Sunday, June 16, 2013

Telegraph Avenue

I was spellbound by Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon but find it difficult to say exactly why. It seems effortless, even breezy – I suspect because it's so carefully, expertly wrought.

Two friends struggle to keep their record shop going despite mounting debts and the threat that a new mall will be built nearby with a lavish music store inside. Meanwhile their wives face a crisis in their midwifing business because the medical establishment doesn't take them seriously. At the same time, their sons dream of working with Tarantino.

There are lots of other characters and stories – we learn one old man's tragedy in a single sentence shortly before he dies. It's a rich tapestry of human life, comingling and complex, funny and sad, full of telling detail and characters we feel we know; sort of west coast Dickensian.

Threads run through the disparate lives. Many characters hanker for the past – music, traditions, the way it looks in old films. The book is full of references to pop culture, used as analogies to explain behaviour or events. Things from Star Trek or Star Wars illuminate the every day. (I recommend Matthew Sweet interviewing Michael Chabon on Night Waves last year, where they discuss Chabon's fascination with Doctor Who and the illness of nostalgia.)

There's a compelling sense of the benefits of change: racial politics and empowerment better than the old days, an acceptance of fluid sexualities. Set in 2004, there's a surprise cameo from Barack Obama, offering the hope of change – rather than change to be scared of.

But again, it's more complex than that: characters aren't set free by letting go of the past, rather forms warp and shift and people just sort of deal. Decisions are made, battles fought, there are moments of sudden violence... and life rolls ever on.

It's this good-natured languidity that makes the book so appealing. The setting and laid-back feel reminded me a lot of Philip K Dick’s Mary and the Giant. There are clever lines and observations, and in the middle of the book a single sentence lasts 12 pages. It's clever – and deserving of a second read to pick up on more of the tricks. But the lasting impression is one of ease. A great, smart, feel-good book perfect for lazy-day reading.

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