Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Telegraph Avenue

I’m not a writer with a set time of day to work on fiction. I’m more comfortable letting the mood strike me and putting down what I want to say, though I do try to touch on it each day, whether it’s writing a new piece or revising something previously written. A lazy writer, the mood does nevertheless tend to strike me at the same time each day, in the late afternoons and early evenings. It’s not an ideal time for someone with a house full of people, dinner to tend to, laundry, dishes, homework and bedtimes. I should be more disciplined, perhaps, I should set my clock for sometime deep in the a.m. or burn the midnight oil well into a new chapter. I have friends who write each day at the same time and I envy them their discipline. I’ve done this before, but only when I’m near the end of a project and want to push through, when the light at the end of the tunnel flutters my eyelids and wakens me before the alarm clock.

I’ve read that Michael Chabon, if he’s near the end of a novel, or on a particularly difficult portion of whatever he’s working on, will say goodbye to his wife and four kids for a stay in a hotel where solitude and peaceful working conditions help him realize his goal. I can’t imagine even suggesting such a thing in my home. Then again, I don’t have a Pulitzer, or any bestsellers, (or a published novel) to back me up. Chabon’s latest, Telegraph Avenue (Harper, 2012), is more evidence for why the man should have his own suite at the Chateau Marmont.

The book is the story of Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, longtime friends who are struggling to keep their record store, Brokeland Records – a haven for the denizens of Telegraph Avenue, for the hip, the has-beens and the policy makers of pop culture – open in the glare of a corporate megastore, Dogpile, threatening to take up residence in the neighborhood. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are partners in a midwifery practice and face their own struggles for acceptance in a world of ever-increasing medical convention. Archy’s estranged father, Luther Stallings, a one-time kung fu champion and blaxploitation film star, is a source of concern for his son like a migraine sneaking up from the back of the skull. And there are so many more, a whole, colorful cast of characters carrying the backbeat of plot like Parliament Funkadelic or the MGs.

In Telegraph Avenue, I imagine Chabon takes to heart the old adage “Write what you know.” Maybe he did a lot of research for his story based in Berkeley and Oakland, and the worlds of vinyl soul albums, 1970s film noir, leisure suits and all manner of vintage and pop culture from the late 60s and 70s. But maybe, when he had a question, he simply walked across his office to a wall-length bookshelf and took down a comic book or album to peruse, read, listen to and study. He loves this world he inhabits and wants nothing more than to give us a tour with a soundtrack provided by his very own mix-tape.

All Chabon books will forever be compared to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier &Clay (Picador, 2000), which is unfair, but it is a book I carry with me; not physically, though I probably could the way Nate Jaffe’s son, Julius, carries his portable, plastic eight-track player, but inside me where it hums just as Nat keeps a constant beat in his head. It is a book that astounded me the first and second time I read it. The characters of Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay live in a real world swirled within the magic and fantasy that their dreams, fears, relationships, and lives are hinged upon. Telegraph Avenue isn’t so different, though the nostalgia – and there is nostalgia, to be sure, try not to overdose on it – takes us back, not to pre-World War II Prague, but to post-Vietnam San Francisco, and into the bedrooms of every 14-year-old boy ever, replete with the sloppy experimentation in music, sex, pop culture, and the independence they all precipitate.

There are small, insignificant issues I have with a storyline or two, but I’m willing to let those go because of the writing. There is nothing quite like a Chabon sentence. It’s like a steak dinner or a chocolate cake dessert, not just a slice, either, but the whole damn thing eaten in one sitting, with some ice cream on the side, and maybe a glass of ice cold milk.

Regarding writing sentences, Chabon told NPR’s Fresh Air:
“Sentences are the purest, simplest, most pleasurable part of writing for me. And it's the part that comes the easiest to me. … I love that aspect of it: the shaping of sentences, the crafting of sentences, that's the fun part of writing for me.”
And it shows. He packs so much into one sentence that I tend to read a page or two and then back off, lean back on the sofa, loosen my belt and digest it all. There is, of course, Part III, “A Bird of Wide Experience,” with its single, 12-page sentence, but that’s just showing off and, frankly, unnecessary. It’s more a testament to Chabon’s standing in the publishing world, and an overeager editor, than his writing ability. Can you imagine an unknown author including that bit in a query letter to an agent? “Oh, and in the middle I include one single sentence that goes on for a dozen pages. People will love that.” The rejection letter would be much more brief and written immediately after reading that queried sentence.

But that’s nitpicking because the writing is beautiful, all of it, every adjective (plenty), comma (many), clause, phrase, digression and aside. Chabon hooks his words together like train cars to take us on a journey through descriptive lands peopled with fanciful citizens, all dressed to the nines in their flamboyant Aztec numbers, and all strutting to their own brand of funk.