I’ve never read anything by Michael Chabon, and more and more this was seeming like an oversight that needed to be rectified. The descriptions of Telegraph Avenue made it sound like a book I’d enjoy. A strong, character-driven story focused around quirky people in a neighbourhood known as “Brokeland” (Berkeley and Oakland, California), a vintage vinyl record shop whose existence is threatened by the opening of a huge chain store … all in the hands of a writer who is an acknowledged virtuouso of the English language. Sounded like it couldn’t miss.
Well it did, for me, but I’ll lay the blame entirely at my own feet and not at Chabon’s. He is, indeed, a brilliant writer who plays with language like a good juggler plays with juggling clubs or even with fire — making it dance, making it move so quickly that you wonder how he did that, always seeming confident and assured. But for me, it was too much showmanship — enough that the writing, beautiful as it was, stood in the way of me getting connected to the characters. Especially at the beginning of the novel, which took me forever to get into. I was constantly checking back to see who was who and how people were connected, because there was so much wordplay that I just kept getting confused.
The main characters in this novel are two families — Nat Jaffe and his business partner Archie Stallings, owners of the barely-surviving Brokeland Records; Nat’s wife Aviva and Archie’s wife Gwen, who are both midwives and also business partners; Nat and Aviva’s fourteen-year-old son Julius and Archie’s fourteen-year-old son Titus, whose existence Archie has barely known about or acknowledged up to the point when they meet in this book. Of the three pairs of characters with their three separate storylines (not to mention numerous tangents involving minor characters) the only ones I really cared about were Gwen and Aviva. Every time the book focused on the two women and their midwifery business (which is under threat after Gwen understandably mouths off to a doctor who puts her down when one of their home-birth patients has to be admitted to hospital), the pages just lit up for me and I was reading with real enthusiasm. On the flip side, their two husbands, Nat and Archie, were both such completely unsympathetic characters that I couldn’t get invested in their stories at all.
I can admire Chabon’s writing and recognize that what he does, he does really well. And for many readers, that’s exactly what they’re looking for, and they can read the celebrated 12-page, gramatically correct sentence that comprises one entire chapter and applaud Chabon’s brilliance. Whereas I’m just standing back going “Show-off!” and wishing I cared more about the characters. I recognize that he’s a great writer, but he’s not destined to become one of my favourites. That’s OK though — Chabon has lots of fans and I don’t think he’ll miss me. And if you love really brilliant writing and for you it doesn’t get in the way of the story, you probably should check out Telegraph Avenue. You might like it a lot better than I did.