Thursday, October 4, 2012

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Published September 2012 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe , co-owners of Brokeland Records, a used vinyl record store in Oakland that serves as a gathering place for the community, are struggling to keep their dream alive. Former NFL star Gibson Goode is coming to town and bringing his own record store, a three-story behemoth that is certain to put Brokeland out of business. But it's tough to fight a guy who's beloved as a hero and savior of struggling African-American neighborhoods and Goode is not the only pressing problem the men are facing.

Gwen Stallings and Aviva Roth-Jaffe are the Berkeley Birth Partners, midwives trying to earn the respect of the medical community in 2004. The pair are highly successful until complications during a home birth result in legal problems that threaten the business. Gwen is very pregnant and very pissed at a husband who can't remain faithful. Aviva has lost respect for her husband and doesn't understand her quirky, gay son.

The eccentric denizens of Brokeland neighborhood, a father Archy wishes would just disappear, and a certain senator from Illinois all serve to propel Chabon's novel of race, gender, class, and commerce forward. it's both a supremely ambitious and yet oddly small story.

Having read Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I had high hopes for Telegraph Avenue. The man's a genius with the written word, there's no doubt about it and, as before, his writing is impressive here. Is there any other author who would attempt a twelve-page sentence? Seriously, twelve pages. One sentence. An entire section of the book that incorporates every major character in the book. I'm still not sure if it is a work of brilliance or pure arrogance.

At 200 pages in, though, I still was not able to connect to the story. It felt disjointed and I was not connecting with any of the characters. Certainly the characters are complicated but how am I supposed to care about Archy when he is an unfaithful husband who has abandoned his son? At 250 pages, I was ready to follow Archy's lead and abandon the book. But I pressed on, from a sense of obligation and the hope that Chabon would still be able to draw me in as he did so well with his other books.

Unfortunately, he never did and I was left wondering if I just didn't get it, if I was just not smart enough to understand what Chabon had done. If that's the case, I can take solace in knowing that I am not alone. I've read a number of reviews where readers had a similar ambivalence about Telegraph Avenue. Then I read this from "Library Journal:"
"VERDICT Ambitious, densely written, sometimes very funny, and fabulously over the top, here's a rare book that really could be the great American novel. Highly recommended."
This is clearly a book that may very well be great...or maybe not.
"...Chabon’s preference for retro—the reader is seldom a page away from a reference to Marvel comics, kung fu movies, or a coveted piece of ’70s vinyl—quickly wears out its welcome. Worse, Chabon’s approach to race is surprisingly short on nuance..." - Publishers Weekly

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. For other opinions on this one (which are bound to be varied!), check out the full blog tour. has a great interview with Michael Chabon about Telegraph Avenue which actually may explain some of the problems I had with the book. For one thing, it was originally intended to be a television series. I think I would have liked that better.


  1. I did not find the story as compelling as his other books, but still, there was so much evidence of his genius throughout that I still was glad to have read it!

  2. Darn, I'm sorry to see that this one didn't quite work for you, but thanks for the review for the tour!

  3. This is disappointing. I read Kavalier and Clay for bookclub a number of years ago and it is still among my favorite books!

  4. It's been interesting to see the range of opinions on this one- it's one I hope to get to eventually, I'm definitely intrigued! I have to confess to having struggled with Yiddish Policeman's Union and never quite got through it.