Telegraph Avenue

I first read Michael Chabon in a literary criticism class where we were assigned The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and I wrote a feminist critique of the text for my final assignment that’s probably still on my hard drive somewhere. I loved Yiddish Policemen’s Union, read it several times, recommended it to everyone, and started making changes to my own writing, such as experimenting with present tense and more intentionally working on metaphor. I’ve read several other Chabon books since then, including Gentlemen of the Road and Manhood for Amateurs. I remember when Telegraph Avenue came out back in 2012 and meant to read it then. I’m pretty sure I even borrowed it from the library and read the first pages at some point.

I buy books now, instead of taking them out from the library, because it takes me a while to finish anything these days. (See: I read all day at work every day, so sadly sitting down with a book in the evening isn’t always my first choice.) Sometime in the summer when I was at the bookstore looking for new books, I picked up Telegraph Avenue, and a few weeks ago I finished it.

Telegraph Avenue is a big book, but from how long it took me to read the thing, you can probably guess that I didn’t love it. Which surprised me. In previous Chabon books I’ve read, I felt like he hit that balance of quirky and serious and funny all at once. The characters were complex and interesting and surprising, and the plots often left me guessing. The writing was intricate and beautiful, self-aware and in-your-face “literary” but still an essential part of the narrative.

Telegraph Avenue boasts a large cast of characters, so simply in terms of how much time he could spend developing each character, he had to spread himself thinner. Unfortunately, instead of the characterization coming across as deft and economical, too many of the characters felt like caricatures to me. This was perhaps more problematic or pronounced because half the cast is black, so the ways Chabon contrasted the white and black characters seemed stereotypical and lazy: the main white couple is uptight and a little emotionally frozen, with the wife taking emotional responsibility for her volatile husband and teenage son; the black male lead has daddy issues because of his absent father and is currently cheating on his wife, who is an angry black woman who is also pregnant, which makes her doubly crazy, but she has a dream of being a high-power OB-GYN who serves struggling black mothers. The central conflict of the book pits a nostalgic hipster record store against faceless black capitalism, and while neither wins outright, the narrative sympathies are strongly in favor of nostalgia.

The writing also felt self-indulgent and undisciplined, with Chabon’s many metaphors and obscure Star Trek and Tarantino references weighing down the story for me rather than deepening and strengthening it. This may just be my professional bias now that I’m an editor, and I spend some of my days fighting with authors, asking them to cut words and put their readers above their own literary genius. I would be curious to go back to Yiddish Policemen’s Union and see if it feels as overwritten to me.

All that said, I never felt bored reading Telegraph Avenue, and I did want to know what happened to the characters. It just felt slow and lackluster, and that surprised me, because historically I’ve really liked Chabon’s books and learned a lot from his characterization and style.

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