Review: Michael Chabon's "Telegraph Avenue"

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


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. >>