Michael Chabon Telegraph Avenue Readalong, July 10

My first of four updates of the Michael Chabon Telegraph Avenue Readalong, sponsored by Emily at As The Crowe Flies (and Reads!). Every Tuesday for the next three weeks I'll be sharing my thoughts on the book so be sure to pop by. This week I'm going to be discussing my general thoughts with this book (my first Chabon) and part one.  I'll be sure to label spoilers so feel assured you can read this post without having the book ruined for you.  Unless vehement opinions ruin things for you, then just stop reading now.

An Apology

First, sorry this has turned into a small novel -- probably interesting to no one, even myself. I've essentially been live blogging my read of part one, hence all the weird, random, detailed rants and notes. This readalong thing is hard! I'll take any tips for future posts if you've got 'em!

Starting; or The First Few Pages

The dedication is actually deadly sexy/adorable: "To Ayelet, from the drop of the needle to the innermost groove."  Nice job, Chabon, softening me up like that.

Upon starting this novel, I told my wife I felt like I was seeing High Fidelity, only with everyone married.  And I mean High Fidelity the film, as I haven't read the book.  (Hornby, like Chabon, is one of those authors I've just avoided for some un-articulated reason.)

Research While Reading

I'm kind of a lazy reader; I rarely enjoy working for my story.  If I'm in the mood to work, I purposefully seek out that kind of read, so having Telegraph Avenue -- with the heavy musical references and geographical inspirations -- kind of bugs me now.  I just want to rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrread and not have to keep googling to 'get' the story. Still, Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) clued me into the significance of the section titles when she mentioned that she had googled them in advance of her reading.

So I did some googling of my own.  According to HuffPo, Chabon said he was working on a TNT series about two families on Telegraph Avenue; the series didn't pan out, but obviously the idea stuck with him. 

Place As Character

Telegraph Avenue is a real location that stretches from Berkeley, CA to Oakland, CA (San Francisco and thereabouts, for non-USians).  It's pretty famed from what I can tell -- websites dedicated to advising folks how to shop, tour, and eat their way across it.  SFGate.com's article about it helped give me a sense of the flavor: transient population, university students, reputation for radicalism in the '60s and '70s. A bit decrepit, decaying, dying. Chabon's record store, Brokeland Records, is set squarely there, stuck in the '60s but shaped by the new changes (references early on to an Ethiopian restaurant echoes what I've read about a growing Ethiopian and Eritrean community in the area.).  In a 2011 interview, he lists his own tour of Telegraph Avenue.

If you want an armchair escape that's odd, weird, dirty, vintage, and retro, this book is for you.  Whatever I may think of the story and people, I have to give mad props to Chabon for so vibrantly evoking Telegraph Avenue -- kind of Quentin Tarantino-esque in that mix of kitsch and contemporary.

Use of Language

Chabon definitely has a distinctive writing style, musical, cinematic, emphatic.  Syncopated.  There's a rush and a rhythm to his narrative that is alluring.  It makes me read fast but also want to slow down and linger over the twists and turns.  The focus on music (see below) is reinforced by his writing style, and I have to admire that -- the language sets the feel just as much as the location. 

Music As Character

Even though I like music, I don't love music; I mean, I'm not a music geek the way some people are, and definitely not at the level Chabon is.  As such, I don't have this rhapsodic passion for vinyl nor do I have an encyclopedic fascination with obscure bands.  The novelty -- or romance -- of working for a record store is lost on me.  As are Chabon's non-stop music references.  Once again, I spent a good chunk of time googling; upon finding the songs/musicians, I certainly got a feel for the store, the vibe of the novel -- vintage-y, left over 1970s-ish-ness -- but not immediately knowing has left me feeling removed.

Characters as Characters

The cast of this book is huge -- or feels huge -- and I'm totally struggling to keep everyone straight in my head.  This is worse than a historical novel!  Is this typical Chabon?

Race and the White Guy

I'll say it: I'm kind of uncomfortable with Chabon's handling of race in this book so far.  Again, I'm struck with the sense of watching a Tarantino film, with the exaggerated emphasis on '70s culture.  I don't expect novelists to write only who they are but at the same time, I'm discomforted by Chabon's characters and the storyline -- I feel like he's doing some caricatures, in a way.  I'm going to need to chew on this aspect a lot more and hopefully can hash it out next week or in my review -- and see how Chabon's story shakes out.  (I'm having a lot of kneejerk responses to this read so far!)

Puritanical Squeamishness

So, I feel a bit like I'm reading Stephen King. Not in any similarity of subject, but in the sense that this feels very ... guy-ish. Every time I've tried a Stephen King novel (save for Lisey's Story), I feel like I'm presented with King's ruminations on sex. On page four of this book, one of our heroes meditates on getting some the night before (with a woman who isn't his pregnant wife, ugh.). What is that? Is it just that one out of three men really does cheat? Is it sexy somehow? Admirable? Am I really just that kind of lesbian and/or weirdly conservative in this way and I need to get over it?  Anyway, Chabon's characters haven't endeared themselves to me yet so it's going to be a loooooong 480 pages.

In Conclusion

At the moment, I'm not caught up but that doesn't mean I won't be and I do think that in anticipation of my weekly update, I've been hyperaware of reading in a way I'm not normally. And I'm also a grouch. Am I not 'getting' Chabon? Will this book grow on me? Am I jealous I don't live in Oakland? (Probably!!)

What are your thoughts of the book so far?

Comments

  1. I love your post!

    Though I did mention in my comment on Emily's blog that I actually didn't have a huge problem with race in the novel, and that it seemed more generational stereotypes than racial - I did, like you, stop to wonder... where does he, as a rich white guy, get off?

    I am not so much a hyper aware music lover either. So that also left me feeling a little detached. (And I love what you're saying about Tarantino AND High Fidelity, which you SHOULD read, because you can just rrrrrrrrrrread it. It's fun) Out of boredom, I went and set up a Pandora station for the book and it's actually really helped.

    So far, I'm caught up in what a brilliant linguist Chabon is. I have no idea if these characters are warming my heart or if I'm just blown away by the language and the perceived depth. We'll see, I guess.

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    1. Racial/cultural identity in fiction -- especially when depicted by someone not of that identity group -- can be tough -- is it 'appropriate' etc etc? I know I have a big hangup about male authors and their take on women, so I try to step back and let the story tell the damn story, so I've tried to stop getting all cranky about Chabon's look at race. It's a bit...hip? Slang-y? I just wonder if someone from Oakland who identifies as a person of color would see their story in this book.

      I am so psyched about your Pandora station -- am going to get all over that stat.

      Chabon's writing is the runaway winner for me -- really captivating. It's kept me when other aspects of the story aren't -- and as I said, I've not really ever done such a close, cognizant reading of a novel for fun, so I'm afraid I'm being too picky.

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  2. Well, I for one happen to love your long exposition here--I like that you took us along on your exploration through the first section.

    And when I said I googled the section titles, maybe it was misleading--I thought they might be actual songs whose lyrics or provenance might shed light on the book. I was totally off on that!

    I also had trouble keeping characters apart--not because there were so many of them, but because they all went by multiple names. It reminded me of the first time my husband read Pride & Prejudice--he didn't realize that Elizabeth and Eliza and Lizzie were the same person and thus got very confused until I explained it to him, though to me that was *totally* obvious.

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    1. Aww, thanks! It's been a fascinating experience seeing what I notice -- or noticing what I notice -- as I read! I might do this again for a novel I expect to like and see if I get just as weirdly nit-picky!

      Your comment about the section titles was a helpful nod for me because it got me thinking about the layers Chabon will have in this confection -- clearly this is a book that riffs popular culture and understanding the hints will only help me enjoy the read -- it certainly made me appreciate the implication of titling and centering the story squarely in/on/around Telegraph Avenue.

      Why is it the characters are hard to keep straight? It's puzzling to me because they're certainly all vibrant...is it that Chabon is vague about relationships?

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  3. I did the same thing when I hosted a read-along for Moby Dick. I talked out loud for that one too. I had to or I'd explode.

    For some reason, I am not interested in this book. I am, because everyone seems to be buzzing about it, but I know I will never pick it up.

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    1. I wouldn't have picked this up were it not for the readalong opportunity -- it's just not my speed otherwise -- and it's interesting reading this way, so aware of what I'm noticing. I do want to do this again with a book I expect to like, and see how I reflect on that!

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  4. Michael Chabon is very liberal so I'm guessing the race issues are part of the characterization and will be exposed or whatever later on. As for guys and sex, I am always perplexed! And many guys DO think it's admirable to cheat and/or get away with cheating - it's part of the "notches on your belt" kind of thing. Personally, I don't think there is any explanation for guys.

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    1. In some ways, I was being glib/bratty about the guy's cheating thing -- the character who cheats has father issues, and some problems, clearly, with commitment, and I'm sure Chabon will get to that...it's just, it bugs me as a plot device. I'm sure it is a reality for some couples, but...I don't know, it makes me so sad!

      We'll see about the handling of race -- Chabon's a bit casually hip in a way that makes me think he gets it and yet, doesn't. I'll withhold judgment on that until the end when I see what he does with his story arc!

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  5. Dude, I really like how you've set this up and kind of partitioned it.

    "but in the sense that this feels very ... guy-ish." Yes. That. It's super-a-guy's book. But for me thus far, it's more a Steinbeck sorta guy's book than something else, and I love Steinbeck to little tiny bits, so it's working for me. We'll see how the future sections work.

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    1. Aw, thanks! I had to do these little themes or I'd go crazy!

      The Steinbeck comparison is interesting -- I've read a little Steinbeck and have had mixed experiences -- enjoyed one, was meh on the other -- so this could go either way!

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    2. The only Steinbeck I've really connected with (but now it's one of my favorite novels) is East of Eden. His shorter novels don't really do it for me. Laura at Devouring Texts is doing a Grapes of Wrath readalong in October, which I'm totally doing, so we'll see if his other big novel's worth it.

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  6. Like you, I'm not much of a hyper-music-fan, either... I gave a moment's thought to Googling the albums named throughout, but promptly abandoned that plan when I ended up reading Part I on the beach (no computer for me, thank you!).

    Also, I like how you broke out your post about Part I, and I love the bit about TNT and the interview you shared - too fun! Maybe I should do more research before I dive into things, and I could have more of the backstory myself.

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    1. Kerry -- I'm undecided if I'm helping or hindering myself with the endless googling -- in many ways, I keep getting jerked out of the story to look stuff up and perhaps I'd be happier just riding the wave, so to speak. I kind of feel like I need to reread Part I, without breaks, to really absorb it.

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  7. When I read Kavalier and Clay, I just read through for the story. I feel like maybe in a few years, I could re-read it (and Telegraph Avenue)and really dive into it by looking up all of the references.

    I'm also feeling like this is bigger cast of characters than he usually has in his novels (at least the few I have read). I wonder how much of that has to do with it originating as a TV series.

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    1. Lindsey -- I do think I'm actually doing myself a disservice by constantly googling -- it keeps pulling me out of the story. I'm going to try to stop myself from doing so with Part II on and see if I feel more of a connection. The cast *does* make me think of a character-heavy tv show!

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  8. Love your organization of your thoughts. I also felt like I was reading High Fidelity, but an even more guy-ish version of High Fidelity, which is part of why I'm really hoping that Gwen and Aviva show up a lot more in the rest of the book. Great comparison to Tarantino, which makes sense with the whole Kill Bill class Julie goes to. Tarantino always seems like a voyeur in other cultures, and I think you're right about the 70s vibe. It's interesting that you discovered that Chabon said this started as a television show for TNT, because it feels very cinematic to me. Or perhaps like the beginning of a television series, where the characters often are confusing for the first few shows. It'll be interesting to see as we keep reading whether this should have stayed as the screenplay for a television show.

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    1. Robyn -- thank you -- I'm glad it was too boring! I really am keen to learn more about Gwen and Aviva and hope they show up more. Your comment about this feeling a bit like the beginning of a tv series really resonated for me because I do have that attitude of wanting everyone to just start the season -- get the plot line moving. I think I'm going to stop researching so much b/c that's really pulling me out of the story.

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  9. I don't have a copy of the book but I just did want to say that your research/characterization of Telegraph Avenue is pretty spot-on. I lived in Berkeley for a bit and worked in an office on Telegraph and it's an interesting place. An odd combination of hippies, transients, radicals, and college kids. In Berkeley, the street lies at the edge of the UC Berkeley campus. I think of it a little bit as a cross between the famous Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco and a college town, but more decrepit. It's one of those places you kind of just have to visit to really get, so I'm curious to see how the setting plays out in the book.

    I read Kavalier & Clay through for the story as well, and I think I'd definitely have a different experience if I re-read it with the intent of really diving into the references. I think Chabon is one of those writers where you can really do that, with layers in the stories, and from your post Telegraph Avenue sounds much the same. I'm really looking forward to reading it when it comes out, so reading your thoughts on it is getting me excited for its release!

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    1. Jessica -- I totally want to visit and regret I didn't get a chance to when I was in the Bay area last winter. It sounds fantastically rich -- strikes me a bit like Somerville here near Boston, with a mix of gentrification vs radical diehards, old money and poor students, etc etc. I'm just captivated by the sense of place that oozes out of this story, so I think you'll be really really delighted by this one -- perhaps even nostalgic or homesick!

      I'm thinking I'm not going to research while reading -- not at this point -- as it has really kept me at a distance from the story. I'm hoping to do a quick reread of Part I and then just chug through the book -- can't wait for your thoughts when you get to it!

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  10. Great post with some much-needed background information.

    On the sex and cheating thing... I was trying to figure this out too. The BJ is mentioned very early and before we know that Archy is married or that he's got a kid on the way. Archy doesn't mention it to Nat or anybody else. It certainly doesn't make him cool, but as you learn more about him you have a better understanding of him (for better or worse).

    Like everybody else, I love the language, but now it's time to begin to tighten the stitch and bring all of the parts together.

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    1. I get the cheating thing -- obviously Archy has baggage, real issues with loyalty, fatherhood, being a partner, and that will unfold in an interesting manner -- I just have such a knee jerk response to infidelity as a plot device -- it makes me so sad! -- and I had to just get it out of my system now so I don't harp on it for another 300 pages. ;)

      I'm cautiously excited about the rest of the book -- someone earlier mentioned this was a bit like the start of a tv series, when the episodes are a bit of a mess b/c no one knows who the characters are and I feel like Part I was a lot of the 'pilot' -- so now I'm ready for the season to get started and the story to unfold.

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  11. Thank you so much, Audra, for the link to the Chabon interview about his ideal tour of Telegraph Avenue; I'm going to be in the Bay Area right after we complete this read-along, so expect photos from some of his favored stops!
    And I agree with the others: I thoroughly enjoyed your post and wouldn't change your approach. Your concerns seem quite reasonable as well, and you've raised my readerly radar on the issues you discussed. Thank you for that as well.
    Finally, I'm heartened to write more frankly about my reactions to this novel because you have done so. Again, gratitude to you for that.
    Catch you next week!

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  12. I definitely feel like this book is very language and style driven, and sadly those are usually teh kinds of books I find dull! :-) Oh well.

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  13. I don't love the musical aspects either. I keep telling myself that I should find the songs and listen to them, but it never happens. In my head, though, I liken it to a book obsession and then I can relate! That's interesting about Telegraph Avenue's actual history - I hadn't thought to look that up before but maybe I will now to get a sense of the real place.

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  14. Hee. Maybe you should treat the music references the way I treated the frequent Spanish phrases dropped into Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. At first I Googled them, but there were so many, and it took so long and was so disruptive to reading, that I gave up the Googling and just guessed at them based on context. The reading went much better after that.

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  15. I'm very intrigued to read this one. As a native of the San Francisco Bay Area I am well familiar with Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. It is a character in and of itself! This sounds an interesting one to check out!

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