Review: Michael Chabon’s “Telegraph Avenue”

Michael Chabon. Photo by Ulf Andersen - Getty Images.
Michael Chabon. Photo by Ulf Andersen - Getty Images.

 (Harper/468pp./ $27.99)

It’s easy to see what kind of novel Michael Chabon set out to write with Telegraph Avenue—and it would be easy, as well, to pretend that it succeeds at being that kind of novel. To do so, however, would require not only ignoring the problems that afflict the book, but also neglecting the ways in which Mr. Chabon himself reveals an awareness of these problems and attempts to mitigate them.

Just as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay (2000) captured the kinetic ebullience and polychromatic fervor of comic books, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) synthesized noir detective fiction and fantasy heartbreak Yiddishkeit, so Telegraph Avenue dives into a highly specific, stylized milieu. This time around, Mr. Chabon takes his cues from soul and jazz music—the two main characters run a used record store in the neighborhood of “Brokeland” (between Berkeley and Oakland)—with a little help from the Blaxploitation and Kung Fu films of the 1970s. In short, if Kavalier and Klay was Mr. Chabon’s “comic novel” and Policemen’s Union his “Yiddish noir” novel, then Telegraph Avenue is supposed to be something like Mr. Chabon’s “soul” novel.

Well, that’s the plan. It is not a bad plan per se. Reappropriating genre literature under the aegis of high culture has become a familiar convention of postmodern literary fiction; really, “literary genre fiction” is arguably a genre of its own at this point. Even more common is the practice of saturating a novel in a given milieu to such a degree that the milieu itself comes to serve as the “brand” of the novel. There, however, lies the rub: While Mr. Chabon is white, much of the milieu providing the “brand” of Telegraph Avenue (soul and jazz music, Blaxploitation films, the Black Panthers, Oakland and its environs) is unmistakably black. What this means is that “literary genre fiction” now runs the risk of becoming a kind of sophisticated “literary gentrification”—a process by which a predominantly black milieu is appropriated by a white novelist as a springboard. Put simply, is the story of “Brokeland,” whatever it may be, really Mr. Chabon’s to tell?

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Ironically, Telegraph Avenue—even as it might be accused of embodying a form of gentrification—is itself a novel largely pitched against the physical gentrification of the neighborhood in which it takes place. Archy Stallings (“Moonfaced, mountainous, and moderately stoned”) and Nat Jaffe (from a long line of “luftmenschen, ineptitudes, and bankrupts going all the way back to Minsk Guberniya”) are the co-proprietors of a used record store, Brokeland Records. They are waging a rearguard action against the nearby opening of a pan-capitalist emporium (“Dogpile Thang”) whose promised “three-story Dogpile media store” threatens to put them permanently out of business. Meanwhile, their wives Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, two practicing midwives (“Berkeley Birth Partners”), must contend with the C-section-promoting, insurance-company-beholden doctors seemingly intent on destroying their practice.

In other words, both pairs of actors fight to preserve and protect autonomous pockets of local character from the homogenizing onslaught of capitalism, whether this onslaught takes the form of neighborhood transformation or the regulation of the birthing-process by actuarial tables. Frustration and despair are the psychological product of the economics at work: Archy, in particular, tires of perpetually feeling like “the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat.”

Telegraph Avenue, then, is a clear example of what Elizabeth Gumport has named, in an insightful essay for N1BR5, “gentrification fiction”—literature set against the background of a rapidly changing neighborhood (in her case, Brooklyn). In these novels, she writes, “questions of wealth and race are rephrased as inquiries into authenticity,” and the typically white writer, apparently “as much a victim as anyone else,” prefers to pose as a “conservator of urban legitimacy” or “assert his own status as dispossessed in the imagined war against authenticity” rather than face “economic and social realities.”

To a certain extent, Gumport’s critique applies to Telegraph Avenue. Mr. Chabon perhaps too neatly sidesteps the usual racial implications of gentrification (whites displacing blacks or other minorities) by making one of the owners of Brokeland Records white (Nat) and the gentrifying tycoon behind the Dogpile Thang the fifth “richest African-American.” And in a passage representative of large tracts of the novel, Archy attributes to Nat the belief that the pair are not “a couple of secondary-market retailers trying to stay afloat but guardians of some ancient greatness that must never be tainted or altered”—coming close to Gumport’s substitution of the “imagined war against authenticity” for the concrete struggles of race and class. But at other times the novel ridicules, undercuts, or dismisses in bracing terms the complacent nostalgia and authenticity-mongering which is the bread-and-butter of gentrification literature. At its best, Telegraph Avenue suggests how white nostalgia for black culture can function as the dialectical adjunct to white supremacy and untrammeled capitalism. At its worst, however, it merely articulates a set of problems without taking any serious steps to resolve or even refrain from perpetuating them. 

The gentrifying element in Mr. Chabon’s authorial relation to the characteristic milieu of his novel informs the work in multiple ways. First, as the lengthy list of sources in the “Acknowledgements” indicates (Wax Poetics magazine, Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide, etc.), considerable research went into this novel. It shows, and it shows unto obtrusiveness. The world of Telegraph Avenue appears scrupulously researched and documented, like an attic of one-of-a-kind artifacts hovered over by garrulous docents ever ready to lay some knowledge on you. The novel is animated by an eagerness to name things, to classify them, and above all to arrange them in tastefully curated ensembles. This curato- rial mania extends to physiognomy (“beautiful Seminole eyes,” “those Marrano eyes,” “Mayan face,” and “Cherokee noses”), sundry hungers (for Thai temple pancakes, Ethiopian suff, and Sinoloa tacos), and sex acts (“Recollecting the catenary arch of her upper lip, the tip of her tongue going addis ababa along the E string of his dick”).

Mr. Chabon cannot help but fall into the trap Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction (1979) ascribes to the “narodniki of all times and all lands”: that of confusing one’s “relation to the working-class condition with the working-class relation to that condition.” What this means for Mr. Chabon is that the research process itself infiltrates the fabric of the object of research; it installs itself as the grand metaphor behind all other activities in an endless series of knowledge checks, culture checks, and taste checks. Telegraph Avenue is a novel dominated by displays of cultural erudition and mavenhood run amok. “Define toronado,” banters one character; “Name that tune,” challenges another. When Gwen feels pressure to prove her status and expertise in the charged environment of the hospital, she falls back upon a welter of medical jargon (“zero stage hemorrhage, borderline stage one,” “uterine atonicity,” and “hypovolemic shock”). Archy’s son, peppered by questions from his father (“Listen to Duke Ellington? Do you know who Billy Strayhorn was?”), articulates the condition of the novel as a whole: “Every conversation a quiz, a debriefing, an interrogation, a catechism.”

More valorized than mere factual recall, of course, are the higher powers of exegetes and scholiasts, those who live by their opinions because they are judged by them. These, too, Telegraph Avenue exhibits in abundance. Sometimes it feels as if everyone in the novel is dying to tell you about their thesis. Referring to the 1953 musical comedy The Band Wagon, one character muses, “the self-enclosed, self-reflexive world of actors and dancers it portrays prefigures exactly the hermetic, empty universe of physical artistry that we find in Kill Bill.” Likewise, another character repeats an argument that Ornette Coleman “basically rediscovered the original tone of the New Orleans cornet players, basically thought his way back to it like Einstein thinking about passing trains…Kind of an ouroboros thing.” The discerning gaze of the aficionado invades and colonizes every space: “Nat studied Archy the way Archy had studied the A-side of the late Bob Benezra’s copy of Kulu Sé Mama (Impulse!, 1967), looking for reasons to grade it down.”

The authorship problem of Telegraph Avenue gives rise to more than ubiquitous displays of erudition and the constant policing of taste. Mr. Chabon is pointedly aware of the troublesome history of white people mimicking black culture. Nevertheless, since he cannot avoid engaging in precisely this sort of imitation, his novel is pervaded by a deep-seated fear of coming off as just another lame, white impersonator of black culture. A spectre is haunting Telegraph Avenue—the spectre of, in Mr. Chabon’s own phrase, “uncool white people everywhere when they tried to be cool.”

One character, Moby, is especially guilty in this regard, speaking in a “horrible Electric Boogaloo accent” and acting according to a “strange ghetto minstrel routine.” Ultimately, however, the extremes of Moby’s “wannabe shtick” merely mark him as a convenient scapegoat for the collective white anxiety about seeming inauthentic. For a white character like Nat—who, it seems fair to say, is Mr. Chabon’s intra-narrative doppelgänger—people like Moby represent both the threat of contagion (“if you were a white guy living along the edge of blackness all your life,” Nat thinks, “the worst thing was somebody around you trying to do the same”) and an admonitory parable (Nat has “so profound a horror of black-acting white men…that he drove himself with a near-pathological rigor to avoid any appearance in manner or speech, of trying to pass”).

The novel offers a strained treatment of instances of cultural hybridization and appropriation—two issues bearing upon Mr. Chabon’s own fraught project. The relentless tendency toward hybridization in Telegraph Avenue runs the risk of arriving at caricature, as when Nat (who is white and Jewish) recalls his black stepmother “saying in that wild negro Yiddish of hers, ‘That is sure enough a mechiah.’” In general, Mr. Chabon treats cultural hybridization as a mere style or surface phenomenon, unmoored from concrete historical processes. In one particularly egregious example, Archy gives over the bulk of a eulogy to a description of the distinctive musical style of the deceased (“Brokeland Creole”): “Creole…That means you stop drawing those lines. It means Africa and Europe cooked up in the same skillet.”

Cultural appropriation receives a similarly charitable, even revisionist treatment. Mr. Chabon is surely cognizant of the negative aspects of appropriation. Julius and Titus (sons of Nat and Archy, respectively) are enrolled in a course amusingly titled “Sampling as Revenge: Source and Allusion in Kill Bill.” Indeed, Tarantino—the figure of appropriation par excellence—appears quite often in this novel, and usually in a mildly disparaging context. How, then, does Mr. Chabon differentiate his own mode of appropriation from Tarantino’s?

In one passage, clearly some sort of apologia for the book as a whole, an against-the-grain rendition of a song by Cochise Jones is described at length: “Cochise began his vandalism in earnest…He was ruining the song, rifling it, mocking it with an antic edge of joy.”

This “vandalism,” however, doesn’t come from a place of malice; it is not, as “some critics felt,” “that the meaning or spirit of the original song meant no more to Cochise Jones than a poem means to a shark who is eating the poet.” Rather, this apparently brutal cover is intended, not to sully the original, but to disavow all access to it whatsoever in a kind of warped fidelity, so that ultimately “you heard the song as the admission of failure it truly was, a confession of ignorance and helplessness…an expression, such as only the blues could ever tender, of limitless regret.”

Mr. Chabon, then, avoids any and all questions of cultural appropriation by drowning them under a deluge of sorrow at the impossibility of ever really appropriating anything. The novel is suffused by a sadness whose roots it resolutely refuses to analyze.

Indeed, even as Telegraph Avenue uncovers certain forms of exploitation, it ends by what can only be described as doubling down on capitalism: Nat moves toward opening a website to sell records in lieu of a physical store, and Archy gets out of the secondary retail market entirely. He’d like to sell real estate now.