Notes on Telegraph Avenue

A novel about fatherhood, friendship and music, Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue failed to move me, despite its Pynchonesque joie de vivre. Nat and Archy, co-owners of faltering Oakland used vinyl store Brokeland Records, attempt to fend off competition from a corporate chain threatening to move in on their market; their wives, Aviva and Gwen, deal with the ignorance, racism and misogyny of doctors opposed to the home-birth midwifery business they run together; and their sons become involved in a rather one-sided romantic relationship.

I didn’t dislike the novel exactly, but it felt complacent to me. Archy, Gwen and Archy’s son Titus are Black, and one of Chabon’s aims is clearly to evoke and examine the multiculturalism of his real-life milieu; but his handling of race lacks teeth and nuance. The only racism the Black characters face comes from obvious bad actors; there’s little acknowledgement of the structural oppression that’s still very much alive in America today. (I’m not saying that every Black character in literature must face racism and oppression, but if you’re writing a novel that is in part about race in America – you do need to take account of the fact that racism goes beyond individual bigotry.) Chabon’s gestures at including queer characters feel similarly unconvincing: he never quite manages to get into the head of poor Julius, whose affection for Titus is met only by selfish curiosity, and his transgender character Kai is presented as basically a confused lesbian. (I don’t think I’ve ever read a fully-realised trans/non-binary character in a mainstream literary novel.)

Sure, Chabon’s prose is fun, and his characterisation – at least of the two men at the heart of the novel – is expansive in a Dickensian sort of way; these are flawed, larger-than-life folks that anchor a community, and there is some pleasure in that. But overall the urgency of the novel’s concerns is masked. The sense is of a best-selling author firmly in his comfort zone; coasting a little, self-indulgently. It’s fine, but not great.

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