Imaginary Friends

Michael Murphree/Corbis Outline
Michael Chabon, Berkeley, California, circa 2003

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.