For years, Michael Chabon has sought adventure as a literary cartographer, exploring eclectic writing styles, inhabiting them completely and using them to tell moving and authentic stories.
Even before his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” (2000), Chabon tested the boundaries imposed on him by late-model naturalism. His introduction to “The Best American Short Stories 2005,” adapted from his critical essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights,” functioned as a call for writers to embrace genre, abjure self-consciousness and lighten up and have a little fun.
In the years since, he has followed his own advice, writing detective stories, alternate-reality noir and an epic road novel set in medieval Eurasia.
Now, though, like Joseph Campbell’s archetypical hero returning from the other world with the ultimate boon, Chabon has returned to the realistic literary novel with skills and knowledge gained during his writing-desk travels.
His new book, “Telegraph Avenue,” displays both his sense of ordinary people’s inner lives and his rich, freewheeling prose.
The novel tells the story of two men, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, and their respective wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, as the couples attempt to find their way in the “dented utopia” of present-day California.
Archy and Nat own a secondhand vinyl shop, Brokeland Records, currently imperiled by a megastore chain run by America’s fifth-richest black man, Gibson Goode. Gwen and Aviva also run a small business, Berkeley Birth Partners, a midwife service threatened by a lawsuit and by the prejudices of the medical community.
An ensemble cast revolves around these four, including Nat Jaffe’s gay son, Julie; Archy’s ne’er-do-well father, Luther, a washed-up blaxploitation movie star; and Chan Flowers, a shadowy councilman who also owns the neighborhood funeral parlor. Other compelling appearances include Cochise Jones, an aging musician; Jones’ African Grey parrot, Fifty-Eight; and Barack Obama, a senator destined to become president of the United States.
The story is compelling and vivid, but the writing itself is the novel’s most remarkable feature. Where other writers skim along the surface like a Jet Ski, Chabon dives deep into the ocean of language, returning again and again with the exact right word for any given sentence. At one point, he submerges the reader in a sentence that goes on for page after page, detailing, among other things, “a bird of wide experience and rare talent set free over Telegraph Avenue, catching a scent of eucalyptus in its olfactory organs.”
All told, this is a dense, flavorful book about race, class, politics, culture and sexuality, as expansive and ambitious as anything Chabon has published to date. The writing doesn’t obscure the plot but anchors the reader to the page, and the physical details of the action enhance the emotional impact of each scene.
“Julie knelt and picked up the pieces, then carried them over to the bare pine table, its surface an action painting of Testors paint, scorched black in patches by the glue guns and the glowing elements of soldering irons, inscribed with an illegible cuneiform of X-ACTO-blade scars, where he had been wont, in the limitless trances of his loneliness, to assemble his scale models of AT-ATs and Gundam Wing fighters, and to ornament his little metal armies of orcs and paladins, and to invest the unspent and endlessly compounding principle of his inner and only life.”
Constructions like this demand continuous concentration, but the result is an exhilarating experience. For those who enjoyed Chabon’s early work, and for those who appreciated his later experiments with form, “Telegraph Avenue” is an essential, unforgettable read.