Once upon a time, Michael Chabon was one of my favorite authors. This reputation rested almost entirely on my love of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but even though I haven’t been as passionate about Chabon’s other books, for the most part I’ve enjoyed them all. But then along came Telegraph Avenue, the kind of disappointment that makes me question all of my own past judgement.
It’s hard to know where to begin with this book. Generally when I really look forward to something, I avoid reviews and plot summaries, and so I guess I didn’t know what I was getting into. The plot is fairly standard, non-revolutionary stuff: a man struggles with his adult responsibilities to his pregnant wife and somewhat-surprise of a teenage son, his business is failing, and in short order his home and work lives are threatened on a number of fronts. That’s basically what it boils down to, but Telegraph Avenue is overlong, a slog of a read, and burdened with both a bevy 0f stunningly unlikeable characters and pretentious writing tricks that are all flash with no substance.
Case in point: Part III, a single, eleven page long sentence that is technically correct (at least, I’m going to assume, cause lord knows I’m not diagramming that mess) but a groaning headache to read, in which an escaped parrot flits around town watching the various unlikeable characters going about a series of banal, inconsequential, or ridiculous tasks. It was at this point (after, I’ll just point out, such ill-advised literary pretensions as the quite silly inclusion of Barack Obama as a viewpoint character, musing on fine black sisters) that I said “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me” and very nearly threw this book at the wall.
It was a library book, and I work at said library, so the wall stayed safe from my rage. But barely.
Perhaps there are plots, and characters, that are worthy of such stylistic conceits as an 11 page sentence from the omniscient point of view of a parrot, but not this plot, and not these characters. Archy is a sad-sack moper who for unfathomable reasons is somehow able to get massive amounts of tail on the side, resents his dad, ignores the existence of his child, and basically avoids making a single decision for five hundred pages. Gwen is a hothead who thinks anyone who gives birth in a hospital is akin to Satan and runs around bitching about white people for most of the book. Nat is a white man who hangs out with black men, seems to want to be one, yet viciously judges other white men he sees as aping black behavior. He also steals a blimp. Aviva, I guess, is supposed to be the fourth major character, but I literally cannot remember a single thing about her except that she wore a gaudy scarf to a funeral (daring!). And then there were the sexually confused and always (really: always) horny pair of teen boys, Julie and Titus, who basically served to drop a metric ton of pop culture references and awkward gay sex into the text.
As much as I wanted to like something, anything about Telegraph Avenue, after awhile it seemed to be purposely looking for ways to annoy me. It’s so damn smug, so obviously the work of an author screaming about how important, how special, how meaningful his writing is. Chabon obviously has the technical skill to craft amazing prose, but when technical skill and pretty prose are all you have, the result is a bunch of empty words. Caught up in the spell of his own words and a million obscure, wink-y references and lists of quirky details, Chabon loses the vital essence that makes his previous fiction worth reading. It was made all the more disappointing by the weight of my own expectations.