Wednesday, 29 January 2014

A Novel That Is As Counter-Cultural as Pete Seeger

Just this minute finished Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue--2:30 p.m., right in the middle of time I should be using for writing my own stuff, but I had to finish it.

This is probably the most engaging novel I've read in more than a year.  A multi-layered story, it has  a rather conventional plot:  couple of dreamers find their unsuccessful record store about to be overwhelmed by competition while their wives face problems, plying their trade as midwives.  Turns out one of the guys--the younger, African American one--has a 14 old son who shows up out of the blue.  The other--Jewish, with severe psychological problems--also has a son, who falls in love with other boy.  Along the way there are malpractice cases and "liberation" of a Zeppelin, as well as great riffs about music and life.

But it;s the journey that matters, and Chabon conveys us with splendor and  

It happens that I know a lot of the territory covered, and I remember another legendary record store on Telegraph Avenue, this one just across from the UC Berkeley campus.  That probably adds to the charm of the book for me, but I also was sometimes breathless at the images Chabon uses. One, both apt and hilarious,  chosen at random, about suburbs beyond the Oakland hill: " "Sprinklers chittered.  Titlesists traced white rainbows aginst the blue Contra Costa sky.  Along the forearms of hard-shopping women in tennis skirts, sunshine lit the bolden down." 

There are several loose ends, like the parrot named 58 who flies away after the death of his master.  The reason for the name is never given, although it seems that 58 sounds like "sure to prosper" in one dialect of Chinese.  On the other hand,  in Feng Shui numerology 58 means "no money." Does this mean hat the world is impossibly difficult to understand and basically contradictory?  Or are we just to take flight with the bird as it soars over 10 pages toward an improbable wild santuary?

Then there is the manner of a white guy assuming the voices of people of colour.  I haven't yet gone looking to see what kind of reviews the book received from those who might be upset by Chabon's appropriation of voice.   There are some, I imagine, who would be insulted by his audacity at trying to get inside the heads of his mixed-raee characters.  The voices sound good to me, just as good as his description of child birth.  The man is a good observer, for sure, and his soul is full empathy.

The photo, by the way, was taken almost 50 years ago during the Free Speech Movement: the crowd was marching off campus toward Telegraph Avenue.  Long time ago.

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