not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
this post was originally published on my Goodreads account.
I can’t really be trusted when it comes to Michael Chabon’s books. His frightening level of dexterity as a writer, his love of obscure vocabulary, and his utter fearlessness when it comes to including genre elements in fiction that would generally be considered literary are all things I admire in a writer, and it was largely through reading Chabon’s fiction as a teenager that I came to admire them. He’s a fundamental author when it comes to my own taste in books, and after reading Telegraph Avenue, I’m more or less reconciled to the fact that I’ll always find something to enjoy in whatever he writes next.
Because, make no mistake, even for a Chabon novel, Telegraph Avenue invites accusations that it is insular and irritating. Storylines sprawl out in all directions, taking their time to get where they’re going. It feels like you have to read hundreds of pages to get past a day in novel time, and at some point I realized that the decision to replace chapters with line breaks hurt the book. Large, disorderly sprawl can be one of the great pleasures of a novel, but personally, I like the tidy progression of chapters to serve as a counterpoint to all this messiness. Some experiments, like an 11-page sentence that encapsulates the whole tableau of the novel in the flight of a parakeet, work better than you’d expect, while others, like a short section that takes place from the point of view of Senator Barack Obama (the novel is largely set in 2004) are exactly as bad as they sound. The range of characters Chabon introduces is impressively diverse, and the way he’s able to take us from the perspective of a pregnant black midwife to that of a gay Jewish teenager to that of an elderly jazz musician is yet another reminder of his skill as a writer. The problem with the first few sections of Telegraph Avenue is that it seems to be a demonstration of skill for skill’s sake.
Fortunately, the last half of the novel brings everything together in a way that is surprisingly well thought out. I realized, nearing the novel’s end, that everything that came before was in some way leading up to these events, and that by spending that extra time with these characters, I had become more invested in their fates. Considering the novel as a whole, I’d have to say that it’s a flawed but well-written book that becomes more urgent and compelling the further into it you get, and by the time it ends, you want 250 extra pages to magically appear so you can stay with these characters, and keep seeing what happens to them next.