A few thoughts about “Telegraph Avenue”

Telegraph Avenue is Michael Chabon’s latest novel.  I’ve read two others by him: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and the entertaining but less interesting serial novel Gentlemen of the Road.  He is an astonishing writer.  Quit reading this stupid post and download one of his books.

That said, I didn’t like Telegraph Avenue as much as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I thought was utterly brilliant.  It’s about black and Jewish folks just getting by in the Oakland of 2004.  Two men run a marginally profitable used record store threatened by a superstore that may be built nearby.  Their wives are midwives struggling to keep their practice going in the face of opposition from hospitals who don’t want them doing home births.  All the characters are wonderfully comic and sympathetic.  Their lives are described in rich detail.  I don’t know how Chabon does it.

Still, at 465 pages the book feels overstuffed and somewhat exhausting.  While I willingly gave myself up to the strange alternate universe of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I wasn’t especially interested in the extensive, loving descriptions of 70s black music and films that is central to the book.  Your mileage may vary.

A couple of other points:

Telegraph Avenue is best read on an ebook reader with a built-in dictionary. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself looking up a lot of words — Chabon’s range of vocabulary is spectacular.  I’m not a foodie, so I don’t feel too bad not knowing lavash and turmeric.  But I figure I should have known a lot of his other words — clabber and selvage, for example.  I know ’em now.

Finally this was the first book I’ve come across where the author credited the hardware and software used to create it: “This novel was written using Scrivener on Macintosh computers.”  Modern times.

Coincidence? Well, maybe.

Coincidences don’t have much of a place in fiction, as I tried to explain in this post.  But surely they have a place in life.  After listening to the This American Life podcast about coincidences, I tried to think of any of them in my life.  Couldn’t come up with any.  But then…

Two nights ago my wife and I were watching a bit of a James Taylor/Carole King special on TV, and at the same time I was reading Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.  Carole King starts to sing “It’s Too Late,” a song that was everywhere in the early 70s but that I haven’t thought about in decades.  And at the same moment I start reading a passage in Telegraph Avenue that describes a memorial service for a recently deceased black jazz organist where “It’s Too Late” is played; turns out this was his signature tune.

The next day I was reading the news about the FBI knowing who stole the paintings from the Gardner Museum 23 years ago. Then I returned to Telegraph Avenue, and sure enough:

He remembered taking Julie to the Gardner Museum on a trip to Boston a few years earlier, seeing a rectangle of paler wallpaper against the time-aged wall where a stolen Rembrandt once hung, a portrait of the very thing that perched atop the stool where Mr. Jones [the dead organist] used to sit: emptiness itself.

Those coincidences certainly aren’t good enough to get me on This American Life.  But they’re odd and somehow meaningful, at least to me.  They entwine my life and experiences with those of Michael Chabon and his characters.  I’ve heard that Carole King song countless times.  I have stared at the wall in the Gardner where the Rembrandt used to hang.  It’s all connected,

So now I’m going to entwine you.  Here’s the song, sung with James Taylor in the documentary I was watching while reading Telegraph Avenue:

Here’s the stolen Rembrandt:

And here’s the empty space where it used to hang, not exactly as Chabon described it, but close enough:

By the way, if you happen to know where that painting is, please let the FBI know.  I’d love to see it again.