It was on p. 44 of Michael Chabon’s forthcoming novel, Telegraph Avenue, that I breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank goodness. I did not sign up for a read-along for a novel that would be 464 pages of torture,” I said to myself on p. 44. Which is not to say that the forty-four preceding pages were horrible. But you know how it goes when you pick up a new book. Sometimes it grabs you from the first sentence. Sometimes after a couple of pages. Sometimes you were determined to finish the book even before you picked it up. And sometimes, you are uncertain until the very bitter end about whether this book is really worth reading at all. Thankfully, Telegraph Avenue will not be in this last category.
During the first forty-four pages I remember part of what made listening to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union so difficult for me. For some reason, I find it hard to keep all the characters straight. It might be the strangeness of their names, or something about the way Chabon introduces characters. But I’ll also confess that I’m a lazy reader. If a book requires me to go back and re-read to figure out who’s-who or what’s going on, I’m not very likely to finish it.
It’s on p. 44 that we meet Gwen Shanks and her mid-wifery partner, Aviva Roth-Jaffe, so far the two most interesting characters in the novel for me. I hope to be getting a lot more of them for the next 280 pages or so.
It was on p. 47 that I got this paragraph from Chabon:
“It’s the indignity of it,” she heard herself telling him, invoking a key concept of her mother’s code of morality with such stone likeness that it chilled her, spiders walked on the back of her neck, you might as well swing the camera around and show Rod Serling standing there beyond a potted banana tree in an eerie cloud of cigarette smoke.”
I think it’s particularly appropriate that Chabon talks about a camera in this scene. His writing is particularly cinematic in style. Yes, here, we get to hear a little bit of what Gwen is thinking, but Chabon as a writer is also very interested in telling us what things look like, the expressions on people’s faces, the way they walk, the way they smell. And of course, many cultural references like Rod Serling–some of which I get, and many of which I do not.
I am trying, in the truest spirit of a read-along, not to read ahead, so I don’t know what happens at this point past p. 124. I’m also not sure what the general norms of giving stuff away (spoilers) are in a read-along. And I find it somewhat difficult to be critical of a novel that I haven’t yet finished, though I confess, I have no problem with judging people based on first impressions. On the other hand, I’m always quite pleased when my negative first impressions turn out to be wrong.
There is certainly, so far, a lot going on in this novel, as in, a lot of story lines, a lot of characters, a lot of threads to be woven together. I’m not from Berkeley or Oakland, and have only ever been in San Francisco a bit, so I don’t have a lot of context for the kind of people Chabon is describing or the kinds of lives they are living. The whole record shop setting reminds me a bit of High Fidelity, and shares with the novel the boy-ness. As they point out themselves, the two partners who own Brokeland Records are mostly adolescents trapped in the bodies of grown men. One of their sons, Julie Jaffe (a boy) is an adolescent boy who has struck up an interesting relationship with another adolescent boy. It’s probably not surprising so far that I was so happy to get to the women and their midwifery. Now there’s something I can understand.
I’m interested so far in the fact that though Chabon set up this novel as being at least partly about race, I found I had to concentrate really hard to remember who’s black and who’s white. I confess, I’m still not 100% sure about the racial background of all the characters. I believe that Nat Jaffe is white and Archy Stallings is black, and their families appear to be deeply and intimately intertwined. Is it my cynicism that sees this circumstance as fairly exceptional and in need of some sort of explanation? Do they live in the same neighborhood, which would be fairly rare in a country with an incredibly high rate of residential segregation by race? How did these two get to where they are, owning a doomed record store together? How did their wives/partners come to be midwives together? And what does the whole bit at the sports memorabilia show have to do with anything?