I’m so relieved not to be reading this book anymore. I can’t even tell you. Michael Chabon really made me work for those 465 pages. I’m still not even sure it was worth it. Because Chabon is a verbose guy, I’m not going to hold back with my word count here. But I certainly won’t write 465 pages.
I had never read a Chabon book before this one, which was ill-advised, I learned. And I promise to give one of his better-received books a shot in the future. But I really need a break from this guy now. He’s exhausting. Each sentence runneth over with a turn of phrase or an image that paints a picture that’s too clear. So clear, in fact, that it’s completely transparent. Chabon tries so hard to tell the story of Telegraph Avenue that it doesn’t even leave any room for my imagination to have a little fun along the way.
I was really, really looked forward to reading this book. I went to UC Berkeley, and thus lived in Berkeley, for four years. Since graduating, I’ve become very familiar with the areas of Oakland that would serve as settings (well, sort of) for this book. It all seemed very nostalgic and appealing to me, that Chabon would pay tribute to such a lovely place with a work of dreamy fiction. But as I began to read, something seemed off to me. Not only were the pages overflowing with too-wordy dialogue and too-specific metaphors (“He sat there clutching [the gloves] in one fist like a duelist looking for someone to slap,” p. 28), but the geography, while accurate in the sense that all the real locations were real, was completely inaccurate in the sense that Telegraph Avenue is not in West Oakland, which is where he kept placing it. It’s just not. Not a whole lot is in West Oakland. Telegraph Avenue is, like, in Downtown Oakland. That’d be like saying that the shopping district of 5th Avenue in Manhattan is in Harlem, just for the fuck of it, or because it sounds cool or something. The more I read, the angrier I got, because it seemed so absurd for him to change everything around. Why not just take the easy, logical route and refer to intersections that actually intersect, Chabon? What gives? This will plague me long after I get over my other irritations with this book. (I have to give credit here to a co-worker of mine, who put into these certain terms what my general geographic uneasiness had previously been.)
Maybe Chabon knew he was doing it, though. Maybe, to paraphrase this same co-worker, he didn’t want to be held accountable for each little nook and cranny of the East Bay. If that’s the case, than he felt least confident about geography and overly confident about retail, because Jesus H. Christ, he took every opportunity in the book (literally) to drop the name of some obscure Berkeley or Oakland brand of something. The one that really pissed me off was, “Aviva slid the acupuncture atlas into a canvas KPFA tote bag and stood up” (p. 139). Seriously? Come on. Who, besides Bay Area residents, is going to know what KPFA is? And, more importantly, who is going to give any semblance of a shit? It’s such an exclusionary reference. It does not make me, a recent but not current East Bay resident, feel more special or in-the-know. It just makes me feel like a douchebag for knowing what that is. (KPFA, for those who don’t know, and that’s fine, is a public radio station around these parts.) There was another scene in the book, in which a character almost gets hit by a bus in front of a grocery store. It was one of the few times when I could actually picture the intersection he was talking about because I had been to the grocery store. But mentioning that intersection and that grocery store did no favors to anyone who didn’t know that intersection or that grocery store, because there are a million intersections and grocery stores just like it out there. Oey, Chabon.
Speaking of the characters, let’s get to them. It took me an embarrassingly long time to be able to picture what the main characters in the book looked like, physically. By that, I mean I couldn’t tell what race they were until about halfway through the book. That sounds weird, or maybe racist, but I don’t mean it to be so. I just wanted to have some sort of framework to build off of, and Chabon didn’t give it to me. He instead attempted to channel his inner black guy, which came through as two ambiguously-raced guys, Nat and Archy, business partners at Brokeland Records on Telegraph Avenue and musicians, and man-children, and all that. Turns out Nat is white and Archy is black. Cool. Okay. Neither of them are particularly likable, mostly because of the man-children thing. Especially Archy — he’s not really given the opportunity to be a redeemable guy, even as his wife is really pregnant and his estranged son comes into the picture. Thank goodness for his wife, Gwen, and her business partner, Aviva (married to Nat, of course) — they’re midwives, and they’re far more interesting and developed as people than their lesser halves. While the men spend most of the book trying not to go out of business, the ladies deliver a baby and try not to get sued. And they fold the kids — Julie and Titus — into the mix very organically, by being tough with the kids when their respective fathers won’t. It makes for some compelling copy — and it reigned me in (at about pg. 160) just when I considered quitting the book altogether. Julie is short for Julius, and he’s Nat and Aviva’s going-to-be-gay son. Titus is the aforementioned estranged offspring of Archy, and the object of Julie’s unrequited affection. It’s complicated.
You know what else it took me a long time to figure out? That this book was not set in the 60s. I just assumed it was, because Chabon spends an awful lot of time describing Berkeley’s hippie-dippiness. Maybe I’m particularly sensitive to when people do this, because it’s so beyond stereotypical, or maybe the city really still is like that and I’m just immune to it, but it literally took a reference to Barack Obama visiting the city for me to snap into the year 2004. Berkeley may be weird, but it’s not a damn time capsule. Oh, and one other thing: Chabon took the liberty of making the entire middle chapter consist of one sentence. What? Yes. I’m remembering how tired I felt reading it, and I’m yawning at the thought.
Of course, and you probably knew this was coming, the book was not completely absent of grace. The guy does know how to write, and occasionally his wording hit me in such a way that I felt compelled to write it down with the intention of remembering it later. Here are a few of my favorite passages:
p. 6 // “Singletary was an information whale, plying his migratory route through the neighborhood, taking in all the gossip straining it for nutrients through his tireless baleen.”
p. 10 // “Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars.”
p. 339 // “But Julie had observed that, like other black kids he knew, Tutus seemed to be able to find humor in things that only would have made Julie feel sad.”
I suppose Chabon was writing a tedious, twisted love letter to the Bay Area, and to Telegraph Avenue in particular, which is sweet in a very self-serving way.
p. 222 // “Swiftly, Oakland fell away beneath them. The Bay Area shook out its rumpled coverlet, gray and green and crazy salt pans, rent and slashed and stitched by feats of engineering.”
p. 287 // “She had never liked the Bay Area, with its irresolute and timid weather, the tendency of its skies in any season to bleed gray, the way it had arranged its hills and vistas like a diva setting up chairs around her to ensure the admiration of visitors.”
But I’m not going to end there, because that might give you the impression that I enjoyed this book and would recommend it based on the glibness of these sentences. I don’t recommend it. Not only did the book take up 465 pages of my life–and I know I could have stopped reading it; I chose to stick it out, perhaps for the sake of relaying my disappointment with it–but it ended very anti-climactically and casually. Gwen gave birth in an almost non-existent scene, which made no sense considering how graphic other birth scenes were in the book. And Nat and Archy’s friendship still sort of hung in the balance, rougher for the wear. I suppose this book might translate well to the big screen, if only to see how they interpret all of Chabon’s specific costumes, but I’d just as soon assume that Nat, Archy, and the rest of these people exist only two-dimentionally in his mind, and not walking around on the streets of Oakland. Then again, if it was made into a movie, it’d probably be filmed in LA, so we wouldn’t have to worry about it anyway.