The ur-Chabon

Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue

4th Estate, 465pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780007318490

reviewed by Jonathan Barnes

There are two Michael Chabons. The first – he whose inaugural novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (William Morrow, 1988), written as part of his university thesis, was a precocious bestseller and whose third book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Random House, 2000), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 – is an erudite intellectual admired for the complexity of his sentences and the breadth of his vocabulary. The second – the shadow Chabon – is a geeky aficionado of texts which reside outside the critical mainstream, a writer who contributed to the screenplays of Spider-Man 2 and John Carter of Mars and whose works of fiction have included a hardboiled detective story set in a parallel universe (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) and an elegiac study of Sherlock Holmes in extreme old age (The Final Solution). Unlike Iain Banks or Jonathan Freedland, Chabon has never officially separated his personas, preferring instead to hint at a larger project which is devoted to the dismantling of those barriers which exist between high and low art.

His long, rich, sometimes frustrating new novel, Telegraph Avenue, originates unmistakeably from the ur-Chabon. Sober in tone, realist in subject and almost entirely linear in structure, it is the author’s most conventional piece of literary fiction since his debut. Set in California in 2004, it charts, with unstinting care, the lives of those associated with a failing record shop. Archy Stallings (‘moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned’) and his stubborn, temperamental friend Nat Jaffe own Brokeland Records, the store in question, which, since neither of them possess any kind of business sense, seems close to bankruptcy. Their partners, Gwen and Aviva, are midwives and Gwen is herself heavily pregnant. Regulars to the shop include the mysteriously influential mortician, Chandler Flowers, the landlord Garnet Singletary and an elderly jazz musician, Cochise Jones.

Plot takes time to emerge. The extinction of Brokeland, already highly probable, becomes a near-certainty when businessman Gibson Goode (a bling billionaire who exists somewhere in that yawning middle ground between P Diddy and Alan Sugar) announces his intention to build a shopping mall nearby. Meanwhile, a home birth comes close to disaster for Gwen and Aviva and, in the novel’s most intriguing skein, Archy’s father, Luther, a former drug addict and blaxploitation star, arrives in town eager to tell the story of a long-ago murder which implicates the undertaker, Flowers.

None of these narrative strands amounts to much in the end. It will not be giving a great deal away to say that disaster is forestalled, the need for change accepted and all necessary forgiveness bestowed. There are superb set-pieces (Luther blagging his way into a memorabilia fair; Nat taking petty but unforgettable revenge on Goode) and audacious flourishes (a twelve-page chapter that is comprised of a single sentence; an appearance by Senator Obama, discovered admiring a band at a Democrat fundraiser, ‘tapping his foot, bobbing his close-cropped head’) but it is not for this laconic narrative or to learn the fate of the largely solipsistic characters that one reads on. Rather, it is for the beguiling quality of Chabon’s prose. It is for such phrases as these: ‘eyes as cold as pennies at the bottom of a well’, ‘the smile winked out like a drop of water on a hot range’ and old Luther, breaking suddenly into action, ‘up and on his feet like an umbrella opening.’ ‘Grief,’ Archy thinks, ‘was itself a kind of chair, wide and forgiving, that might enfold you softly in its wings and then devour you, keep you like a pocketful of loose change.’ Later, when caring for a baby that is not his own, he feels ‘a weird ache’ in his heart, ‘like the forerunner or possibly the distant memory of tears.’

Beneath this patina of respectability, however, the shadow Chabon makes himself known. Time and again, metaphors and similes are drawn from the world of science fiction. Archy’s wife, whose ‘life’s work was self-control’ is said to feel ‘like Spock battling the septenary mating madness of the pon farr.’ A pair of trainers resemble ‘a couple of scale-model Imperial destroyers docked neatly on a deck of the Death Star.’ When giving birth, Gwen ‘wanted to rip off the gown, burst from it like the Hulk trashing one of his professor-dude lab coats’ whilst Aviva imagines a patient’s womb to be ‘condensing like a lump of coal in Superman’s fist to a hard bright healthy diamond.’

It is as if, through these frequent (and, in some cases, surely rather uncharacteristic) interpolations, the dark half of Chabon’s authorial personality is trying to break through, shifting out of the multiplexes and the pages of comic books, to intrude with impertinence into this apparently more significant work. It is perhaps a pity that the hand of the subsidiary Chabon is felt only on the level of the individual sentence as, for all the beauty of its language, the book lacks momentum and even threatens, at times, to become becalmed. A greater willingness to use the toolkit of his genre work might have helped this uneven, fitfully wonderful book to take flight or, to use the language of the shadow, to permit the rocketship to escape the gravitational pull of our own planet and to achieve escape velocity.
Jonathan Barnes is the author of two novels, The Somnambulist and The Domino Men.