
Before he could quite dismiss the question as the joke it was intended to be, Julie had a quick look around the attic.
Julie understands his own residual racial embarrassment, a boyish scab of confusion, etiquette, and guilt—his cultural heritage:
Julie longed to put his arms around Titus, to console him, but he could not be sure that Titus would welcome such a touch. Indeed, he suspected Titus would reject it. Julie could only guess, the intuition guided if not shaped entirely by the dubious and histrionic hand of ghetto melodramas, cop shows, and the brutal lyrics of rap songs, at the latest trauma that Titus had undergone.
But Julie is comfortable and easy with that heritage, and he has the sophisticated understanding of his parents’ pieties that children so often do:
“I mean, even if my parents let you stay, and I don’t even want to think how I’m going to explain it all to them, I just have to, like, rely on the fact that they are going to get off on the idea that I have a troubled young African-American friend they can, like, help out or whatever….”
Julius Jaffe is a perfect incarnation of the imperfection of adolescence, the dreamy intelligence, the romantic cynicism, the puzzled sexual fever, the sweetness of discovery. The closeness of the distance between Julie and his father is like the space between shy partners dancing the box step:
With a solemn intake of breath, Julie activated his secret master training. He would use his Field of Silence, he thought, in combination with his Scowl of Resounding Finality…. His father seeing nothing, understanding nothing, searching for the line, the signal, the telling bit of repartee. Recently and unexpectedly, the fiber-optic cable between the continents of Father and Son had been severed by the barb of some mysterious dragging anchor. His father stood there in the attic doorway…loving Julie with a glancing half-sly caution that the boy could feel and yet be certain of the uselessness thereof….
The relationship between Julie and Titus is complicated by Julie’s sexual and romantic passion for the rather laconic and preoccupied Titus. It is also complicated by a secret Titus first reveals to Julie: he is Archy Stallings’s son.
Julie envisioned Titus pedaling past Archy and Gwen’s house at twilight, the sagging porch with its freight of bougainvillea, the life in which Titus was not permitted or could not bring himself to share passing back and forth like a movie to be memorized shot for shot across the screen of the big bay window.
Archy Stallings is a perfect storm of fatherhood tsuris. He is not ready to be a father, though he has a baby coming any day. He has never been ready to be a father, though he’s had a son for fourteen years whom he vaguely suspected might exist. His father figure, a musician named Cochise, dies, crushed beneath that diesel-heavy Hammond B-3 organ. And Luther Stallings, his own father, tall, handsome, chin-dimpled, blue-eyed kung fu master, star of blaxploitation movies of the Seventies, who walked out on Archy when he was a baby, is back in Oakland. Drugs and jail have taken their toll on Luther; the multiple desertions have taken their toll on Archy. And within the loops of a mild, farcical blackmail narrative, the legacy of Luther Stalling unspools: his son detests him, but his grandson, Titus, is a different story. Watching tapes of Luther’s movies, he is mesmerized:
Luther Stallings, the idea of Luther Stallings, felt to Titus like no one and no place had ever felt: a point of origin. A legendary birthplace, lost in the mists of Shaolin or the far-off technojungles of Wakanda. There in the dark beside Julie, watching his grandfather, Titus got a sense of his own life’s foundation in the time of myths and heroes. For the first time since coming to consciousness of himself, small and disregarded as a penny in the corner of the world’s bottom drawer, Titus Joyner saw in his own story a shine of value, and in himself the components of glamour.
The heroic beauty and mythical glamour of pop culture, and its redemptive value, are very real for Chabon. Even in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, his first and thoroughly realistic novel, with its wobbly wood slums and confused young love, a chimney belched out pure white puffs turning the city into an enchanted cloud factory. Kavalier & Clay took place in a glowing Jewish New York City during World War II, the Empire State Building presiding iconically over the dreams of the two heroes and their magnificent comic book creations. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, too, with its tough, noir Yids, was a novel of genre exaltation.
In Telegraph Avenue, Gwen recalls Julie explaining two science-fiction visions: terraforming and pantropy, two ways to colonize a new planet. Terraforming is changing a planet’s atmosphere and environment to suit physical human needs. Pantropy uses the opposite approach: altering “the human form and mind to allow survival, even prosperity, on a harsh, unforgiving world.” This strikes Gwen as an apt metaphor for African-Americans attempting to survive in the hostile planet that the United States has been for so long:
In the struggle to thrive and flourish on the planet of America, some black people had opted for the epic tragedy, grand and bitter, of terraforming; others, like Gwen’s parents and their parents and grandparents before them, had engaged in a long and selective program of pantropy. Black pantropy had produced, in Gwen and her brothers, a clutch of viable and effortless success-breathers, able to soar and bank on thermals of opportunity and defy the killing gravity of the colony world.
If there is something a little unsettling in this easygoing description of so many centuries of pain, there is also something bracing in the reimagining of blacks colonizing the lesser beings of planet United States. Chabon turns the same unexpected sci-fi lens onto the experience of giving birth. Here is Gwen in labor:
Had to be a thousand degrees Kelvin in the LDR, Gwen feeling strangely but not pleasantly buoyant in the heat. Sweating, fouled, writhing. Hair like a gorgon’s. The bed a swamp. Her skin in full rebellion, as if the baby were something not only to be expelled from her womb but shed from the outside, too; the hospital gown intolerable, abrasive, a crust of toast against the roof of the mouth. Gwen felt desperate, wild to labor naked. Wanted to rip off the gown, burst from it like the Hulk trashing one of his professor-dude lab coats….
She was barely able to get the words out as another great slow umbrella of pain opened inside her…. Pain like a closing of the eyes….
Paddling to stay on top of the wave as it broke, trying to ride it. A big one, really big, the biggest one yet, high, wide, deep, and rolling on and on like an earthquake. Impervious as an earthquake to her will, which amounted in the end to nothing more than the words “please be over” repeated for what felt like hours.
This time there was no rest between measures, no patch of blue. The flow of pain within her simply shifted, shunted by some switch in the rail yard of her nervous system, from the bands of steel that belted her abdomen to someplace lower and farther inside.
The Hulk; shedding from the outside; the rail yard—not typical images used in descriptions of childbirth. These specimens rise up from the depths of an imagination used to welcoming not pregnant women and crowning babies but superheroes and bizarre alien villains. Chabon, like his characters, is a stranger in a strange land here. But it is exactly that, his robust stranger’s embrace of childbirth, an excruciating, exhilarating, out-of-body body experience that Chabon can never share, that makes this passage, and Chabon’s work in general, so powerful.
Women are no more alien than, well, aliens. Gwen is a physical being, weighted down by the gravity of earth, the gravity of reality, of the reality of another life she carries around with her. Her bulk, her discomfort, her angry exhaustion—throughout the novel Gwen and her swollen belly and broken heart are given the dignity of Chabon’s full literary, stylistic attention, described with the obsessive, almost mechanical precision and vocabulary he habitually and beautifully employs for everything from memorabilia to weather to anal sex. In Telegraph Avenue, women have the solidity and strength of objects. Not objects of desire. Not objects of love. Not objects of need. Just objects, to be examined and explored like all the other objects of Chabon’s fascination.
Even the portrayal of Luther’s girlfriend and former costar, Valletta Moore, has a kind of muscularity, density almost, that is unusual in the depiction of an erotically beautiful woman, especially an older one. When Valletta approaches Archy, it’s been thirty years since she’s seen him and thirty years since her reign as a Pam Grier sex symbol, Candygirl Clark. Archy’s bitterness is palpable, but so is she:
Big-boned, shapely, on the fatal side of fifty, high-waisted, high-breasted, face a feline triangle. Beer-bottle-brown eyes, skin luminous and butterscotch…. The architecture of her ass was something deeper than a memory to Archy, something almost beyond remembrance, an archetype, the pattern of all asses forever after, wired into the structure of reality itself…. The lady most definitely giving off that heavy 1978 Spencer’s smell of love candles and sandalwood incense but, laid over top of it, the stink of cigarette, the instant-potatoes smell you might find in the interior of a beat-to-shit Toronado.
Chabon is one of those writers who cherishes his characters. They are all his imaginary friends, still in the attic. And he is not afraid to venture into their alternative universes, even those as close as Telegraph Avenue. He views the battered world of the border between Oakland and Berkeley with the same loving, infatuated scrutiny that science fiction bestows on its vast galaxies, and the battered borderland is the better for it. Chabon delights in the way the world could be. He is filled with nostalgia for a way it never really was. In Telegraph Avenue, those impulses come together and somehow manage to illuminate the way the world really is in all its tender, flawed glory.