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 that introduces us to the duo initially reads like a hyperliterate sitcom.
The atmosphere surrounding their wives’ stories, however, is as tense as the record shop’s is relaxed — the first scene in which the wives assist with a birth is nerve-racking, a strange shift after meandering record-shop chatter and a flashback about a shooting that lacks any real snap. Throughout, the men hide behind emotional obfuscation, pot, infidelity, nicknames, repeatedly refused conversations; the women, including very-pregnant Gwen, are all confrontation and hot-burning anger.
Curiously — and maybe intentionally — the earliest segments of the novel that revolve around Brokeland are thick and pulpy, almost overwritten.
On a Saturday night in August 1973, outside the Bit o’ Honey Lounge, a crocodile-green ’70 Toronado sat purring its crocodile purr. Its chrome grin stretched beguiling and wide as the western horizon…. [B]ehind his heavy-rimmed glasses, he had sleepy eyes, but he scorned sleep and frowned upon the somnolence of others. In defiance of political fashion, he greased his long hair, and its undulant luster was clear-coat deep. His name was Chandler Bankwell Flowers III. His grandfather, father, and uncles were all morticians, men of sobriety and pomp, and he inhabited a floated yet permanent zone of rebellion against them. Nineteen months aboard the Bon Homme Richard had left Chan Flower with an amphetamine habit and a tattoo of Tuffy the Ghost on the inside of his left forearm. The shotgun, holstered in a plastic trash bag alongside his right leg, was a pump-action Mossberg 500.
In contrast, the first scenes with the novel’s female protagonists are perfectly pitched with Chabon’s trademark style — sentences that read cleanly, studded with flawlessly specific images.
Her fingers found the heavy coil of hose cupped in the bag of his boxers. Her fingertips were briefly snagged by a film of bodily adhesive as weak asthe glue on a Post-it.
Happily, despite the endless references to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, the female characters in Telegraph Avenue get to be both fierce and fully functioning. Instead of running on revenge and hate, they hold onto their principals, and give birth while conscious. They are, however, from beginning to end, clearly divided from the worlds of their respective men. HERE, and THERE.
Telegraph Avenue is Chabon’s first long novel since 2007’s alternate-history epic The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which won the coveted Hugo, Locus, and Nebula Awards, and next to his Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, landed him squarely on the radar of the speculative fiction community. This attention intensified the pitch of the debate about the differences between “literary” and “genre” fiction, designations that, in a world containing writers like George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Kelly Link, increasingly mean almost nothing.
But Telegraph Avenue returns to a pre-Union place in Chabon’s career — which is to say, to the land of Wonder Boys and Kavalier & Clay, realist novels skewed by the world-view of a man whose creative brain was first fed by comic books and science fiction. In his essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights” (in Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands), Chabon maligns his own stories as insufferably psychological and boring — “plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew” — and digs deep into what, he says, short fiction used to be able to encompass: “the ghost story; the horror story; the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy, science fiction, or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war, or historical story; the romance story.” He criticized people’s use of the word “genre,” to describe a story, saying that it “implies a set of conventions — a formula — and conventions imply limitations … and therefore no genre work can ever rise to the masterful heights of true literature, free … of all formulas and templates.” In a 2010 interview in The Guardian, Chabon spoke of Telegraph Avenue, saying, ”So far there’s no overtly genre content: it’s set in the present day and has no alternate reality or anything like that.”
But the world of Telegraph Avenue is anything but genre-free. Chabon operates here, on the border — HERE, the elevated world of literary fiction, THERE, the maligned but well-loved world of genre fiction. Bodies are described as flesh and machines: babies are musical instruments, the brain a record around which a needle of thought endlessly rotates, pregnant bodies are locomotives, unborn fetuses emit “interstellar signals,” brains are hooked into “the worldwide electro-industrial power and information grid,” heads are “a dish to pull down cosmic background radiation,” emotions run through Archy “like wires through his interior cabinetry,” and vomit comes out in a “robotic bray,” all signaling a kind of posthuman longing to transcend the bodies that Gwen and Aviva are so intent on bringing into this world.
We also bound gleefully through the realm of fandom, the shore between storytelling and reality — obsessive card and record collectors, fanatical consumers of genre films, aficionados and enthusiasts of all kinds — and even descend straight into political fanfiction, with an entire scene starring half of the main cast and then-Senator Barack Obama. And like the endlessly referential (and, in the novel, endlessly referenced) Tarantino, the text is studded with an infinite library of genre in all of its forms: Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, A Canticle for Leibowitz, the Foundation novels, Shonen Jump, Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Alien and WonderCon, Star Trek… the list is too long to include in its entirety. We hear discussions about black music as post-apocalyptic, the struggle of blacks in America to either terraform their world or engage in pantropy. And speaking of apocalypses, dismal predictions about the future practically bookend the almost-500 page tome.
Somewhere in the vicinity, he had once been told, covered over by time and concrete, lay the founding patch of human business in this corner of the world. Miwok Indians dreaming the dream, living fat as bears, piling up their oyster shells, oblivious to history with its oncoming parade of motherfuckers.
Nat had long since stopped attending to the variably unvarying particulars that accrued by telephone as his wife went about her work bringing new hotheads, failures, and fools into the world.
And it is, indeed, an oncoming parade — of motherfuckers, of hotheads and failures and fools, of oppression, money, race, power, gender. HERE, THERE. An angry struggle at every turn, just as much in the plot as it is between the genres. Even in the Bay Area, Chabon shows us, with its generously liberal reputation, people are people — that is to say, generally shitheads.
When Julius has his fated meeting with Titus (the beginning of the novel’s only real romantic plot), it is at an adult-education course about the work of Tarantino, including an in-depth discussion about how “outbursts of violence [should serve] the same structural narrative function as … musical numbers.” In the same way, Telegraph Avenue is punctuated with violence, moments of pure and uncomplicated storytelling, and mythos, things meant to remind us that we are about as close to the edge of reality as we can be without stepping over — meetings that are almost serendipitous, beautifully staged deaths and mournings. The teenage boys spend whole pages narrating their movements as if they are in a kung fu movie; later, they interact with Aviva while adopting a high-fantasy-novel affect:
The matriarch of the clan stood at a kitchen window overlooking the back garden…. [T]he young men turned to gave up at her, awful in the slanting light, dressed in sober habiliments as though to go before some tribunal, probing their souls with her picklock gaze. In one hand she held a cup and in the other the strip of transparent little boxes in which she stored her mysterious week of pills, the crushed and bitter formulations from which she derived many of the strange powers for which she was legendary.
Still later, they get into a cab and play “follow that car,” becoming spies. This culminates in an honest-to-god battle scene, perhaps less impressive than a Tarantino-style fight, but still wondrous and charming in its execution. We even discover that the ancient relationship between Archy and his (let’s admit it) archnemesis, was forged in the smithy of superhero comics.
And this is the pleasure of Telegraph Avenue. We are HERE, we are THERE. We are in high literature, we are indulging in the deep pleasures of genre, and the only lie that we have to accept is that these things are, in the end, different. We are not only reading a novel, we are watching a movie, enjoying a play, listening to an epic poem by firelight. We are in a romance, a spy novel, fanfiction, a fantasy story, a Tarantino flick. We are even treated to an intermission — a twelve-page, one-sentence section, smack dab in the middle of the book, in which a parrot serves as a kind of Greek chorus, fluttering over the novel’s massive cast, dipping in and out of each of their consciousnesses, showing us how things are about to turn.
We never fall into nonreality, beyond the accepted lie that is any work of fiction. We, like all of genre, tap into tens of thousands of years of storytelling, with its gods and ghosts, adventure and mystery, but there are no supernatural beings here, no cases to solve, no hauntings. It’s realism, and it’s genre. Has Chabon found his home? He seems content to be going at this in the best way he knows how — at the seam. On the borderlands.