Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Funkadelic Review
(TheMightyBuch, Cardiff, 2014)
I hesitate to review authors I truly and profoundly enjoy. I know, I’ve mentioned this before. I probably will do so again. The ubiquitous and latent fear provoking procrastination is unlikely to dissipate any time soon, as I’m happy to be blissfully ignorant of literary theory, trends in literature throughout the ages, and the exact definition of “comedy of manners” which other reviewers* have decided that this book must be, instead cosy in the realms of my experience and the book and / or author’s place therein, therefore risking exposure of this ignorance in an hubristic fashion by expounding at length and in arrogance about me me me and without putting everything into a more suitable context. Plus, I probably will have missed something dreadfully important and make myself out to look quite the fool**.

Nonetheless, here I go once more, into strange and disturbing lands with only a wry grin pasted on my face as defence against the zombie hordes of public opinion***, this time to butt heads with what I once read (but can no longer find to attribute, sorry lawyers) was Chabon’s soul novel (as opposed to his realist, comic or fantasy novel). Tiresome plot spoilers follow directly.

I guess this is the story of two families, living in California in an area in or near Oakland or Berkley (geography of American cities not being a strong suit of mine) due for regentrification. Or, it is a tale of nostalgia. No, wait, it’s about fathers and sons, but also about women. And midwives.  And vinyl records. And leisure suits. And blaxploitation movies of the 70s. And underage sex between teenage boys. And little old ladies who kick ass. And corrupt city councilmen. And racial and social tension, The Black Panthers, Bruce Lee, music, love, loss, and any number of themes and things. And a parrot, although the parrot does seem to be an odd plot and narrative device, employed to give the meeting of the two teenage boys freedom from a parental chaperone due to a rare or imagined bird allergy, and to provide a bird’s-eye-view recap of all of the main characters’ activity during a particularly tricky but well-realised and, I believe, successful chapter written in one long sentence (at least I can’t remember any hard punctuation) wherein the parrot is released from his erstwhile owners apartment by a bird-hating relative/friend (I forget which) and takes a tour of the neighbourhood, and otherwise without purpose except to serve as a further playful adornment to the incredibly rich and deeply stacked prose that Chabon uses throughout. In fact, the prose is what I remember most vividly. Similes and metaphors abound, using unusual pairings of images, and make for startlingly vivid passages and descriptions. I’ll let you discover them in your own time, but Cathleen Schine of the afore-footnoted NYRB* provides a delightful snapshot for you –
‘Chabon sees the shins of a beautiful woman glow “like the bells in a horn section.” A pregnant woman’s thighs peel “away from each other with a sigh, like lovers reluctant to part.” An old man’s advice to a young man falls like “rain against an umbrella.” A Hammond B-3 organ is “diesel-heavy, coffin-awkward, clock-fragile.” The smell of fried chicken wafts by as a “breeze off the coast of the past.” Chabon’s worlds are lyrical places, and they often include those sweet breezes from the coast of the past.’
Merci, ma Belle Mère!
Lovely. Indeed, lovely enough that I regret not owning a hard copy of this book, something I may address after our next move (to a larger property with more adequate wall-space for libraries and other trinketry, including my mother-in-law’s new found obsession with gifts of mounted butterflies). 
Still, even in a digital form, the e-ink on the page remains clear and vivid in the memory, Chabon’s words and the lives of the cast of characters (properly developed and beautifully rendered, not merely caricatures like the cast of a Molière play) opened up and displayed for all to see (not unlike a mounted butterfly). Chabon has magic in his minds-eye and I for one am thankful that he can’t keep it there. This book feels like a gift, maybe not one meant for me but one for which I am grateful nonetheless. However, he can keep his almost compulsive referencing of funk, soul and jazz vinyl records, thank you very much.

**OK, essentially the same thing, but fears are irrational so shut your stinking hole.
***Not that you’re zombies, or, necessarily, that your opinion will differ greatly to mine. Or, indeed, that there are hordes of you. 

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