IT IS 2012. The future, to some. The discussion of genre fiction and literary fiction as two distinct and separate entities is dead, so very dead. We understand now that they touch and overlap and play with each other, messily. What happens when a writer, soaking wet from a romp through genre, returns to realism? He tracks it all over the carpet. We can tell where he’s been.
A sculpture rests on the border between Berkeley and Oakland: the word “HERE” in eight-foot-tall steel letters on the Berkeley side, the word “THERE” on the Oakland side; it is a piece of public art that has drawn the ire of Oakland citizens and guerilla knitters alike. Had it been installed any earlier in the area’s history, it no doubt would have appeared in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. The events of the novel, which take place over a several-months-long span in 2004, just before George W. Bush’s reelection victory, spans the East Bay, from Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood to the bougie Berkeley Hills. Like the title’s thoroughfare, the sculpture would be the perfect emblem of one of the novel’s tensions.
And of tensions, there are many. Two of the novel’s six protagonists are Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who own and run the appropriately named Brokeland Records, in danger from poor sales and an easier-to-blame incoming music store juggernaut. Their wives, Aviva and Gwen, are midwives struggling against another oppressor, a contemporary medical monolith with no use for, as one particularly racist doctor growls, “voodoo.” Each adult serves a human need that is being provided by increasingly efficient, increasing moralizing corporations. Nat and Aviva’s teenage son, Julius, battles with his own desires, his love for Archy’s mysterious son, Titus (though, refreshingly, the crux of his struggle is not about the taboo of gay love, but rather the ordinary if painful experience of loving someone who, probably, does not love you back). These pairs intertwine, weave, lock, and release against a backdrop of blues singers and kung fu masters, blaxploitation films, aging grindhouse divas, collectable cards and mountains of vinyl, Tarantino movies and car chases, masters of industry in zeppelins straight out of a steampunk novel, birth and other dangers, chance meetings and fated deaths, fast-talking parrots, murder, corrupt politicians, buried secrets, lesbian brass bands, and a sprawling, almost Victorian cast.
And HERE and THERE defines every tension of Telegraph Avenue — men and women on opposite sides of a divide, teenage lovers separated by an uncrossable chasm, generations furious and separate from one another, the big business and independent bookshop unable to co-exist. The record-shop-that-needs-saving is, strangely, the least compelling of Telegraph Avenue’s plotlines. The menacing big-box, while in its details is far less conventional than Empire Records’ impending takeover by “Music Town,” is still something of a cliché, and hovers on the margin of everyone’s consciousness except the anxiety-ridden Nat. The pleasing banter between Archy and Nat can’t help but evoke Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity or the chatter between the protagonists of Clerks; the chapter t...read more