Thursday, December 20, 2012

Shelf Life Adult

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue is what would happen if Quentin Tarantino were a brilliant author and decided to rework the idea of Joyce's Ulysses for relevance in the 21st century. This is not hyperbole. If you want to prove me wrong, read the book and then come find me on the reference desk.

The novel follows a wide cast of characters in the California's Bay Area, but centres most particularly on a record shop on the verge of extinction, its market share threatened by all the usual elements hunting down cultural institutions that revel in physical media. With elements of a multigenerational epic, it follows the lives of several characters – from Nat and Archy, the owners of Brokeland Records; to Gwen and Aviva, two midwives facing their own issues with relevance in changing times; to Luther and Valetta, a pair of former blaxploitation stars trying to make a comeback after years of drug abuse.

The overall tone of the novel echos the Tarantino film Jackie Brown – a loving tribute to blaxploitation and rich, saffron-toned 70s style crafted by a white guy who's mindful of the predicament he's in with such material. Cultural source materials happily raided include jazz and blues, soul, ninjas and kung-fu movies, Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, science fiction, Star Trek/Star Wars, modernist literature and several civilizations' worth of mythology. This is by no means an exhaustive list. For culture geeks, Telegraph Avenue is the ultimate remix-culture literary buffet.

Chabon's writing is by turns cartoonish, psychedelic, hilarious and devastating, but it is never brief.  Some reviewers of Chabon's work have complained about page-long sentences. If that style bugs you, be warned: Telegraph Avenue's pivotal chapter really is one long sentence that finally weaves together the lives and activities of the entire ensemble cast, no kidding. As a technique, it leaves readers emotionally and mentally exhausted exactly when they should be feeling both those things. It is brilliantly executed, an echo of the best experiments of the Bloomsbury Group, a bird stylishly flipped to beleaguered brevity. The entire novel is crafted out of this playful approach to language – language that turns the page into a cinematic scene or tube amp.

Best of all, Chabon's brave experiment really works. The book is genuinely entertaining, with characters so fully realized I dreamt of them. Hands-down, Telegraph Avenue gets my vote for best fiction of 2012. 

This review appeared in The Stratford Gazette on December 20, 2012.  Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian.

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