I have been looking forward to Michael Chabon’s next novel since his last one came out five years ago. So, the recent release of Telegraph Avenue was a major event for me. Chabon has been the answer I give to the “Who’s your favorite writer?” question for at least ten years.
Excited as I was, I was also a bit apprehensive. I’ve recently had a run of disappoint from some of my other favorite writers. If Chabon let me down, there would be extra sting. My trepidation was unwarranted.
There is a tendency in contemporary writing to over-emphasize pop culture. Commonly thought of as an aspect of post-postmodernism, it’s a technique most practitioners employ with mixed results often leaving the reader feel as though a bit of name-dropping has occurred in an attempt to enhance the writer’s credibility.Telegraph Avenueis absolutely filled with this stuff, but Chabon so seamlessly incorporates these references that it is impossible to imagine the book without them. Instead of tacked-on, they are vital to the existence of the story.
This is encouraging, but it is also far from the most interesting aspect of the book.
In the past, Chabon has confined himself to writing stories centered around white, Jewish men. He has remarked publicly that he is aware of this fault, particularly where it concerns his not-always-fully-realized female characters. It is inarguable that this book is an attempt to tackle his primary weakness as a writer. There are Jewish males in this book, at least nominally, but Jewishness, whiteness, and maleness are not at the center of Telegraph Avenue. This is a book that lives almost constantly in black culture. When it is not immersed there, it focuses on the recent rise of homebirth/midwifery in the popular consciousness. A rise that, by its nature, is not male-focused.
For an author who is already so well-regarded to openly tackle his weaknesses is commendable in its own right (he could work the same niche comfortably for the rest of his life and likely still meet with success), but what makes the book worthwhile is that he pulls it off. To my ears, at least, there is not a false note on any of the 465 pages. He navigates the gender and racial divides honestly and deftly and emerges with perhaps his most complete portrait of the modern world.
Oh yes, the modern world. We need to talk about that, too.
The characters, many of them at least, are obsessed with the 70s. Blaxploitation. Vinyl. Eight-track. Bruce Lee. Leisure suits. It’s all here. And they, all of them, struggle with it. Or more accurately, they struggle with its absence. The world has moved on, they have not. If you are picking up on another thematic division, you are starting to catch on.
Division is what Telegraph Avenue is all about. It is a novel that openly acknowledges the divides we face everyday. Gender. Cultural. Racial. Economic. Temporal. This novel asks us to look honestly at these divides and to ask ourselves if they can be dealt with. That path, it says, is bound to be messy and fraught with missteps and stupidity. Like all great novels, it doesn’t explicitly answer the question, but it leans.
One of the best parts of reading Chabon is his optimism. So much of the world is overrun by pessimism that it’s always refreshing to hear from the grown man born of a kid who grew up in a planned utopia and, you can’t help but feel, really hopes we might get there some day.