The poster boy for literary genre fiction reveals a purpose as earnest as that of the great Victorian novelists, writes Stuart Kelly.
“‘Hey,’ Goode said. ‘That’s your thing, right? Soul-jazz. Soul-funk. Walter tells me you like to work the hyphens.’” That phrase could equally apply to Chabon’s work. He has written holocaust-superhero (the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay), counterfactual-gumshoe (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union), screwball-metafiction (Wonder Boys) and semitic-swashbuckler (Gentlemen Of The Road). No less than these, Telegraph Avenue is a book working in the hyphens, despite being more naturalistic in tone.
The threat to Brokeland Records from the proposed new Dogpile multiplex is the initial motor of the narrative. Archy – who habitually reads the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius – is the first half of the famous Niebuhr prayer, seeking the serenity to accept the things he cannot change; such as a deadbeat Dad constantly scrounging for funds to make a final Cleon Strutter movie, or the political manoeuvrings of his father’s one-time friend, local undertaker and councillor Chan “the Man” Flowers.
His equanimity is also moral laziness. At the start of the novel, he has been fooling around with a girl, even though his partner, Gwen, is pregnant with their first child. Pregnancy is Gwen’s business: she is a midwife with Berkeley Birth Partners, working alongside Aviva Roth-Jaffe, wife of Archy’s business partner, Nat.
Nat (and Gwen) are the second half of the prayer, striving for the courage to change the things they can, whether that is the hate-speech of a local doctor who accuses the midwives of “voodoo”, or the corporate takeover of their district. Both can be “a royal pain in the ass” about it.
The novel’s arc involves all four acquiring the wisdom to know the difference between what can and can’t be changed. This comes to a head when Nat and Aviva’s son – Julius, called Julie, whom they rightly suspect is about to come out – brings home a boy he meets at the film seminar. The boy, Titus Joyner, is Archy’s son by a previous fling. He has never seen his child. Nor, of course, has Gwen, who does not even know the boy exists.
Chabon has always had the easiest, most mellifluous prose style of the loose group of contemporary American writers (such as Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, Junot Diaz and Mark Danielewski) who combine literary theoretics with a love of genre and popular culture. Telegraph Avenue marks something of a departure.
In keeping with a novel full of jazz, the prose glimmers with accidentals, chromatic flats and sharps and syncopated rhythms. Like the wonderfully described clothes of the characters, the prose is “hepcat wide, black with silver flecks”. There is a persistent riff in the sentences – for example, “Mr Nostalgia, forty-four, walrus mustache, granny glasses, double-extra-large Reyn Spooner (palm trees, saw grass, woodies wearing surfboards), stood behind the Day-Glo patchwork of his five-hundred-dollar exhibitor’s table, across a polished concrete aisle and three tables down from the signing area, under an eight-foot vinyl banner that read MR NOSTALGIA’S NEIGHBORHOOD, chewing on a Swedish fish, unable to believe his f***ing eyes.”
This stylistic virtuosity would nevertheless be meagre unless it was harnessed to specific ethical and empathetic ends. And Telegraph Avenue is a big book in an almost 19th century manner; it has births and deaths, separations and reconciliations, the loss of virginity and the loss of friendship, moments of madness and sudden clarities. It is, above all, about consequence and forgiveness. The final pages are genuinely remarkable in their ability to create closure without compromising on emotional complexity: forgiving is a hard business, and it cannot close its eyes to pains suffered.
There are moments throughout of awful poignancy spliced with bewildered humour. In one, for example, Gwen returns home to collect her special pregnancy pillow: “Archy rolled over onto his side and, with a sharp intake of breath, threw his legs around the body pillow. He pressed his hips against it, took it in his arms, drew it close to him. He embraced it, let his breath out shuddering, sighed once, and began to snore. Gwen stood, horrified, thrilled, and pricked by a sense of betrayal, though whether by her husband or the body pillow, she would not have been able to say. ‘Don’t get up yet,’ Archy said without opening his eyes. Begging in his sleep. He took another long appreciative sip of unconsciousness, weighing the flavour of it in his mouth, smacking his lips. ‘Don’t leave me.’ Gwen considered an number of possible rejoinders to this, among them ‘Too late, motherf***er,’ ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘I won’t, ever again’ and ‘You are talking to a pillow”.
The dustjacket describes Telegraph Avenue as a Californian Middlemarch: it is, in Virginia Woolf’s sense, that it is “one of the few books written for grown-up people”. «