Michael Chabon’s new novel Telegraph Avenue is typically stylish, but overwritten
The real heart of the novel is, rather, Chabon’s prose style—much as Tarantino’s visual style is the raison d’etre of his movies. This style is at the same time intelligent and impressive, and cumulatively ineffective and even tedious. Chabon is incapable of writing a sentence to serve the story or the characters. Each one is like a miniature canvas which he fills with wriggling metaphors, hyperbolic images, pop-culture references. The antic reigns: There is a talking parrot who imitates jazz records, and an ancient Chinese kung-fu master named Irene Jew, and Julie handing out business cards that identify him as a “libertine,” and a very Pulp Fiction-like discussion between thugs about bear-claw donuts. No one appears without his or her clothes and appearance being minutely catalogued, e.g., “She had on an April Cornell dress patterned with morning glories, bought secondhand at Crossroads, knee-length, with a V collar and quarter-length drawstring sleeves.”
A small example of Chabon’s narrative prodigality comes around page 300, when Gwen visits her hairdresser in advance of an important meeting. Not only do we learn the hairdresser’s name—actually there are two, both stereotypes, a black woman named Tyneece and a gay man named Mister Robert—but we are told about how Tyneece is consulting a phone psychic in Hawaii, who “had come close to locating the two bars of looted Reich gold that Tyneece’s great-grandfather had brought home from the war and buried, it was said, in one of three backyards belonging to three different Oakland women who were the mothers of his nineteen children.” Keep in mind that this outlandish story belongs to a character who’s in the book for at most a page; then multiply by hundreds of people and pages, and you get a sense of the hyperkinetic riffing that drives Telegraph Avenue.
Indeed, Chabon’s sentences are constructed consciously on the model of the jazz riff, endlessly extendable, with clauses piling up and vivid, unnecessary details. This culminates in the book’s third section, which is a single, 11-page sentence, chronicling the talking parrot’s flight through Oakland:
a bird of wide experience and rare talent set free over Telegraph Avenue, catching a scent of eucalyptus in its olfactory organs, banking left and heading north across Forty-third Street, up two blocks, passing over the Bruce Lee Institute of Martial Arts, in whose secret rooms, at the back of the stairs leading up to the roof, where exiles and religious fugitives and, for nine nights, a Living Buddha from the mountains of Sichuan, had all known bitterness and safety.
The virtuosity of the section, and of Telegraph Avenue as a whole, can’t be denied. But while style alone can make a movie live (as with Tarantino), it’s not quite enough for a novel of this scope, which wants to address subjects as deep and varied as first love, fatherhood, nostalgia, obsession, and race. Chabon’s pop exuberance and his likable, if conventional, humanism make Telegraph Avenue an ingratiating book, but they aren’t quite enough to make it deeply moving or memorable.
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