AMERICAN LITERATURE IS a literature of nostalgia, preoccupied, at least implicitly, with evaporated dreams and vanished Arcadias. It’s a fertile absorption, each generation of authors locating new sources of longing and disillusionment to call its own. Fenimore Cooper had his wilderness, populated by noble savages. Melville dreamed of the ships of his youth, symbols of the pre-imperial America being swept away by the fast-industrializing, fast-dividing nation that was his home. Fitzgerald conjured Gatsby’s ever-receding green light, perhaps the most indelible image of American yearning and aspiration. And Updike embodied postwar nostalgia with Rabbit Angstrom, the aging high-school basketball great. If one were compelled to articulate an overarching theme to the nation’s literature, a good case could be made for the notion that Americans are the perpetually disappointed heirs to a legacy of prosperity and fulfillment that may never have existed in the first place.
In its literature’s extensive history of reckoning with the strange aftermath of the founding, the United States may never have seen an author who takes nostalgia as his theme as seriously, enthusiastically, and explicitly as Michael Chabon. Since the publication of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), his breakthrough third novel, Chabon has burrowed into the question of how Americans inhabit a present that unfolds in the shadows of a formidable past, examining, as he recently put it in the New York Times Magazine, “the lost utopia that never quite happened, that I never quite knew, that I have never since forgotten and that I have been losing, and longing for, all my life.” In Kavalier & Clay, that utopia is the glittering, art deco Manhattan of the 1930s, examined by way of the Golden Age of Comic Books. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) — written as a Raymond Chandler pastiche, itself a kind of nostalgia — Israel assumes the Elysian role, as the novel imagines that the nation lost the 1948 war, sending thousands of refuges to the Alaskan coast and snuffing out the hope for a Jewish homeland mere months after its inception.
These subjects may sound narrow, but Chabon isn’t a marshal of curios. He uses the particularity of one tribe’s nostalgia — of comic book collectors, of New Yorkers, of Jews — to represent the generality of American longing. And his novels are fair-minded about nostalgia, interrogating the feeling even as they partake of it. A fine passage from Kavalier & Clay exemplifies the elegance with which Chabon achieves this balance:
One of the sturdiest precepts of the study of human delusion is that every golden age is either past or in the offing. The months preceding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor offer a rare exception to this axiom. During 1941, in the wake of that outburst of gaudy hopefulness, the World’s Fair, a sizable portion of the citizens of New York City had the odd experience of feeling for the time in which they were living, at the very moment they were living in it, that strange blend of optimism and nostalgia which is the usual hallmark of the aetataureate [a Chabon neologism that denotes a golden age] delusion.
Notice Chabon’s unblinking repetition of “delusion,” and notice how attractive he makes that delusion. In Chabon’s hands — and this is his great insight — nostalgia becomes an emotion to be neither indulged nor abhorred, but rather regarded as a given of the human experience, as comforting and useful as it is inhibiting.
As his last name suggests, Archy Stallings, the protagonist of Chabon’s new novel, Telegraph Avenue, is in no hurry to address the present, which means he’s well-suited to his neighborhood, a liminal space on the Oakland-Berkeley border that Chabon dubs Brokeland. Brokeland is decidedly mixed: racially, economically, politically, and even temporally, as its residents cope with the ravages of freeways and chain stores by pretending it’s 1974. The Brokeland of 2004 is a realm of hard bop, leisure suits, and dreadnaught automobiles, and Archy presides over its slowing heart, Brokeland Records, a beleaguered vinyl dispensary whose balance books are slouching towards bankruptcy.
As the novel opens, however, the homogenizing forces of modern capitalism — arriving in the form of Gibson Goode, an ex-NFL quarterback, president of Dogpile Records and the fifth-richest black man in America — threaten to accelerate Brokeland’s comfortably slow decline. Goode hopes to build his second multi-use megastore (called a Thang, an apt title for a nebulous temple of consumption) two blocks from Brokeland. The Thang boasts a three-story media store, including an incomparable vinyl section, that poses an existential threat to Archy’s humble enterprise. Goode’s claims to philanthropy — “his imperial longings were married to a sense of social purpose,” Chabon writes — make Brokeland’s situation even more perilous, as the Thang gets touted as an engine of economic revitalization, making Brokeland an emblem of the debate between localism and globalism. It’s a battle that Archy’s high-strung partner, Nat Jaffe, is eager to wage, but Archy, in typical fashion, isn’t sure what he wants. The triumph of stores like Goode’s feels inevitable, and Archy is, above all, tired:
tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat.
Unfortunately for weary Archy, his troubles come in battalions; the question of Brokeland’s future isn’t the only one he tries to avoid. His waffling on the store’s future strains his relationship with Nat. His wife, Gwen Shanks — a midwife in business with Nat’s wife Aviva, creating an interesting chiasmus of interracial business parternships — leaves him after his illegitimate son from a long-ago entanglement, Titus Joyner, washes up in Oakland. Titus’s appearance makes Archy a father a few weeks earlier than he anticipated; Gwen is expecting, and Archy is terrified at the prospect of fatherhood, in part because his own father, Luther Stallings was so inept. Luther, star of several cult kung-fu Blaxploitation films, has also recently returned to Oakland, hoping to blackmail a local councilman upon whose support the Dogpile Thang depends, and whose history with the Black Panthers provides another of the novel’s many examples of early-seventies idealism colliding with mid-aughts bafflement. Just as Archy’s despised biological father surfaces, his spiritual father, Cochise Jones, a Brokeland Records regular and Hammond organ wizard, dies under the weight of his own instrument, leaving Archy feeling more orphaned than ever, at the exact moment he’s supposed to fill the father-shaped hole in two young lives.
Archy is the novel’s real source of interest, a man of convincingly mixed motivations. Like most characters that people Chabon’s novels, Archy feels lost, but his bewilderment, more than that of anyone else Chabon has drawn, feels particularly tailored to our moment. He served in the Gulf War, and the emptiness he met upon his return to the States is the emptiness of America’s post-Clinton hangover, that era’s ineffectual liberalism and market worship at odds with the erosion of local communities. Archy responds to his emptiness with lazy infidelity, with music snobbery, and with nostalgia, as in a brilliant scene where Archy seeks solace from a favorite neighborhood bakery whose scent “filled him with a sense of loss so powerful that it almost knocked him down”:
The cakes and cookies at Neldam’s were not first-rate, but they had an old-fashioned sincerity, a humble brand of fabulousness, that touched Archy in this time when everything good in life was either synthesized in transgenic cyborg vats or shade-grown in small batches by a Buddhist collective of blind ex-Carmelite Wiccans. And now word was that Neldam’s, too, was slated to close its doors.
The nostalgia on display here is barbed in a way that hasn’t previously been in Chabon’s fiction. While Chabon remains clear-eyed about the feeling — Archy and Nat’s obsessive devotion to vinyl is sympathetically portrayed, but Chabon doesn’t wash over geekdom’s infantilizing tendencies — he’s endowed it with a note of social critique heretofore largely absent from his writing. Beneath the comic hyperbole in the bakery description, one can detect an echo of Jonathan Franzen’s fear, expressed in his recent essay collection Farther Away, of a “gray and lukewarm future. No urban. No rural. The entire country just a wasteland of shittily built neither-nor.”
Telegraph Avenue is the closest Chabon has come to writing a Big Social Novel precisely because it shares this fear. Though interested in grand American themes, Chabon usually shies away from direct critique, from the novel-as-news. This changes in Telegraph Avenue, where State Senator Barack Obama makes a cameo (a significant one, plotwise, as his words have an effect on Gwen). But unlike Franzen and the late David Foster Wallace, contemporary fiction’s great social novelists, Chabon doesn’t express his fear of global capital by examining how large systems press upon individuals, at least not directly. Franzen and Foster Wallace express their concerns about global capitalism is expressed in the conspiratorial vernacular of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo; in Telegraph Avenue, it shows up in the cartoonish (yet breathtakingly true) figure of Gibson Goode. Even when Chabon’s aperture is at its widest, his focus is unremittingly local.
This is to his (and his reader’s) advantage. Chabon is one of the most gifted painters in the history of American literature, each page littered with two or three stunningly apt and inventive descriptions from his seemingly inexhaustible trove of metaphors and similes. Such vividness doesn’t require a wide field of play, just a few square miles of the Bay Area and a bottomless empathy for its inhabitants. Staffing the counter of Brokeland Records, Archy becomes “a doomed picket manning his lonely watch as, beyond the next range of hills, the barbarian horde mounted its conquering ponies.” Fatherhood is “open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars.” Nat Jaffe’s gift for sulking is “the lonely gift of Achilles in his tent.”
Chabon’s writing occasionally crosses the line between virtuosity and verbosity (surprisingly, the 12-page sentence from a parrot’s perspective is not one of those points), but the overall effect is that of a master enjoying his gift. It’s no surprise that Chabon writes so well about music in Telegraph Avenue; his talent, at bottom, is for performance, in the sense that his language dazzles and challenges and delights in a way that every other contemporary American author — and there are many, many fine ones at work today — simply cannot match. When Chabon writes, for instance, that the sight of a body in a casket “seemed to brown the page of life, to tarnish the world’s silver and dull its good,” he both expresses an experience of existential dread likely shared by all of his readers and refreshes that experience, making it beautiful. That’s how Chabon achieves his central effect, an illuming of the world that neither suppresses its awful truths nor ever strays very far from comedy. That’s how the novel’s conclusion, a decidedly mixed one for Brokeland Records, comes to feel redemptive, even triumphant. That’s how, when Archy tells the audience at Cochise Jones’s funeral that “we are living in the aftermath. All’s we got is a lot of broken pieces,” the audience in front of the page can enjoy that aftermath free from the burdens of nostalgia, discovering in those broken pieces something quite beautiful indeed.