A Tale of Two Cities:
Tempeh looms large in Telegraph Avenue, the latest American epic from Michael Chabon, mostly as cultural shorthand for a certain type of white, sandal-wearing, beard-sporting Berkeley resident. In mapping the cultural terrain of Berkeley circa 2004, Chabon draws an incisive portrait of lives lived amid the detritus of the 70s. Here cult martial arts movies and vintage records exert a strange and otherworldly pull on the denizens of Telegraph Avenue, the line where Berkeley blurs into Oakland. Tempeh jokes aside, the first fifty pages ofTelegraph Avenue contain references to Marcus Aurelius, Wolverine, and acid jazz organist Charles Kynard. If this is the vocabulary of the American dream, it’s a different one than we’re used to hearing about.
Since The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, his 1988 debut written as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, Chabon has staked out Americana as his favored literary territory. His work enacts homage to the classic objects of American boyhood. In Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, he reanimated the American comic book, with its roots in Brooklyn and (unexpectedly) the amateur magic societies of interwar Prague. In Telegraph Avenue, he does much the same for the American record shop, its seams sagging and its contents outdated, soon to be consigned to the cultural past.
What is at stake in Telegraph Avenue is autochthonous black culture, manifested not only in music but in film and cars and local legend. As in Kavalier and Clay, Chabon is concerned with the preservation of idiosyncratic American cultural artifacts, rooting a central male friendship in the sale of what are essentially collector’s items, items with value and significance that transcends the quotidian. In writing about forgotten Americana, Chabon appears to be reconstructing American pasts through the prism of alterity, turning from Jewish Brooklyn in the 1940s, the setting of Kavalier and Clay, to black Oakland as it faces a new wave of cultural incursion.
Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe—Archy is black and Nat is white—are best friends and co-owners of the failing Brokeland Records, specializing in vintage jazz, funk, and soul. The shop’s inevitable demise is hastened by the arrival, across the street, of corporate America in the form of Dogpile Thang, a media superstore owned by Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in America. As Archy and Nat wrestle with the consequences of Dogpile’s move into the neighborhood, they are forced to reevaluate their friendship. Their bond is the only thing they know that testifies to the notion that “real and ordinary friendship between black people and white people was possible, at least here, in the minor kingdom of Brokeland, California.”
While Archy and Nat vacillate over the fate of Brokeland Records, each preferring to bury himself in music, their wives have their own cultural battles to fight. Gwen and Aviva are midwives and partners at Berkeley Birth Partners, struggling to assert the right of home birth practitioners to be recognized as trained professionals by Berkeley hospitals. Almost lost in the shuffle are Julie, Nat’s sweet, dorky fifteen-year-old son, and Titus, a friend Julie brings home one day who bears a striking resemblance to Archy’s estranged father, washed-up martial arts star Luther Stallings. A major subplot links Luther to the impending Dogpile Thang store, via a local councilman and an old Batman costume.
Telegraph Avenue is anchored by the parallel friendships between Archy and Nat on one hand and Gwen and Aviva on the other. Unlike their wives, Archy and Nat never develop into distinctive characters; they remain puzzlingly featureless, blanks at the novel’s heart. The novel spills over, however, with small-time gangsters and enigmatic kung-fu masters and Ethiopian restaurant-owners: a whole range of lives lived on the cultural outskirts of Berkeley. Depicting a multiethnic community in flux, Chabon weighs the whispered promise of post-racial America against a new wave of gentrification. This time the entrepreneurs are black, not white. As Archy muses to himself, will that make a difference?
Despite the weight of the novel’s themes, Chabon’s elastic prose is as loose-limbed as ever, navigating narrative twists and turns with ease. His flair for beautiful excess suits the verdant California landscape he describes. Oakland is streaked with fog that leaves “only a softness, as tender as a memory from childhood, to blur the sunlight that warmed the sprawl of rosemary and purple salvia along the fragrant sidewalk and fell in shifting shafts through the branches of the monkey-puzzle tree.” Telegraph Avenue floats along on this sort of descriptive hum as well as on snappier rhythms; Chabon is at his most peerlessly literary with his dialogue, the rare example of “colloquial” speech that actually sounds colloquial. When Nat asks Julie what the boy has been up to, the following ensues:
Julius said, “Filing my teeth.”
“Uh-huh. Not smoking dope.”
“Just crack. And a little opium. Just, like, this much.” He pinched an imaginary pellet between his fingterips. “Fuck, Dad.”
“Because you know it would be alright if you did.”
“Not all right, but I mean, if you were getting high, I would want you to tell me about it, right?”
“Not feel like you have to hide it or anything.”
“I get it.”
“Because that’s when you start to drift into stupid.”
Julie said that he planned to continue his lifelong policy of avoiding stupid at every possible opportunity.
Julie, a sort of lovesick Adrian Mole, is a classic Chabon teenager: Jewish, hesitantly gay, creative in yet-to-be-discovered ways. Assuming that Julie has outgrown active parenting, at the novel’s close Nat is “shocked by the influx of his son into his arms. The bony shoulders, the soft lank hair against his cheek. Shocked by the tears that wetted the front of his shirt.” Chabon is similarly gentle towards his characters, slowly teasing out their vulnerabilities. They are all sinew and spirit, scrabbling to make it, whatever making it turns out to mean.
Yet for all Telegraph Avenue’s heart, Chabon’s attempt at mapping an intensely local community feels hollow, hobbled by self-deprecatory asides about the overwhelming desire of white Berkeley-ites to imagine themselves in tune with the beating heart of black culture. The novel’s self-consciousness seems to stem from Chabon’s own fatal uncertainty about the validity of his authorial stance. A Berkeley resident himself, Chabon falls into the same category as many of the individuals he satirizes, a fact that he is unable to move beyond. He seems to want to have his (gluten-free) cake and eat it, too.
In its structure, Telegraph Avenue bears more than a passing resemblance to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, a novel that tackles similar themes of unlikely male friendship, cultural diversity, and fragmented identity. But whereas Smith’s vision of multicultural London is firmly tied to the neighborhood of Willesden, Chabon’s “Brokeland” seems adrift from the bulk of Telegraph Avenue. He is right to be wary about endorsing “multiculturalism,” a word that often obscures more than it reveals. But his exploration of its lived realities often feels like an afterthought: a box to tick on the checklist of the great American novel. For Telegraph Avenue has, and in fact probably deserves to have, delusions of grandeur. After all, none other than Barack Obama makes an appearance in its pages, the state senator from Illinois taking in a performance by Nat and Archy’s band. It fails, however, to live up to these ambitions.
Telegraph Avenue is at its best when it gets down to details, never out of step with the nuances of everyday interactions. Its characters are wryly aware of their prejudices. Aviva has long learned to measure “the temperature of her own racism, of her biases and stereotypes about young black males.” Nat wishes that a gathering of white activists at Brokeland Records had a dash more color in it than S.S. Mirchandani, a Punjabi taxi driver with absurdly elegant English. Too often, though, Chabon’s depiction of “messy” multiculturalism descends into parody. When leveled on a grand scale it feels derivative instead of fresh, a grab-bag of tropes and kitschy accents and characters with African grey parrots permanently perched on their shoulders. Chabon duly poses questions about the viability of the community he describes, but these feel dated, if not perfunctory.
Ultimately, Chabon comes down on the side of optimism. Things aren’t perfect, and people don’t always get along. But his characters still hope for a better, fairer day. While this is a modest conclusion for a novel that runs more than four hundred pages, it feels right within the context of Telegraph Avenue, a work that is itself flawed but has ample reserves of humor and imagination. It is tempting to describe Telegraph Avenue as a great read, although it aspires to be much more. Chabon’s narrative vision, however, remains as finely textured as ever, reaching out to encompass both those swept along by the current of change and those stubbornly clinging on in its wake, the ones in the shadows.